Murder of South African Women by Partners 5 Times Global Rate

Semi-automatic handgun and ammo.
A semi-automatic handgun. (Image credit: kongsak sumano, Shutterstock)

The killing of South African model Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend, Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, brought international attention to a country known for troubling rates of violence, particularly against women. Now, new research finds the country's rate of homicide of women by intimate partners is five times the global rate.  

Pistorius is being tried for the murder of Steenkamp, whom he says he mistook for an intruder in their home the night he shot her through a bathroom door. Prosecutors say the killing was premeditated.

The new study, published today (April 2) in the journal PLOS Medicine, finds that while the overall homicide rate of women has declined in South Africa, there has been no significant decrease in murders by intimate partners in a decade. Current and ex-husbands and boyfriends — as well as same-sex partners and rejected suitors — were considered "intimate partners" in the study.

"We expected the intimate femicides to decrease more substantially," said study researcher Naeemah Abrahams, a senior scientist at the South African Medical Research Council. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

Violence against women

South Africa has a high murder rate, with 31.8 intentional homicides per 100,000 people as of 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It can be difficult to compare crime rates across international boundaries because of varying legal definitions, but the United Nations lists the United States' 2010 intentional-homicide rate at 4.2 per 100,000 people. (The Federal Bureau of Investigation puts the murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate for the United States at 4.8 per 100,000 people in 2010 and 4.7 per 100,000 people in 2011.)

There is no monitoring system for murders of women in South Africa, so Abrahams and her colleagues used data from mortuaries around the country to estimate rates in 1999. They then repeated the study in 2009.

The decade between studies saw many changes in the South African legal system, including the implementation of a domestic-violence act passed in 1998, followed by a strengthening of laws around sexual offenses in 2007, and the 2000 Firearms Control Act, which instituted gun-control measures and was fully implemented by 2004.

"Our goal was to determine if there was a shift in the number of women killed by their partners after 10 years," Abrahams said.

Overall homicide dropped 44 percent in South Africa between 2004 and 2010, and the new study found a parallel decline in femicide, or the murder of women. In 1999, 24.7 women per 100,000 people were murdered in South Africa. In 2009, that number dropped to 12.9 per 100,000.

But there was no statistically significant difference in the rate of women being killed by their partners, which stood at 5.6 per 100,000 in 2009. That's more than double the rate of two women per 100,000 seen in the United States.

Preventing femicide

Gun control appears to have had an effect on the femicide rate, Abrahams said, with the proportion of gun-related homicides decreasing from 33 percent in 1999 to 17 percent in 2009. But the study suggests a need to do more, particularly in investigating instances of domestic violence before a murder happens, the researchers wrote. Most women killed by a partner in South Africa had been in long-term abusive relationships, Abrahams said.

"Gender inequities in relationships and male dominance remain important contributors to the killings of an intimate partner, and factors that contributed to the decrease of overall killings may not be effective for those killings of an intimate nature," she said.

"Most importantly," Abrahams said, "we need to put most of our efforts into prevention."

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.