This past Monday (November 25) marked the first day of the international campaign “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence”. Starting the campaign on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and ending it on International Human Rights Day (December 10) is a way to frame the right for women to a life free from violence as a human right. You may hear some question why there is a separate focus on gender-based violence, and specifically violence against women, when perhaps we would do just as well to focus on stopping all violence no matter who it is directed against. But while working towards violence-free communities is a worthwhile and necessary goal, there is a historical basis for focusing specifically on violence against women. That basis is that for generations violence against women wasn’t anything out of the norm. Violence against women, particularly wives and daughters, was such an acceptable behavior that it wasn’t even considered a crime. And even in 2013, we still hear excuses for much domestic and sexual violence in ways that we wouldn’t for other violence. We all can think of at least one or two, if not more, celebrities that have been accused of battering or even killing their female partners, but are still given the space to be celebrated for their accomplishments. Or consider that Jerry Sanduski of Penn State University was finally sent to jail and is widely condemned for molesting young boys, but Roman Polanski admitted to similar behavior with a 13 year old girl, fled the country, and still gets an Oscar and standing ovations. The roots of violence against women lie in women’s traditionally second class status in society. Violence towards women and its acceptance has been used both as a message to women of their lower-class status in society and a punishment to those women who try to step out of their prescribed role/space.
The concept of self-defense is an example of how this attitude can rob women of their right to a life free from violence. Many will argue that self-defense is a human right, but we’ve seen examples over the years that indicate self-defense is only a right for some, and that right also depends on who you are defending yourself against. While women can and do invoke legal self-defense arguments, it sometimes seems there is more scrutiny, both legally and in the court of public opinion, given to whether or not those arguments are justified. In general, men are expected to defend themselves against attacks, with force if they must; in fact, men are questioned when they don’t use physical force to defend themselves. Many times, though, we see cases of women’s actions being questioned because they did use physical force to defend themselves.
The 2010 high-profile case of Melissa Alexander of FL is an example of this different standard. Ms. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison when a jury took 12 minutes to decide her actions were not in self-defense. In this case, no one was killed or even injured as Ms. Alexander fired a shot at the ceiling as a warning rather than directly at her abusive ex with whom she had been fighting; her attempt to stop her abusive ex-husband’s attack, however, was deemed an excessive use of force. The jury was instructed to focus solely on the incident in which the gun was fired, and was not given the opportunity to consider the history of violent physical battery Ms. Alexander had experienced at the hands of her abuser; abuse that had been so bad she once was hospitalized. Contrast Ms. Alexander’s story with that other recent high-profile FL self-defense case, in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of any criminal charges despite shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin to death. The right to self-defense seems to have as much to do with who you are and pre-conceived notions of who is actually a threat to whom, as it does with the actual facts of each case. We either all have a right to self-defense; or the claims to self-defense are nothing more than upholding the status quo of who has a right to expect to live free from violence while the rest of us just hope for the best. A previous report found that women who killed their partners, many times claiming abuse, were sentenced to an average of 15 years in prison, versus the 2 to 6 years an abusive man usually received for killing his female partner.
There is much violence between men that does happen in the moment and without a history of violence between the perpetrator and the victim, making a focus on what was happening at that instant a reasonable consideration for the self-defense claim. But with approximately 1 in 3 women worldwide experiencing domestic or sexual violence, many times at the hands men and sometimes at the hands of the person they claimed they were fighting in self-defense, focusing solely on the incident in question doesn’t tell the whole story, nor does it lead to justice.
In addition to gender, race was also likely a factor in both the Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman cases. Whether it’s racial or gender based violence, merely focusing on the act of violence with no analysis of the history, beliefs and societal attitudes underlying that violence will not lead us to the point where we can effectively stop the violence. This is the reason for the current campaign against gender-based violence. The gendered violence may be violence against women as result of women’s second class status; against transgendered individuals as a way to reinforce rigid gender roles; or against men in an effort to force them to conform to someone else’s masculine ideal. But it is all violence based specifically on gender, and its roots are not the same other forms of violence; therefore, the solutions to it won’t be the same. The fact that all violence is bad in no way erases the need for specific campaigns, including legislation, to eradicate gender-based violence. Without this understanding of its roots, there is will be no substance to the movement to end gender based violence.