I was moved to tears yesterday upon learning of the murder of a beautiful University of Virginia (UVA) senior, female lacrosse player. A greatly accomplished athlete and academic, she seemed to have nothing but a bright future ahead of her. Instead, she met her untimely death at the hands of a violent and angry ex-boyfriend. Also a UVA athlete and student, he is currently the leading suspect in her murder case and he has been charged with first degree murder. Perhaps this news emotionally moved me because it struck so close to home. Her murder took place in the building across the street where I lived as a 3rd year student at the University of Virginia.
Perhaps I was also emotionally drawn into this story given my most recent post, Valuing Life and Death, in which some of the very same questions I explored in that post seemed to resurface upon reading this tragic story. If he did in fact "murder" her, even if "accidentally," as claimed by his defense attorney, how could he have been so passionately caught up in the moment to essentially be delivering death blows to a girl he was once intimately involved with? How could his sense of right and wrong be so easily forsaken in the face of anger? Did he realize she was dead when he left the scene of the crime? Or did his conscious take over at a certain point and he got scared and fled the scene while she was still alive and she could have potentially been saved? What point was he trying to make anyway? How is this fair? Why did a bright young girl with a bright future ahead of her have to die so young? Likely most of the questions I pose here will never be answered. And even if "answered" in the courtroom, we will never know how far from the truth the story will grow to become.
My heart goes out to the family of this girl who now must grapple with some of these existential questions while grieving her loss. There is something wholly unnatural about a mother having to bury a child. But also, my heart goes out to this young boy and his family. His life will forever be changed. One passionate moment gone wrong (or right, depending on his motives) will be riddled with consequences that will chase him for the rest of his life, regardless of the outcome in the courtroom.
In cases like this, I think we tend to look for patterns, in part to create sense in this sometimes senseless world and to convince ourselves of our immunity to such tragedy. The media painted him as a young man with a temper, paying great attention to one alcohol-fueled episode of threats of violence against an arresting female police officer. In 2008, he is said to have verbally threatened this officer with a litany of racial, sexual, and other vulgar terms, saying among other things, "I'll kill you. I'll kill all of y'all. I'm not going to jail." Perhaps that act demonstrated a propensity towards violence, perhaps not. Attempts to create a telling pattern of this young man's inclination towards such untold violence (as surely the criminal prosecuters in this case will do) provide the security necessary to cope with this sometimes senseless world, but more importantly allow us to defend our own sense of judgement of character. I would certainly never fall victim to an angry, violent prone partner. Right? Hindsight is 20-20.
At the end of the day, perhaps it is not so clear what distinguishes those who are able to stay on the "right" side of the fine line between checked and unchecked anger or demonstrations of "machismo". We all know what it feels like to be angry and to feel an inclination towards violence, but what is it that keeps our emotions and anger in check? In her book, It's Our Turn to Eat, Michela Wrong, provocatively suggests that perhaps deep down there is no distinction, we are all capable of such violence, "Evil lies dormant, like a smouldering ember, in the human soul, and it can be fanned into flame by the most ordinary human passions – the passion for power, for wealth, for a good life for myself and my family.”
In either case, I think that perhaps what is most surprising about this episode is that the victim here was an educated, empowered young woman, who presumably knew her rights, had a strong support network, and knew that she did not deserve to be threatened or beaten by her partner, while the suspect is an upwardly mobile, accomplished young boy with seemingly everything going for him. That is to say -- in the words of the Washington Post -- both were children of privilege from the lacrosse fields of affluent suburbia, on the verge of graduating from the public Ivy in Charlottesville. We may expect this of others, you know "those types", but certainly not of those hailing from a suburban white picket fence world about to be conferred degrees from one of America's most prestigious public universities.
Here in Tanzania, gender-based violence is a huge issue, one that takes many forms, including physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence. Here, this problem disproportionately affects women over men, to the point that the term “gender-based violence” is often used interchangeably with the term “violence against women.” Gender norms and social and economic inequities that give privilege to men over women are the main causes for blame. Women have little influence over household decisions, in fact, women and girls often need permission from their husbands to even leave the home and to conduct work outside of domestic responsibilities. Also, educational and economic opportunities for women here pale in comparison to those of their male counterparts. For example, families in rural areas of very limited means often prioritize the education of sons over daughters, and daughters become work hands on the family farm or around the home. This leaves women with few financial resources to leave abusive situations and still provide for their families, heightening their vulnerability to forms of gender-based violence and domestic abuse.
However, despite its prevalence, gender-based violence continues to be a grotesquely underreported reality for women and girls in Tanzania. Because these practices are not openly talked about, treatment or support from authorities is rarely sought. Instead, violence is seen as an acceptable means of resolving family conflicts, or in other words, “punishing” or “educating” women for behaviors considered unacceptable. Many in Tanzania view rape as acceptable behavior for men and boys, including forced sex within marriage, which is not criminalized by the law and is not considered as rape by males. Rather wives are expected to provide sex to husbands, and both men and women here acknowledge that wives who refuse sex can expect to be beaten and/or raped.
Despite being a world away, in a wholly different cultural, economic, and empowered state, this UVA girl found herself subjected to the same violence many women here in Tanzania accept as their reality and fate. This is truly tragic.
Betron, Myra. Gender-Based Violence in Tanzania: An Assessment of Policies, Services, and Promising Interventions. USAID: Health Policy Initiative. November 2008.