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?