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Filicide: A story of poverty, hardship and depression

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Graphic: Wade Gedult / African News Agency (ANA) – In South Africa, the legal defence of ‘after birthing’ saw life sentences being handed down to women where otherwise they would have been executed for their actions prior to the abolition of the death sentence.

By Isobel Frye

On the evening of November 8, Nomboleko Simayile, a 32-year-old mother of four children ranging in age from 2 to 11 years, allegedly bludgeoned her children to death in the rondavel where they were staying with her parents in Tsalaba village in Engcobo in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Nomboleko and her children had moved to stay with her parents about two months ago. The police and local councillors were called when the bodies were discovered. Nomboleko’s father said that his daughter seemed detached during these proceedings. One news report said that she had said: “they (the children) had to die first”. She was arrested and taken away. Her first appearance at court on November 10 had to be postponed as she had collapsed in the holding cell, and was too ill to attend court.

Picture: eNCA – A screenshot of Nomboleko Simayile during her court appearance. Filicide – the killing of children by their parents – is especially chilling when it is the mother who has killed, the writer says.

Filicide – the killing of children by their parents – is especially chilling when it is the mother who has killed. Mothers produce life, they suckle and nurture their infants. They produce life and reproduce societies and cultures, teaching values and lore as they raise their young. So when mothers kill, it subverts the natural order of things. Our understanding of the world is disrupted, by such ‘unnatural’ acts, acts that offend our sense of natural justice.

Many legal systems have developed specific ways to approach maternal filicide, most particularly the ‘postpartum’ defence when the deaths occur within the first 12 months of a child’s life. Literally translated as ‘after-birthing’, this defence is available when there is evidence of severe depression that can accompany birth for mothers. In South Africa, this legal defence saw life sentences being handed down to women where otherwise they would have been executed for their actions prior to the abolition of the death sentence.

According to a paper written on postpartum legal defences by Debora K Dimino, “Experts estimate that fifty to eighty percent of all women experience some form of depression after childbirth, but only one to two per 1,000 women experience its most severe form, puerperal psychosis.

This latter form is the most dangerous, both to the mother and the child, because both suicidal and infanticidal thoughts are present, making the woman dissociated, delusional, and confused.”

Nomboleko’s children ranged in age from 11 down to two years old, so the postpartum defence is not clearly applicable. But the existence of the defence suggests that there are acts that the black-and-white of many legal systems cannot accommodate. We cannot anticipate what the trial will unearth about the motives for these tragic killings if indeed Nomboleko is found fit to stand trial.

But given the burden of poverty that women shoulder in South Africa, it is important for the nation as a collective to consider if the ultimate responsibility for such acts should be laid at the door of one person or whether there must be a collective responsibility, a culpability that needs to be owned for the impact that grinding and relentless poverty has on good people’s lives. What impact does daily hunger and hopelessness, the gnawing pain and the reasonable belief that nothing will change for you or those that you brought into this world have?

And intergenerational is an all too real dynamic for millions of people in South Africa.

Picture: Mandi – An image showing a shack in Grabouw gutted by fire. A mother, whose two children died, in a fire told – shocked community members when she said she started the fire to braai her sons so she could eat them. Police said the woman from Grabouw has since been arrested on two counts of murder and is expected to appear in the Grabouw Magistrate’s Court this week.

The most recent Poverty Trends Report of Statistics South Africa confirmed that poverty experienced by black women in South Africa far outweighs that for any other demographic. Half of black Africans lived below the middle poverty line of R945 per person per month in 2022 prices, against a national norm of 41.7 percent – 0.4 percent of whites lived below this line. And 42 percent of women fell below this poverty line compared to 38 percent of men. Despite the social grants, these poverty trends have been worsening over time.

Picture: Bongani Mbatha /African News Agency (ANA) – Children living in dire poverty in Riet River with their mother have been denied access to the school.

The place also contributes to the prevalence of poverty. The Eastern Cape had the highest burden of poverty at 72.9 percent according to the same report. Access to income is a core driver of poverty.

Unemployment in non-metro areas in the Eastern Cape was 50 percent in Q2 2022. Apart from the outcomes of poverty on physical health, the impact on mental health of people is profound. These are factual, known consequences of the national poverty prevalence. These are consequences that society needs to own.

During the Covid-19 lockdown periods, invaluable research was done by an inter-university and interdisciplinary team into Covid-related vulnerabilities across a variety of dimensions. The National Income Dynamics Survey Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS CRAM) research was conducted in five waves. Of particular relevance in this regard was their repeated investigation into the links between poverty and mental health.

The NIDS CRAM Wave Five Synthesis Report found a significant increase of depression amongst adults who lived with children in food-depressed households. “Forty percent of adults living with children in food insecure households show signs of depressed mood in April 2021. This compared to 26 percent amongst those living with children in food secure households”. This 40 percent rose to 51 percent when the cessation of school feeding schemes was taken into account. The data found a statistically significant reduction in depression and anxiety levels for households that received social grants.

The research also showed that women as mothers, caregivers or grannies were more likely to sacrifice their own food needs, ‘shielding’ the children from hunger, than men were.

So, we don’t know the reasons for this young woman’s horrific actions earlier this month. We do however know that the normative framework that our society has built of rules and laws can be totally foreign to the pressing realities of people whose lives are shaped by other dynamics. Mental health is one such dynamic. There is a proven link between poverty and socio-economic hardship and heightened depression for women, especially when they have hungry children that they cannot feed.

We also know according to the data that women’s anxiety levels fell significantly when they received income from social grants.

We must trust that the legal system will reach an appropriate finding in the tragic deaths of the four young children from Engcobo. But for justice to prevail, there needs to be a collective responsibility for a country’s failure protect to so many vulnerable people. There also needs to be appropriate remedies adopted to prevent this from continuing to happen in our names.

Isobel Frye is Director of the Social Policy Initiative

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