In Namibia the sentence for stealing a cow is higher than that for raping a woman. For the first offence both rape and theft of a cow carries a 10 year sentence but for second offenders rape carries a 15 years sentence while a person who steals a cow will go to jail for 30 years.

In 2004 the Ministry of Health and Social Services in Namibia interviewed 1 500 women and found that one in three women had experienced abuse or rape in relationships with men and one in five was still experiencing violence. In South Africa a woman is murdered by her intimate partner every six hours.

In 2005, Namibia’s then prime minister Nahas Angula said violence against women and children had reached a “crisis point” and spoke of an incident in Swakopmund in which a woman, Monika Florin, was murdered by her husband who then cooked her remains.
Two years ago I was asked to speak at a Namibian conference dedicated to the memory of a Namibian student Nanzala Siyambango who was shot dead by her boyfriend Steven Luhibesi a few days after she broke up with him.

A Makarov, like the one that killed Nanzala, is a semi-automatic weapon that is banned in some countries. An explanation of how it works notes that to fire, the action of squeezing the trigger for the first shot cocks the hammer, an action requiring a long, strong squeeze of the trigger. This re-cocks the hammer for subsequent shooting; fired single action with a short, light trigger squeeze.

The Makarov holds anything from eight to 12 rounds. The bullets are powerful enough to pierce armour. The ammunition is cheap. The weapon is designed in such a way that it cannot be accidentally triggered.

Nanzala was shot twice in one arm and once in the shoulder, the impact of such powerful bullets almost tore her arm off. It tells us that she was probably reaching for the gun when Steven fired. She tried to stop him.

He would have had to press the trigger hard for that first shot. The makers of Makarov tell us it would have required “a long, strong squeeze of the trigger” He then shot himself in the chest and head. And with just five shots, less than half of what those firearms hold in their magazines, two 24-year-old people were dead.

When Nanzala died she was studying for her Masters in Law. She was a part time tutor in the faculty of law who was invited to Washington and London to participate in international events. And she still found the time to excel in basketball, netball, discus, shotput and canoeing.

So how could someone so clever, love someone so dangerous?

Because the most dangerous people we allow into our lives never look it. Banks will tell you that the person who defrauds them of millions is the star worker, the person everyone likes, the man or woman who works late and rarely takes a holiday; he or she can’t they are too busy stealing and covering their tracks.

Those who rape children are most often fathers or grandfathers or the kind priest, the caring teacher … it is not dirty strangers we must fear, it is the smiling person we think we know.

A classic wife-beater is charming and often quiet-spoken. In public he is loving and attentive. He needs to create a myth of being a good man, so when she tells people that he who broke her nose, or kicked in the door no one believes her.

Some years ago I met Kathleen Jones, a professor of women’s studies at San Diego University. She was traumatised by the death of one of her students, 27-year-old Andrea O Donnell whose decomposing body was found in her boyfriend’s flat. She — like Nanzala — left him shortly beforehand. He persuaded her to come and talk to him then strangled her.

Research tells us that the most dangerous time for a beaten woman is when she leaves the abuser, it is then that he is most likely to find and kill her. And that is why a woman who leaves a man who beats her needs huge amounts of support and protection.

Kathleen told me, Andrea was not a “victim, she was self-assured, strong-willed, a feminist”. In other words; someone too clever for this to happen to her. But none of us are too clever to be raped, beaten or murdered, indeed in my experience, those of us who think we are the most clever are the most at risk, we take more chances because we simply don’t believe it will happen to us. And then it does.

In a later book called Living Between Danger and Love Kathleen wrote: “We become fascinated with the victim, curious about how she could let something bad happen to her … we want to know what went wrong with her life, so that we can create a safe distance between ourselves and the victim who made bad choices. We say, well, maybe she or he would do that, but I would be different, I would know how to make the right choice, the good choice.”

But our ego betrays us. A woman who says, “my man loves me so much he doesn’t want me to go out at night” or “he fetches me from events so that I am safe” — makes me nervous. Often that is a controlling man. It starts with little things until slowly you realise you no longer see your friends or family because he doesn’t like them. She starts battling with confidence because he criticises, gently but repetitively, he might say, “don’t wear that dress babe, it’s too tight” or he might criticise the way you talk, your ideas or the way you look.

It takes a while before the hitting starts and when it does it will happen in a way that you can’t understand and so you keep thinking that if you just change, if you stop doing the things that annoy him — but the trouble is there are so many things that seem to annoy him that the woman becomes confused and frightened.

Many are also brought up in religious homes and are told that it is important to forgive — and so women forgive, over and over and put themselves in grave danger.

Kathleen asked if Andrea expressed her fears and a friend said: “She was a role model, she was afraid that if other women knew about her problems at home, they wouldn’t respect or look up to her anymore.”

And so we who are clever and successful, often make it hard for other clever and successful women to ask for help because they fear we will give black and white responses they are too frightened to implement. And so we leave them to die inside emotionally before we attend their funerals.

  • View more on our special report on 16 days of activism here.
  • Author

    • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


    Charlene Smith

    Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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