Murderous women’ such as Dina Rodriguez who, in 2005, contracted two men to kill her ex-boyfriend’s baby, have been sensationalized in the South African media. Similarly, in 2006, also in South Africa, Najwa Petersen was convicted of the murder of her musician husband Taliep Petersen while in 2007 Ellen Pakkies received a non-custodial sentence for murdering her methamphetamine (‘tik’) addicted son. These women have gripped public attention because their acts were judged within courts of law as “calculated” and “intentional” and therefore contrary to popular conceptions of women who kill as either part of an anti-social political anarchism, or as those who kill violent partners, after years of abuse, in self-defense. However, the image of the woman who kills for financial gain or who intentionally kills a child, challenges (and indeed violates) societal conceptions of stereotypical femininity, constructed as nurturing, vulnerable to abuse herself, and peace-loving. The issue of women’s violence makes us uncomfortable as it challenges the normative social fabric and causes us to confront our beliefs about polarized gendered norms. In the last two decades women’s violence has increasingly received empirical attention by researchers in the Northern hemisphere because of the proliferation in arrest statistics for women in countries such as the United States of America. Consequently, a range of studies have been conducted in an attempt to understand the phenomenon of women’s violence in various spheres. Despite the growing numbers of women soldiers and women participants in “violent unrest” (such as Rwanda’s 1994 genocide) in different contexts, there have been limited attempts to explore women’s violence on the African continent. In South Africa in particular there is a dearth of empirical research.
Given the high rates of gender-based and other forms of violence, it is understandable that substantial local research has focused on violence perpetrated by men. However, given that currently 1020 women are incarcerated for violent crimes and 337 are awaiting trial in South African correctional facilities, we cannot ignore the reality of women’s violence. While it may be argued that women’s low levels of violent perpetration do not warrant feminist attention, I think that failure to explore this simply reinforce stereotypes about the meaning and shape of “gendered violence” and adds to the sensationalization and demonization of violent women in media and popular discourse. As a feminist researcher I am interested in the ways in which notions of “violent women” have been constructed and how this leads to the perpetuation of unhelpful discourses on femininity and violence.
The image of the mentally disordered woman who kills is one of the predominant constructions in the literature and draws on a discourse of madness which has historically been utilized to explain and censure women’s aberrant behavior. In attempting to establish the etiology of women’s lethal violence, the psychological and psychiatric literature has framed these acts within a psychopathological discourse. The focus on inherent biological or psychological dysfunction is seen to provide tangible evidence for ‘uncharacteristic’ violence – thus violence is medicalized and is viewed as the outcome of this dysfunction.
Rethinking gender and theories of violence by Adeline Africa, 2010
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