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Pistorious Trial Is a Referendum on Violence Against Women in South Africa

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Oscar Pistorious is possibly the best-known murder suspect since O.J. Simpson. The South African Olympic and Paralympic double-amputee runner is currently on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, who he shot to death in the early morning hours of Valentine's Day 2013. Pistorious has admitted to the killing, but says he believed the person he shot in the bathroom of his house was an intruder, not Steenkamp.

Testimony in the trial, which began March 3, in Pretoria, South Africa, has been by turns riveting, shocking and unbelievable. Pistorius has presented himself as a victim of fear and circumstance. He has told the court he felt "vulnerable" and "afraid for his life" as he went across his bedroom to the bathroom on his stumps, his loaded 9mm pistol with the Black Talon hollow-point bullets in hand. He has told the court he shot four times through the bathroom door to protect himself, but that he shot "unconsciously" after screaming, "Get the f*** out of my house" twice at the "intruder."

Pistorious has a history with guns and violence. Those facts have been detailed by witnesses, among them friends and a former girlfriend of the defendant, in the courtroom.

It's difficult to listen to the range of testimony and think anything other than that Pistorius chased a fully clothed Steenkamp (she was not in night clothes) into the bathroom where she locked the door, afraid and pleading for her life, her cell phone gripped in her hand. The bathroom is small. There was nowhere for anyone to hide. Not an intruder, not Steenkamp. Death was inevitable.

The judge will decide if what we have heard amounts to a cold-blooded domestic violence murder or involuntary manslaughter by a man who believed an intruder had found his way into the house. That said, we still know, without a doubt, that Pistorious intended to kill someone when he fired those four shots. Did he intend to kill his girlfriend on the morning of Valentine's Day in a jealous rage, or did he intend to kill a random other person -- likely black, as fears of black intruders are rampant among white South Africans as has been testified to at the trial? Because no one could have survived four hollow point bullets at nearly point-blank range.

Media attention on the Pistorious trial has focused on the defendant and prosecutor Gerrie Nel, known as "the pit bull" for his tough interrogations. There has been little attention to the victim, whose last exchange with Pistorious before he shot her to death was to tell him she loved him in a Valentine's Day card.

Yet Steenkamp -- young, blonde, beautiful, white -- has gotten more attention than most female victims in South Africa where women are more at risk for violence than almost anywhere else in the world. The "I Am Reeva" campaign in South Africa since Steenkamp's killing has focused on the intensity of violence against women in the country where a woman is killed by domestic violence every eight hours and there are 500,000 rapes each year, according to statistics compiled by the Medical Research Council at the University of Capetown.

The South African rate of "intimate femicide" is five times the global average. As one domestic violence victim told NBC News in a report by Mike Taibbi on April 13, 2014, "You know you could end up dead, like that woman [Steenkamp]."

The African National Congress Women's League protested outside the Pretoria courtroom in the early days of the trial chanting "Uyaya Ejele Oscar" (Oscar is going to jail). The Women's League and women throughout South Africa view the Pistorious trial -- and its outcome -- as a referendum on the extremes of violence against women there. Can a man as famous as Pistorious be convicted for murdering a woman?

The South African government has been promising to address violence against women for years, but has yet to do so. One women's rights advocate, Nokykhanya Jele told Taibbi at the beginning of the Pistorious trial, access and fear are often insurmountable issues for women. "The class system makes a huge difference," she explained. "If you're poor you just don't go for help, and only partly because it's a half-day's walk for many women to even get to one of the 120 police districts set up to deal with such complaints. The majority of women will have a harrowing experience with the police first, then the prosecutor."

And the violence keeps escalating. There are more than seven times as many murders in South Africa as there are in the U.S., but South Africa only has a population of 51 million, compared to the 317 million in the U.S.

