We know that Reeva Steenkamp had written a romantic card to her boyfriend, the Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, ready to give to him the following morning on Valentine’s Day before she was killed.
The front of the card she had selected read: “Roses are red, violets are blue…”and inside she had composed her own message: “I think today is a good day to tell you that…I love you."
It seemed like she was a young woman in a happy relationship. Nevertheless, any conjecture on Reeva Steenkamp’s thoughts and emotions on the eve of February 13, 2013 are just that: conjecture.
But the facts of Steenkamp’s last moments are frighteningly clear. It was agonisingly violent, and at the hands of the one she loved, after the sprinter shot four times through the locked door of his bathroom, apparently believing her to be an intruder.
Ballistics experts confirmed Steenkamp was standing close to the door as two bullets – designed to cause maximum damage by expanding or ‘mushrooming’ on impact with flesh – ripped through her hip and arm. As she fell, injured, a fatal shot hit her head. Her injuries were so severe that a distraught Pistorius vomited repeatedly into a bucket in the dock when images were show in court.
This week, Pistorius was released from prison having served less than 12 months of his five year sentence in prison. His family have emphasised that he is still under house arrest following his conviction for “culpable homicide” (manslaughter). But pictures of the house he’s staying in show an elegant redbrick mansion - which won’t do much to dispel the bitter feeling that Pistorius in one sense did perhaps “get away with murder”.
There are those who’ll say he’s been punished enough. The prolonged, anguished trial, the eyes of the world’s press upon him for the duration, the damage to his previously glittering career – and of course, as his defence argued, the loss of the woman he loved.
But a justice system serves society with a split purpose. There’s punishment of the perpetrator and an element of rehabilitation (which has been vigorously stressed in this case – the terms of his house arrest include community service). And there’s also the strong social message that the justice system serves: through its sentencing, it makes a comment on the seriousness of the crime and how profoundly it will be perceived. This is the sticking point.
Why does the meagre length of time Pistorius spent behind bars nag at us so painfully? Perhaps it’s because, statistically speaking, Reeva Steenkamp was one of three women killed by their partner in South Africa that day. Or perhaps it’s because she was a caring person, involved in campaigns about social justice and violence against women herself: she died the day before she planned to wear black for a "Black Friday" protest against South Africa’s shockingly high number of rapes, spurred by the particularly brutal gang-rape and mutilation of a 17-year-old that had dominated news reports.
The celebrity of the man whose hands she died at, the availability of glamorous modelling shots providing sensationalist fodder for tabloids across the world and the high-profile nature of the court case made her, in death, an unwitting global poster girl for domestic violence. Her tragic death almost became material for titillation. But that didn’t make the legal system take her killing more seriously.
Judge Thokozile Masipa had to deal with the facts in front of her, and mete out a sentence as appropriate. But the parole board decision to release Pistorius from prison today measures the life of a woman, violently taken, in just a few short months behind bars. The value of South African women’s lives is set at an all-time low.
When the homepage of a major South African news site carries a story saying that Pistorius is ‘broken and in need of healing’, we, as women, are told that the perpetrator of the most violent of crimes is actually the victim, in need of comfort and protection, while the woman whose life he took is forgotten, edited out the story, just another statistic in a justice system that served her poorly.
We must make sure the world remembers: #HerNameWasReevaSteenkamp. And it is her life, not her killer’s, which it’s important to include in our ongoing conversation about global rates of violence against women.
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