Two random, recent cases from Namibia answer the question why there is the need for an annual marking of women’s day round the world. Both show how the vulnerability of girls and women make them easy targets for violence. And how, at crucial moments when they face the most danger, they may be completely deserted and left alone with their attackers.
Read judgment S v John
Read judgment S v Mutuka
From birth until death, women face danger from attackers who might well be men they count as their closest family. These two cases from Namibia illustrate the point.
In one (S v Mutuka), a two-year-old toddler was killed by her step father. Her own mother gave evidence that the court found ‘suspicious’, as she tried to shield the man from conviction. In the other (S v John), an 86-year-old woman was murdered by her nephew who denounced her as a witch, tied a rope round her neck and then throttled her with the rope that he tied to a pole.
In a bitter irony, the 86-year-old woman was even deprived of a name: nowhere in the court’s judgment on sentence do we discover her name. That nameless status is a painful reminder that women often suffer the additional indignity of ceasing to be worthy of any notice, and don’t even warrant a name, once they reach old age.
The 36-year-old accused – we know all three of his names, Muyevu Thikundeko John – was convicted of murder and assault by threat, read with the provisions of the Combating of Domestic Violence Act. He was also convicted under the Witchcraft Suppression Proclamation.
He had pleaded guilty, admitting that he tied a rope round the neck of his ageing aunt and then tied the rope to a pole. He killed her ‘because he was angry at her’. He also agreed that he ‘mentioned’ that his aunt ‘is a witch and she bewitched his mother and his siblings who had already died’.
He further agreed that he assaulted and threatened various complainants saying they should not try to stop him while he abused his elderly aunt. As a result, ‘the family members who were present at the scene could do nothing to save the life of the deceased as they were threatened with assault.’
Though he had time for a change of heart, he went ahead with his actions, ‘causing the deceased to die by suffocation or lack of oxygen.’ As the court put it, ‘one can only imagine the barbaric, inhuman and painful death the deceased … suffered.’
She was ‘an elderly person’ who cared for and supported members of her family, buying them food when necessary. ‘She was one of the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society.’ John had gone into her sleeping room, tied her round the neck, pulled her out of the room and then tied her tightly on a pole, as a result of which she died from suffocation.
The evidence against him was so overwhelming that his decision to plead guilty amounted to very little by way of mitigation.
The judge, Johanna Salionga, said the court found, as an aggravating factor, that ‘the deceased in this case’ was John’s biological aunt, ‘a vulnerable, defenceless woman who was brutally and shockingly suffocated under the unconfirmed suspicion of witchcraft.’
Judge Salionga then quoted from a previous decision in which the court had said that murder of a woman by a man ‘should not be treated lightly’. Further, she said, ‘violence against women is rife and the community expects the courts to protect women against the commission of such crimes.’
An acting judge, Danie Small, dealt with the death of two-year-old toddler, Katjire Matumbo. Her small body displayed a number of indications that she had been abused over a period of time before her death.
The accused, Moses Mutuka, was in a domestic relationship with the child’s mother, Lydia Gamses, his girlfriend. Among the injuries found after the child died were burn marks on the soles of her feet. Were they caused by cigarette burns, or by walking on hot sand, on the instructions of Mutuka?
The medical evidence wasn’t certain, but either eventuality speaks of Mutuka’s abusive approach to the child.
‘Abrasions of different production dates were found all over the body,’ according to the court’s summary of the findings. Mutuka denied that he had inflicted the injury that caused the child’s death.
Instead, he claimed that the toddler was ‘on her mother’s back and fell facedown onto the ground when attempting to escape a sudden whirlwind.’
The court found that the child’s mother had attempted to downplay any assaults by the accused. Her approach to the fact that the child had ‘extensive injuries all over her body’ led the court to consider the mother’s evidence ‘with caution’. There was also evidence that the mother had neither intervened to try to stop assaults on the child recalled by witnesses, nor had she so much as ‘remonstrated with the accused’.
The result was that the court was not able to convict the accused of murder and instead found Mutuka guilty of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm on various occasions.