According to the World Health Organization, South Africa leads the world in rapes. It is also the capital of "HIV/AIDS cure" rapes -- rapes of female toddlers and girl babies as an alleged cure for HIV/AIDS, which is pandemic in South Africa. On Nov. 28, 2013, the youngest girl ever was raped by a Cape Town man. The infant was only six weeks old. The crime re-focused attention on the "thousands" of toddlers and infant girls raped in South Africa.

South Africa also has the dubious distinction of being the global focal point for corrective rape of lesbians. Corrective rape is supposed to cure or "correct" the sexual orientation of lesbians -- to turn them heterosexual and make them stop "acting" lesbian and start acting "straight" -- behaving more like the gender stereotype for women. Like honor killings, corrective rape is frequently perpetrated or supervised by members of the lesbian's family. South African officials assert that there are at least 10 "corrective" rapes each week in the Cape Town area alone. But as human rights advocates have complained, there is no separate record for these corrective rapes, as the government does not recognize hate crimes.

Yet what else is corrective rape but a hate crime?

On June 30, 2013, several months after Reeva Steenkamp was killed, another of these horrific rapes occurred. The body of Duduzile Zozo, a 26-year-old black lesbian, was found by her mother, Thuziwe Zozo, about 40 feet from their home, in a neighbor's yard. Duduzile was partially naked and a toilet brush had been rammed into her vagina, rupturing it and her uterus. Duduzile had last been seen at a shebeen -- a local lesbian bar -- near her home.

Zozo's neighbor was questioned and released by police, but Mrs. Zozo said she did not understand why he had told people he didn't know who the victim was, when they were well-acquainted and lived next-door to each other.

Unlike previous corrective rape murders of lesbians, Zozo's murder was immediately labeled a hate crime in the press and by local officials.

A few days after Zozo's burial, at which her lesbian friends dug the grave and did all the traditionally male rituals of burial, much to the anger of the men in attendance, Cape Town's Democratic Alliance issued a statement excoriating the South African government for its lax response to violence against lesbians.

In late October 2013 police arrested Lekgoa Lesley Motleleng, 22, a neighbor of Zozo's, for her murder. On January 28, 2014 he was held without bail for trial, charged with rape and murder. The cause of Zozo's death was strangulation. She had also been raped with the toilet brush.

Zozo's murder came just three weeks after a 17 year old lesbian was gang-raped by three men. Another 17-year-old, Anene Booysen, was raped and disemboweled and left to die at a construction site near Cape Town on February 2, 2013. Booysen was found alive, but she died several hours later in the hospital.

Testifying at the trial of Johannes Kana, who was charged with her rape and murder, was Dr. Elizabeth De Kock, the first to treat Booysen. She detailed Booysen's injuries, saying they were }the worst [she] had ever seen." De Kock said Booysen was covered from head to toe in sand and blood and bruised all over her body. A sharp object had been used to mutilate her genitalia and her intestines may have been pulled out through her vagina by hand. It was the damage to her intestines that killed Booysen, said De Kock.

Kana, 22, who admitted to kicking and raping Booysen, but said he did not kill her, was given two life sentences on Nov. 1, 2013 for the brutal crime that received a condemnation from the United Nations on Feb. 23, 2013.

Corrective rape is extremely violent, often including stabbing, mutilation, beating and stoning. It is usually perpetrated by more than one man. It is a leading cause of HIV infection among lesbians. Corrective rape is so brutal and causes such physical and emotional trauma, it leaves the victim scarred for life -- if it doesn't leave her dead.

Mrs. Zozo told the Johannesburg Independent that she had feared for her daughter's safety because of the frequency of corrective rapes in their Thokoza neighborhood in Ekuhuleni township, about 35 miles outside of Johannesburg, but that "everyone loved her," so she thought Dudu, as her friends called her, would be safe.

She wasn't.

The corrective rape/murder of Eudy Simelane brought worldwide attention to the crime. Simelane was a lesbian rights advocate and former captain of the national women's soccer team training to be the first female World Cup referee for 2010 when she was murdered.

