Tuesday, February 21, 2012

how to talk to a survivor of domestic abuse

a song based on a beautiful poem written by a woman in support of her friend in an abusive relationship. After that woman was killed by her boyfriend, the writer found the courage to leave her own destructive relationship. The poem was then turned into a song.

As you know, I work in the Gender Research & Advocacy Project of my organisation, and one of the things that I have been working on is a report on the relatively new Combating of Domestic Violence Act. Our study looks at what works and what doesn't under the law in terms of providing victims with protection. It's been interesting stuff, but I've been mainly working with statistics, files, reports - paper, rather than people.

While living in Namibia I have met several women who are survivors of abusive relationships. Like survivors of sexual violence, you might know and see these women regularly, but have no idea about their sad secrets because they still manage to go about leading relatively normal lives, at least on the outside. Some of them are still in these destructive relationships.

Domestic violence is a major problem in countries all around the world, and Namibia is no exception. Namibians in particular have to struggle with enormous inequalities of wealth, shifting cultural identities, and changing ideas about gender relations. Laws may reflect perfect equality between genders, but that doesn't necessarily always translate to reality.

Despite the fact that I've been working in human rights for a while and have been a strong advocate of women's issues, I have actually had very little training in dealing with survivors of domestic abuse personally. Recently, after one of the women I knew informed me that she was going to return to her abusive ex-partner, I sought out the advice of Canadian anti-violence activist Julie Lalonde, one of the founders of the Coalition for a Carleton Sexual Assault Centre. She gave me some very useful insight which she has given me permission to reproduce here.

Here's what Julie writes:

"Hi Gloria,

"Situations like this are always icky. The person outside the situation sees it so very differently and so it's easy to sit on the sidelines and say 'Are you f---ing kidding me?!' The reality is so much different.

"You can sit down with her and explain how you think that what's really best for her kids is to grow up in a home without violence. Statistically, male children are more likely to become abusers themselves if they witness violence. However, it's important to state that you understand why she thinks this is her only option because raising children on your own is tough stuff.

"I wouldn't engage in a conversation with her at all unless you have alternatives to provide. And if you don't have alternatives, then she is unfortunately making the best decision for herself in that moment. Do you know of any financial assistance she can get? Shelter system? VAW centre? Just showing up and saying 'I think this is a ridiculous decision' and not having a back up plan for her just states what she already knows: I don't want to do this but it's all I've got.

"The other important element is ensuring that she knows that you may not support her decision but you support her and will do whatever you can to be there for her. Otherwise, she will feel that going back to him means that she is surrendering to more abuse, she is deserving of it and that she is asking for isolation.

"People in abusive situations feel hopeless enough already but if they feel like people having given up on them, then they are more likely to stick to the abuse because they feel like they have no other options.

"Take care of yourself.

- Julie."

I have written about gender-based violence before. In my opinion, everyone should learn how to talk to a survivor of domestic abuse. One might think it's common sense, but the reality is, it's not. There are all sorts of aspects of domestic abuse that we might never think about, so it's important to educate ourselves so we don't end up alienating the very women that we are trying to help.

(you can stop reading here if you get bored easily by nerdy lawyers talking)

Why do we need to educate ourselves about survivors of domestic abuse? Because it's not common sense.

In law school, I wrote a paper on the battered woman syndrome for my Advanced Criminal Law class. I'm going to post my section summarizing the Lavellee case, because I think that case is a great example of how people think they understand domestic abuse victims and therefore have the right to judge them for not leaving or for returning, when in reality, there is a lot we don't understand at all.

Here's what young law student Gloria wrote:

In the landmark case R. v. Lavallee, [1990] 1 S.C.R. 852, the accused Lavallee had a long history of an abusive relationship with the deceased, whom she lived with. On the night of his death, the deceased had assaulted the accused and then informed her that he was going to kill her after everyone left the house. She shot him in the back of the head as he left the room. Although the accused didn’t testify at trial, a psychiatrist did testify with a psychiatric assessment of the accused, describing the situation of battered women, particularly noting that she had been terrorized by the deceased “to the point of feeling trapped, vulnerable, worthless and unable to escape the relationship despite the violence” and that in his opinion, her shooting of the deceased “was a final desperate act by a woman who sincerely believed that she would be killed that night.”

