‘War against women’ with rise in gender-based torture

A judge in Zimbabwe has slammed fatal domestic violence against women as 'gender-based torture'. Sentencing a man who savagely murdered his partner the judge, Amy Tsanga, said women were 'clobbered, booted, strangled, stabbed or slashed to death' by their partners. Such attacks so often happened in their own bedrooms that these spaces had become 'a deadly environment' for women. In her A Matter of Justice column on the Legalbrief site, Carmel Rickard writes about this and other similar cases finalised in the courts of the southern African region in the first half of April alone, and says there seems to be a 'war against women'. 

This article is re-published with permission from LegalBrief: Your Legal News Hub by Juta&Co.


War is being waged in the southern African region: against women. That’s the conclusion you could come to from regularly reading court decisions in this part of the continent.

During the first week of April alone, the High Court in Namibia handed down four decisions in cases where men had committed murder in relation to their domestic partners.

In one, S v Ilukena, the murderer – a police officer on duty – killed a man who was having a relationship with his (Ilukena’s) wife. He kidnapped them both, then tortured the man for more than four hours in the presence of his wife, threatening to do the same to her. He was sentenced to 15 years for the murder, six of which were suspended, with one year, wholly suspended, for ‘assault by threat’ against his wife. The court said his conduct in torturing the rival, described by his wife, was ‘utterly disgusting and despicable’, but found diminished criminal responsibility citing ‘the infidelity of his wife and the injury to his masculinity and pride’. Claiming he was the aggrieved one, Ilukena felt self-pity rather than genuine contrition.

In S v Eksteen, the couple – involved in ‘an actual romantic relationship’ – went to bed as usual but the woman was found dead the next morning. The man showed no remorse and pretended she had committed suicide though he had strangled her with a rope. Both of them were just 18.

He was sentenced to 20 years, six of which were suspended, after the court remarked that ‘crimes of violence against women are on the rise country-wide’.

On 5 April, the High Court sentenced Andre Dausab to life in jail. He killed the woman with whom he was in a romantic relationship ‘by stabbing her 27 times with three knives’. Then he locked the fatally injured woman in the house and left her to die. The woman, a theology student, had two children. Dausab wrote that he was ‘also a victim who needed love and support’.

The court found he had killed the woman because she said she no longer loved him, and he suspected she was ‘seeing other men’.

A day later the High Court sentenced Lukas Kasimeya to life in jail for murdering his girlfriend by chopping her with an axe because she had allegedly insulted him. Speaking of the photographs of the woman’s body, the judge said, ‘I have difficulty finding appropriate descriptive words to truly reflect what is depicted.’ He thought ‘most shocking, most horrendous, most unbearable, most gruesome,’ would be mere euphemisms for what he had seen.

In this case too, the accused expressed no remorse. Addressing the accused the judge said, ‘You, in the most unimaginable severe, violent, brutal and barbaric manner mutilated the head, face and skull of the deceased … took away her life, the mother of your child, a person that you were supposed to protect and love.’

During the same period the SA courts too sentenced a number of men who raped and/or killed or attempted to kill, their domestic partners. Among the more prominent cases was the guilty verdict by the Gauteng High Court (Johannesburg) against forex trader Sandile Mantsoe for killing his girlfriend Karabo Mokoena and then burning her body. Mantsoe was sentenced to 35 years in jail.

In this context, former law lecturer and now High Court judge in Zimbabwe, Amy Tsanga, has taken analysis of such crimes to another level, saying domestic violence of this kind amounts to gender-based torture.

Formerly deputy director of the southern and eastern African regional centre for women’s law, Tsanga described herself, before her appointment, as an ‘African feminist’, concerned about ‘women’s struggles’, particularly against ‘patriarchal and sexual domination’.

During April, in what must surely be a landmark decision because of the way she invoked international instruments against torture, she sentenced Robert Tevedzayi, convicted of murdering his 36-year-old wife, mother of their five sons. He used a hoe, an axe and a metal bar to attack and kill her in their bedroom, hacking off her ear in the process.

He gave a number of versions to explain his actions, mostly arising from suspicions of her infidelity. Their children and the neighbours, however, spoke of arguments over his failure to provide for the family, and the judge said she did not believe his version that when he came home that night he ‘stumbled on a lover who engaged him in battle’.

‘The story that he found her with a man appears to be simply a continuation of his assault and vilification of her even in her grave,’ said the judge. ‘As if mutilating her body was not enough, (he) mutilates her honour.’

The judge added that the bedroom had far too frequently ‘become a deadly environment for women as a result of men’s violent outbursts’.

‘Women have been clobbered, booted, strangled, stabbed or slashed to death by their spouses in the confines of the bedroom, … by men who would have the courts believe that but for their wife’s sluttish conduct, their behaviour was (not) out of the ordinary.’

This case was about an intimate murder in the context of gender-based violence against women, said Tsanga, reminding the authorities of their duties to respect and protect women’s rights, under local and international law. She asked if events would have turned out differently had police reacted as they should have done when the woman reported her husband’s threats, instead of telling her to come back another day.

The law provided that in sentencing for murder it would constitute aggravating circumstances if the murder was accompanied by physical torture or mutilation. International law made it clear that ‘gender-based violence’ could amount to ‘torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in circumstances of domestic violence’. Likewise, Zimbabwe’s constitution guarantees freedom from torture and cruel or degrading treatment and that included freedom from ‘torture resulting from gender-based violence’. There could be no doubt that the woman had been subjected to ‘cruel, unusual and degrading treatment’ before ultimately succumbing to ‘an extremely painful death’. Throughout the trial Tevedzayi had shown ‘absolutely no remorse’ and a lengthy custodial sentence of 35 years, was called for.

Satisfying though it might be, however, to have a judge name deadly domestic violence as gender-based torture, you have to wonder if it will make any difference at all to the number of cases of women murdered, in their bedrooms, ‘clobbered, booted, strangled, stabbed or slashed to death’ by their intimate partners.


Read the judgments mentioned in this article for free:

- The State vs Robert Tevedzayi (ZimLII)

- S v Kasimeya (NamibLII)

- S v Ilukena (NamibLII)

- S v Eksteen (NamibLII)

- S v Dausab (NamibLII)