Reflections on Women and the Legal System

A few weeks ago, I was reading a handbook given to women who are a part of the program I volunteer for. This program aids women in many aspects whilst leaving or in abusive relationships. One line in particular caught my eyes. It stated, paraphrased, that  when a woman calls the police in a physical domestic abuse case, the police will press charges against the abuser whether the woman wants to or not. The idea is that the police must protect victims who are afraid of the backlash, and therefore would not press charges themselves.

At first, this sounds like a perfectly reasonably response. The woman may want to go back, as women in abusive relationships often do. It’s hard to extricate oneself from the many layers of psychological and emotional manipulation that abused women experience. But seeing as the woman either can’t see that pressing charges and leaving is best for her, or won’t do either, someone must intervene and make the decision that’s best for her… right? I mean, it’s in her own best interests. 

From a feminist perspective, this is completely out of line. Effectively extricating a woman from her abusive relationship would ideally involve empowerment of the woman. Giving a woman agency and the ability to make her own decisions is paramount to her empowerment. So how does this fit with forcing her to press charges? Essentially, it doesn’t . The law in Canada has never been built from a feminist perspective. Examples include not believing a woman’s rape testimony because she is not “impartial” (because of course it’s possible to be objective, not like judges hold previous views that contribute to how they judge people or anything… but that is another issue for another post), or allowing for the use of a woman’s counseling records against her in her rape case in court by the abuser (leading to many counseling organizations not keeping notes at all on their counseling sessions with rape survivors).  But practically, does it make sense to allow a woman a choice in what could potentially be a harmful situation?

Organizations working from a feminist perspective, or at least the one I’m involved in, view women as the expert in their own lives. Although it is important for counselors to work with women to make the best choices for herself, it’s not about taking women by the hand and telling them what’s right. For example, if she calls the police and her partner is charged, the retaliation from this 9-1-1 call could put her (and her children’s) lives at risk.  She would likely be aware of this, given that she will have become familiar with the abuse cycle’s ebbs and flows. Perhaps the woman knows she has to leave, but this just isn’t the time. Maybe she will try to leave, and go back many times before she can successfully leave her abusive partner. But this must be the choice of the woman.

 I do not advocate for allowing children to be exposed to domestic abuse in favour of a woman’s choice. I do not think a woman should be left for dead because she has a principled right to choice. But the most vulnerable time for a woman is while she is leaving her abusive partner. The law is perhaps not the best route to help a woman leave. It’s lack of flexibility, and also, lack of experience with abused women, make it very ineffective in cases of domestic abuse. Most specifically, it does not help with mandatory charging in domestic assault calls. Laws are created within a patriarchal system, with little to no feminist reflection. Therefore, I would question their effectiveness in dealing with crimes that are the product of a patriarchal society.


I’ll leave you with the question at the heart of this blog post: Is women’s agency undermined by the legal system, and is this necessary for their overall well-being?


10 thoughts on “Reflections on Women and the Legal System

  1. In the US, I suspect charges must be pressed due to the number of victims murdered following interactions with law enforcement where the abuser is allowed to remain with the victim. It seems like charges being pressed and the abuser being taken into custody would perhaps provide a window of opportunity for the victim to leave. It wouldn’t seem like enough time if they were released a few hours later. My thoughts on this are more pragmatic rather than ideological. I do agree with you in theory, but on the ground, logistics seem more relevant to preventing further abuse. Not sure what the process entails in Canada. Thought-provoking post. Thanks.

    • I think the problem with that is that no matter when they’re released, they can manipulate their way back into the woman’s life. It is near impossible for women to “escape” their abusers physically, let alone mentally. In fact, although abuse victims are given priority for subsidized housing, if they live at a women’s shelter they are considered “homeless” and not abuse victims, and are given less priority, hence leaving them in a shelter with many other women and children, and essentially at an impasse. Many structural obstacles prevent women from severing bonds with their partners, and often having charges pressed can disrupt or put at risk the woman’s life much more than intended. Also, financially, women can be left with nothing if their partner is jailed. A mother may want her children to have suitable financial resources to eat properly and continue school, etc. All my standpoints in the post are based on law in the province of Ontario, so there are likely a range of laws throughout Canada and the States that vary in their efficacy. Obviously, I don’t have an alternative at the current time. Flexibility in charging would seem like a good option, but police would require much more training on what domestic abuse is which would get costly. In addition, the law just isn’t a flexible institution.

      Thank you so much for your comment! I really appreciate it, it’s nice to hear the opinion of someone more pragmatic than myself. I definitely come from an academic, ideological background on feminist issues!

  2. Indeed. Our current patriarchal society is obsessed with masculine control, especially over women. It produces both villains (abusers etc) and knights in shining armour (we must protect the little woman from the bad men! Step aside, let us save you! And now you will love me, for I have rescued you.) but within this whole rigmarole of hurting women and rescuing women, women’s agency disappears, and we’re nothing more than pawns in their performance of masculinity.

  3. In my own marriage, I was eventually arrested along with my husband. I am grateful as hell that they pressed charges themselves.

    If it were my choice, I would never have dared. He begged me to lie for him; I refused to testify. Thank god, at least, the police held him accountable. I wanted him in jail. I wanted him dead. But he lived with me and my cat and my things and he could reach me where I worked and essentially saying, “Hey – I’m pressing charges and trying to take your life away” would have created a hostile situation in which to leave.

    The court case did a lot to give me a safe time in which to get out. I wholly support the idea that the state presses charges.

    Btw – it is domestic violence awareness month! I just posted a piece of the novel I wrote about my marriage that highlights the cycle and how sometimes you just get too tired to leave…

    • Thank you so much for your reply! I’m genuinely glad you got out. The point of view I’m getting from the comments (though, admittedly, there are only two of them haha) is that women who have experienced being trapped in an abusive relationship are very much in favour of police holding the men accountable. Sounds like it’s working for a lot of people!

      I will be checking out your post! Thanks for sharing with the blogosphere! I had totally forgotten it was domestic violence awareness month, I’ll have to check what initiatives they’ve got going at the shelter. How fitting my first volunteer shift there is starting in October 🙂

      • I do see your point and I appreciate it. I think that, however, there are a lot of steps between liberating an abused woman and empowering her. I remember getting so frusterated when people would even suggest that I call the police. I was like, “Ok, you’re assuming that he hasn’t ripped the phones out of the wall and that he’ll sit there and watch me dial, and then NOT kill me while we wait for the cops to arrive.” You don’t get much privacy when someone is beating you. 😉

        At this stage in my life, I wouldn’t need anyone to press charges for me. Back then, I was brainwashed and scared.

        Good luck with your volunteering!

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