On April 28, 2008, Simelane was left face-down and naked in a drainage ditch in a stream in a park near Johannesburg. Simelane had been beaten savagely. She had been stabbed 25 times in the face, the upper inside of her thighs and the soles of her feet. She had also been raped.

Simelane's killers were brought to trial, but only two of the five men initially charged were convicted. No mention of a hate-crime was made at the trial. In fact, Judge Ratha Mokgoathleng did not want to use the word lesbian at all, asking the prosecutor, "Is there another word that you can use instead of that one?"

Simelane's was the first corrective rape to result in a conviction, but at their sentencing, her killers just laughed, as did Kana and his uncle after his sentencing in Booysen's rape/murder.

Zoliswa Nkonyana was only 19 and 100 yards from her home when she was chased and attacked by 20 men on Feb. 4, 2006. She was kicked, beaten, stoned and stabbed to death, her mutilated body left in a drainage ditch. She was also raped.

The trial of her killers was postponed 52 times; four of the initial 20 men were finally sentenced in February 2012-six years after her murder. They were not charged with corrective rape or a hate crime.

More than three dozen lesbians have died as a result of reported corrective rape/murder in the past ten years. A West Cape agency, Luleki Sizwe, which helps rape victims, says corrective rapes happen at a rate of 10 or more a week.

After Zozo's murder, Amnesty International stated that lesbian corrective rape and other violence against lesbians had become so "pandemic, brutal and under-investigated" in South Africa that it was calling on the Pretoria government to introduce hate-crimes legislation to deal with the violence.

On June 25, 2013 AI released a report, "Making Love a Crime," on LGBT rights in Africa. The report stipulated that black lesbians were most at risk of violence in South Africa, followed by gay men and white lesbians. "Black women already experience discrimination and violence in South Africa, but black lesbians are especially targeted," the report reads. "Lesbians could not access community support because 80 percent of the people in South Africa believe that same-sex relations are always wrong."

The report notes that murders of lesbians -- like that of Simelane-are "notably brutal." The horrors and prevalence of corrective rape run counter to civil liberties LGBT people appear to have in South Africa. Human Rights Watch and the UN Status Report on Women both classify corrective rape as a serious human rights violation. In its 2011 report, HRW also stated that attitudes toward LGBT people in South Africa had actually gotten significantly worse, despite the fact that same-sex marriage is legal and LGBT rights are included in the Constitution, which was ratified in 1996.

Not everyone sees the situation in those terms, however. Lindiwe Khonjalwayo, chairperson for the ANC's Women's League, views lesbians demanding justice for corrective rape victims as "aggressive" and also believes there should be no separate hate crime status for corrective rape. "I'm skeptical of the trend where we want to characterize lesbian crime as a special kind," Khonjalwayo told South Africa's Mail & Guardian. "That leads to a lot of special anger and aggression, which tends to perpetuate more violence."

Legally, LGBT South Africans have more protected rights than in any other African nation. The reality, as the AI report underscores, is quite different. Human rights organizations have complained that corrective rape is not recognized by South African laws as a hate crime, even though the South African Constitution states clearly that no one can be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. Yet there are videos all over YouTube of South African men explaining why lesbians need to be raped to "straighten" them.

In an atmosphere of such pandemic violence against women, it's not clear how or if the Pistorius trial will impact prosecutions of corrective rape and murders of lesbians or impact the breadth of domestic violence in that country. But what is clear is women in South Africa believe the Pistorious trial is a landmark case, that Steenkamp's texts to Pistorious just weeks before her murder asserting, "Sometimes I am afraid of you," reveal her as another hidden victim of domestic abuse, another one of the thousands of South African women dealing daily with male violence.

That fact resonates for many women throughout the country, regardless of race or class. As one young South African victim of domestic violence told NBC, "It shows that the court system is not playing, they mean business, that everyone should pay for what they do."

And those who should pay are the perpetrators, not the women.