BY TARA ROMANO, President, NCWU This past Monday (November 25th) 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 10th) is a way to frame nonviolence as a human right. Some people will question the campaign’s focus on gender-based violence, and more specifically violence against women; they support a wide focus on stopping all violence. 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. For generations, violence against women, particularly wives and daughters, was such an acceptable behavior that it wasn’t even considered a crime.
In 2013, we still hear excuses for domestic and sexual violence when we don’t hear excuses for other forms of 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. For example, Jerry Sanduski of Penn State University, condemned for molesting young boys, went to jail. Meanwhile, Roman Polanski, who admitted to similar behavior with a 13 year old girl, 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 and 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. While women can and do invoke legal self-defense arguments, they seem subject to more scrutiny, both legally and in the court of public opinion. In general, men are expected to defend themselves against attacks; in fact, men are questioned when they don’t use physical force to defend themselves. Many times, though, we see women’s’ actions being questioned because they did use physical force to defend themselves.
The 2010 high-profile case of Melissa Alexander exemplifies this double 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 when Ms. Alexander fired a shot at the ceiling as a warning to 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 another high-profile self-defense case: George Zimmerman was acquitted of any criminal charges despite shooting and killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. 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, while men who killed their female partners typically receive only 2 to 6 years in prison.
Of course, violence between men sometimes happens 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 likely played a role in both the Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman cases. But 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 these all constitute violence based specifically on gender, and its roots are not the same other forms of violence. 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.