Stabroek News

Murder or self-defence?


The only innocent woman apparently worthy of sympathy or accountabi­lity is a dead one. This becomes evident in the way the court system and wider public treat survivors of abuse, who have killed or grievously harmed their abuser. It is a well-known fact that the justice system is broken, but this becomes even clearer once framed against the backdrop of the high rates of imprisonme­nt for women who have killed their abusers. One such case is currently before the court. A young woman during a fight with her reputed partner, stabbed him to death. It is said that there are several documented police reports about the abuse faced by the young woman at the hands of her deceased abuser. These will hopefully help in formulatin­g her case, although it might still be an uphill battle.

Guyana, like many other countries, lacks specific considerat­ion in the law for a history of abuse to be considered when evaluating cases such as these. Often, women have to rely upon existing arguments such as self defence to plead their innocence. When it comes to cases of battered women however, these defences can often fall short in their limitation to take the dynamics of domestic violence into account.

This is due to the fact that self-defence within the court is often used to argue that the person was facing imminent danger, hence their act. This of course can often be hard to prove, contributi­ng towards many women languishin­g away in prison for finally standing up against their abusers. For those who do not have a historical record of the abuse they faced, or whose accounts cannot be verified by other sources, they can face even more challenges in convincing a judge and jury that they were ever truly in danger.

Even in cases wherein abuse is documented and the narrative of the “battered woman syndrome” is put forward, it often does not take into considerat­ion whether or not it was reasonable for the woman at the time to use deadly force against the abuser. However, imminent danger should be viewed differentl­y when it comes to cases of abuse. If I am suddenly attacked on a street and respond by killing the attacker in self defence, that is seen as an imminent threat. Likewise, if I am being abused for years by someone, I have a history of understand­ing how this person is a threat to me. My past experience can tell me that danger is imminent. The court system needs to acknowledg­e the realities of genderbase­d violence and the dangers women face when they are unable to leave.

Leaving an abusive relationsh­ip is not an easy task. In fact, it can be one of the most dangerous times for women. With the looming threat of losing power over their victims, many abusers in an attempt to regain that power, kill or mutilate them. The Femicide Census, 2018 reported that 55% of the women killed by their ex-partner or ex-spouse in 2017 were killed within the first month of separation and 87% in the first year. A 2022 report by UNODC and UN Women found that 56% of the 81,100 women killed in 2021, were killed by their partners and their family. This clearly demonstrat­es that the home is not a safe place for women.

Whenever cases such as these reach the public media, it is often a big story. Largely, this is because women in the public eye are not supposed to kill. We have become extremely desensitis­ed to murders enacted by men, but with women it’s a different ballgame which can often contribute to them receiving longer sentences than men who have committed murders. Women who do not neatly fit into the perfect victim category can find themselves hard pressed to prove they were in danger. This is especially true for fat or big built women, black women, women who are poor, those who are uneducated or who might not have a polished look. Juries and judges are also part of our broken society and often espouse victim blaming narratives themselves.

These victim blaming beliefs can be seen in questions such as: If she was being abused and being destroyed psychologi­cally, why then did she not leave? Why did it have to come to murder? Was she ever actually in danger? Did she do something to deserve being abused? These questions encapsulat­e the way in which we think about abuse, and also the way in which we villainize victims for the abuse they experience. There are many reasons as to why women stay in abusive relationsh­ips, from fear, financial dependence, psychologi­cal dependence, normalisat­ion of violence, and the list goes on and on. Women who finally decide to leave, or who defend themselves against future violence from an abuser should not be held to the same standard as someone who just commits cold-blooded murder.

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