It has been reported that Oscar Pistorius is to be released from prison next Tuesday, 12 months into his sentence for shooting Reeva Steenkamp. Last October, I wrote that the sentence – despite being custodial – was worryingly short. As June Steenkamp, Reeva’s mother said at the time, when it appeared that Pistorius was to be freed in August: “He shot my daughter through that door where she had no space to move or defend herself. One of the bullets blew her brains out, it is disgusting what he did to her – 10 months is just not enough.”
June Steenkamp was right. It is still not enough. Reeva died in a terrifying way, at the hands of someone she loved. Unless her life weighs more heavily in the judicial balance than some of the so-called “reasons” why she died – Pistorius’s problems, his access to guns, his feelings of panic – we will never move to a culture that values women’s lives enough to make them safer.
Because we don’t place a high enough value on women’s lives, we reinforce the entitlement men feel to act on the variety of reasons often used to justify violence and abuse: drink, drugs, peer pressure, having more money than sense, being young, feeling jealous, wanting their right to see their kids, what their victim was wearing, doing or saying.
This entitlement, this extensive menu of excuses, is reinforced day in and day out, around the world and in the UK, but inevitably high-profile cases have a particular impact, and I make no apology for focusing on their effect. I fear that the “hero” culture that surrounds these famous men may be affecting criminal justice outcomes. And through their profile this reinforces the dangerous misogyny in our culture. Strong sentences are essential to show perpetrators ofviolence against women, and indeed women suffering abuse, that society and the law take their violence seriously.
Let’s just remind ourselves of some events of the last few months. Danny Simpson, a Leicester City footballer, was convicted of seriously assaulting his ex-partner. He pinned her to the ground and throttled her. Simpson has not yet been sacked from the club, and was handed a community sentence by the courts.
The boxer Floyd Mayweather – a serial perpetrator of domestic violence – was hailed a hero after winning a major fight against Manny Pacquiao in May. The fight was one of the most lucrative sporting events of all time. Mayweather has never shown remorse for his serious and sustained attacks against women, and has even made excuses for his crimes.
Bill Cosby is only now facing the consequences of allegations of sexual assault and rape against a huge number of women – some of the claims going back 40 or so years. Why did it take so long? Because Cosby was an adored American hero. One woman, Barbara Bowman, wrote, “Only when a male comedian (Hannibal Buress) called Cosby a rapist did the accusation take hold.” It took 30 years for people to take her seriously.
To list the cases of all high-profile men who have abused with impunity would take too long. What I’m waiting for is some evidence that the lessons have been learned. And I mean the hard lessons: not just whether we – men and women – can all stand up and say we don’t approve of abuse, but whether men will give up some of the power that allows it to happen and to go so lightly punished.
Time and again, women tell us at Women’s Aid that the man who abused them was able to play the victim, despite seriously attacking her – because she’s “crazy”; that the criminal charges were dropped; that they were not believed; that even if the criminal justice system took the abuse seriously, the man was able to gain revenge and ensure she was blamed through the family courts.
This is the grinding, daily reality, the huge and lethal iceberg that looms beneath the highly visible and unpunished – or inadequately punished – behaviour of high-profile abusers. It is costing women’s lives, still at the rate of two a week on average in England and Wales. That’s why the treatment of our so-called heroes matters.
Chief Executive, Women’s Aid