International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Taking Liberties: Why do we jail women who choose to live?

By Matthew Behrens, November 25, 2013

Photo: banlon1964/flickr

Trigger alert, this story contains disturbing reports of assault.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a comprehensive study that found more than a third of all women worldwide — 35.6 per cent — will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The great majority of this violence is committed by intimate male partners in acts that can only be described as domestic or home-grown terrorism. It’s the latest in an endless stream of similar reports on this form of domestic terror, but Canada and other governments refuse to both recognize the extent of the crisis and respond accordingly.

When the report was released, WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan declared, “These findings send a powerful message that violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions. We also see that the world’s health systems can and must do more for women who experience violence.” The report found that of the women who experience direct attacks, 42 per cent require some form of hospitalization.

In confirming what more than half of the population already knows is a daily reality, the WHO report did not exactly produce a firestorm of response and calls for urgent action from government leaders. Instead, their “war on terrorism” focuses on racial and religious profiling, the jailing of innocents, the closing of borders to refugees, extra-judicial assassination by Canadian-made drones, and continuation of indefinite detention and rendition-to-torture programs. There are no massive interventions that address the greatest purveyors of fear and violence in Canada and around the world: the men in women’s lives.

As of April 2010, there were an astounding 593 women’s shelters in Canada. Earlier this month, the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses released its annual Femicide report, a grim reminder of women’s lives snuffed out by men in Ontario during 2013. And despite a United Nations call for Canada to develop a comprehensive national review to end violence against aboriginal women, Canada’s envoy to the UN in Geneva rejected the idea. Similarly, in 2010, Canada adopted a National Action Plan for the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security which included supporting the rights of girls and women abroad, but it is unclear if anything has been done because it has failed to deliver on its promise of annual and midterm reports.

Perhaps that is due in part to the fact that Canada’s rhetoric about supporting women’s rights (a mainstay of its justification for the occupation of Afghanistan) rings hollow. In Afghanistan, Canada’s presence does not appear to have moved things forward for women. Indeed, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported last December that women who flee rapists and abusive husbands are regularly jailed by the hundreds for alleged “moral crimes.” Among those jailed are those who have defended themselves against and, in the process, wounded or killed rapists.

Lest one conclude that Afghanistan is just “behind the times,” it is worth noting that here in North America, women who choose to live by defending themselves are similarly jailed in alarming numbers. In the U.S., the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, found: “The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced, on average, to 15 years.

The case of Marissa Alexander

Marissa Alexander, an African-American mother of three, did not kill her abusive ex-partner when he physically attacked her and threatened her with death only nine days after she gave birth. She fired a warning shot into the ceiling to scare him off, and as a result is serving 20 years of hard time in Florida. During her trial — one in which the judge rejected her “stand your ground” defence, the same rationale used by the state of Florida for failing to arrest the man who murdered Trayvon Martin — Alexander recounted numerous incidents of severe physical abuse including choking, attempted strangulation, and other incidents that required hospitalization. She lost the ability to swallow as a result of her injuries and lost 10 pounds. She subsequently obtained a domestic violence injunction against her ex. In 2010, when she was five months pregnant, she was “head-butted” twice, her clothes torn, and she was also thrown to the ground. During all these episodes — and at other times, as well — he threatened to kill her. At trial, numerous witnesses testified about seeing Alexander’s injuries, while in-laws of her abusive husband testified about his reputation for violence. One witness confirmed that Marissa Alexander met the criteria for “battered person’s syndrome.”

On top of this, her abusive husband admitted in a sworn affidavit, “The way I was with women… they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them. … I honestly think [Marissa] just didn’t want me to put my hands on her anymore, so she did what she feel like she have to do to make sure she wouldn’t get hurt, you know. … The gun was never actually pointed at me.

While an appeals court recently rejected her contention that she should have been granted immunity from prosecution under “stand your ground” (under which an individual can use deadly force if “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm”, it did find, in granting her a new trial, that the jury was given the wrong instructions. The original judge essentially placed the burden of proof on Marissa Alexander when it came to showing that she was about to be attacked and needed to act in self-defence. The appeals court confirmed that Alexander “was charged with aggravated assault but — under any possible review of the evidence — inflicted no injury.”

While a new trial was a breakthrough, Alexander’s supporters called on the state to drop the charges and let her go free. Unfortunately, the state of Florida is pursuing the trial option, and a hearing to determine whether Marissa will be freed on bond and returned to her children (she has not seen her youngest child in three years) took place earlier this month, with a decision expected by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the man who continually assaulted her and threatened to take her life walks free.

I have had the privilege of corresponding with Alexander while she has been in jail. She is a compassionate and insightful person who recognized immediately upon going behind bars how many women were also in her shoes: they too were in jail because they chose to live, and the judicial system simply could not understand the terror that constituted their daily lives.

The case of Ashley White

Closer to home is the case of Ottawa’s Ashley White, 25, who earlier this year was found guilty of aggravated assault (and acquitted of attempted murder) for stabbing her abusive former boyfriend. She faces a possible maximum of 14 years behind bars for defending herself. According to press reports on her trial, White’s former boyfriend, Patrick Halcro, aged 36, a veteran of the Afghanistan occupation who suffers PTSD, often went into fits of rage and jealousy. He admitted in court to punching her and smashing her head into a doorframe. As QMI News reported, he claimed, “I used proportional force. I felt threatened.”

White suffered a shattered nose and cheekbone, requiring facial reconstruction surgery, in addition to post-concussion syndrome and a diagnosis of PTSD. The Ottawa Sun reported, “Medical evidence suggested her head trauma and the shock of seeing her face bathed in blood could have placed her in a state where she wouldn’t have known what she was doing when she stabbed Halcro. As for Halcro, the knife blade nicked his lung but a trauma surgeon said the injury was relatively minor.

At one point in the trial, White’s lawyer noted that after pummeling her, Mr. Halcro stepped over her bloodied body to retrieve his luggage. “Your luggage was more important to you than checking on Ashley,” the lawyer said. According to QMI News, “He said he didn’t realize the extent to which he’d hurt her until he got his bag and noticed a lot of blood where White had collapsed.”

The Ottawa Sun reported that White “remembers being pummeled on the floor as he loomed over her until she could no longer see and felt like she was going to die. He said: ‘I am trained to kill you and I will kill you’ or something like that, White said.”

Four years after his horrific beating, White remains out on restrictive bail, while her ex was never charged. A community of friends has come together to try and assist her with her massive legal bills, both for the trial and an expected appeal. That group has formed a Facebook page, on which they write: “We strongly believe [Ashley] was wrongly convicted of aggravated assault for stabbing her abusive ex-military boyfriend. After being beaten so badly she would later require reconstructive surgery and in a state of near unconsciousness, Ashley fended off the attack with a kitchen knife. It has never been explained why he was never charged and why the lead detective never testified in court, yet Ashley’s life is changed forever. Ashley’s friends and supporters are planning a fund-raising event to help her cover the $90,000 accumulated costs to date and $50,000+ she is facing in future legal fees.” To join that Facebook page, where you can leave messages of support and donate to her costs, visit here.

In the meantime, Marissa Alexander’s supporters ask that you contact this email address and visit this Facebook page and website.

As Canada marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, it is a reminder of how much work remains to be done, not simply on symbolic days, but every day as the war against women grinds mercilessly on.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.

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