The Crown brought an application to have the psychiatrist’s evidence withdrawn, claiming that the jury “was perfectly capable of deciding the issue on the admissible evidence and that expert evidence was therefore ‘unnecessary and superfluous.’” The trial judge rejected this application, and the jury acquitted the accused. The Court of Appeal overturned this, and the matter was then brought before the Supreme Court of Canada.

It is important to contextualize these events in order to understand why expert evidence on battered women was brought forward in the first place. In this situation, the accused was claiming self defence, but it was quite apparent that the concept of self defence as it was then was not suited to the situation of battered women. Gillespie has adeptly pointed out that the common law on self-defense was written not by legislature, but by judges, virtually all of them male, in cases predominately involving male defendants (Cynthia K. Gillespie, “Justifiable Homicide: Battered Women, Self-Defense, and the Law” (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), at 182). The result has been a law that permits men to exercise their right to defend themselves in the situations in which men have customarily felt the need to do so, but it does not permit women to exercise their right to self-defense in the situations in which they believe they must do so.

Schuller and Rzepa note that battered women, in attempting to use the defense of self-defense, often face difficulties stemmed in the misconception that people have regarding battered women in their context as well as “the male gendered norm of ‘reasonableness’ inherent in the laws of self defense.” (Regina A Schuller and Sara Rzepa. “Expert Testimony Pertaining to Battered Woman Syndrome: Its Impact on Jurors’ Decisions.” (2002) 26 L. and Human Behavior 655 at 656). Certainly female-perpetrated homicides are substantially different from male-perpetrated homicides, since most cases of the former involve the male partner as the victim. However, since the majority of homicides are committed by males, the overall patterns tend to mask dimensions that are specific to women.

To illustrate, the relevant statutory provision for self-defense can be found in s.34(2) of the Criminal Code, which contains a temporal requirement that the apprehension of death or grievous bodily harm be imminent. This is difficult to translate into the battered woman context. The “imminent threat” temporal requirement may make sense in the context of a “one-time bar-room brawl between two men of equal size and strength”, as explained by Justice Wilson in Lavallee, because it would suggest a motive of revenge rather than self-defence.

However, in Lavallee, the deceased had been walking away, and was not in the process of attacking her; there did not appear to be an imminent threat. But the Court itself noted that it would be unreasonable to expect the accused to wait until the deceased came back to assault her, and pointed out that the cyclical nature of the abused allowed a certain predictability of the onset of violence in a way that is absent in a one-time fight between two strangers.

Furthermore, the elements of self defense contained an objective standard of reasonableness on the apprehension of death and the need to repel the assault with deadly force. But who is the hypothetical reasonable ordinary man in this case? Justice Wilson noted that men typically do not find themselves in this situation, and therefore the definition of what is reasonable “must be adapted to circumstances which are, by and large, foreign to the world inhabited by the hypothetical ‘reasonable man’.”

Also problematic with the battered woman situation is the prevalence of misconceptions about battered women. Often people will ask why a woman would put up with this situation instead of leaving. Is it because she was not actually beaten as badly as she claimed or because she enjoys it in some masochistic way?

Ultimately, Justice Wilson in writing for the Supreme Court rejected the Crown’s submission that the expert evidence on battered women was unnecessary because judges and juries are already knowledgeable about human nature. Instead, the Supreme Court recognized that the average person may not understand the battered woman syndrome, and why women would remain in such relationships. As a result, trained professionals may be needed to understand this, and expert evidence may help dispel the prevailing myths about domestic violence. Essentially, expert evidence on battered women was needed in order to allow the situation of battered women to better “fit” with the gendered common law of self-defence.