'I Am Reeva': South African Women See Pistorius Trial as Litmus Test

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PRETORIA, South Africa - While a judge in South Africa works to determine whether Olympian Oscar Pistorius intentionally killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, some outside the courtroom have already made up their minds.

"Uyaya Ejele Oscar” or “Oscar is going to jail” sang members of African National Congress Women's League outside the court in Pretoria in the early days of the trial. They've been present in the courtroom every day since.

Many see the trial as a referendum -- played out in live television coverage -- on South Africa’s ability to deal with an epidemic of violence against women.

Members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Women's League march in Pretoria on the anniversary of the killing of Reeva Steenkamp on Feb. 14.Reuters, file

Statistics compiled by the Medical Research Council at the University of Cape Town show that three women a day are killed by their domestic partners. Rates of "intimate femicide" – the term used to describe a category of murder – are five times higher in South Africa than the world average.

And a shockingly small percentage of those killings ever get to court, or are even investigated by the police, because in this still-evolving and still-violent young democracy few abused women file formal complaints.

"The class system makes a huge difference,” according to women’s rights advocate Nokykhanya Jele. “If you're poor you just don't go for help, and only partly because it's a half day's walk for many women to even get to one of the 120 police districts set up to deal with such complaints.”

“The majority of women will have a harrowing experience with the police first, and thereafter the prosecutor," she added.

"You know you may end up dead, like that woman"

In one measure of how little confidence women have in the system, it is estimated that only one in nine victims of sexual abuse file complaints. And this is in a country with one of the highest rape rates in the world and a murder rate of 31.3 per 100,000 people, according to South Africa's University of Witwatersrand. Compare that to 4.7 murders per 100,000 in the United States, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

So what happened to Steenkamp resonates.

She had not complained of prior abuse by Pistorius, but the glamorous model and law student died at the hands of a man characterized by several trial witnesses as a hotheaded and casually irresponsible with guns.

Prosecutors allege that a violent argument sent Steenkamp screaming in fear to the bathroom where she locked herself in with her cellphone before four shots by Pistorius ended her life.

Pistorius maintains he shot her by mistake, believing it was an intruder in the bathroom and not the girlfriend who in a text message weeks earlier wrote: "sometimes I'm scared of you."

Though a verdict in the case is still weeks away, women at the Ikhaya Lethemba women’s shelter in Johannesburg looked at what's known so far about the case, and said they fled abusive men just in time to avoid the fate they believe Steenkamp met.

In a mock courtroom set up at the shelter to prepare women for their own court cases, two young mothers talked about why the Pistorius case matters.

"It shows that [the court system] is not playing, that they mean business, that everyone should pay for what they do," said Rejoice, a young mother who asked that her last name not be used.

Reeva Steenkamp, girlfriend of South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, was shot dead at his home in Pretoria on Feb. 14, 2013.Mike Holmes / Gallo via Getty Images, file

Marian, who says her abuser also raped her daughter, lived in fear before running to the shelter in desperation.

"You know you may end up dead, like that woman," she said, referring to Steenkamp.

Rejoice was just as direct.

"I am Reeva," she said. "But thank God I got saved. Thank God I didn't have to go down six feet under. I still have my breath, and I can stand up and get out of that situation."