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Friday 15 November 2019
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Editorial

Battered women who kill

NEXT MONDAY, the International Human Rights Clinic of the Faculty of Law, University of the West Indies, St Augustine, will address the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington on issues affecting due process and judicial independence in TT. One of the key issues will be battered women who kill and how the legal system has failed them.

Prof Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, dean of the faculty, gave something of a preview of this matter on Monday when she addressed those attending the opening of the law term at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Port of Spain.

“It is a serious issue that people seem to have forgotten, but must be aware of,” she said. “The first step is to bring awareness and, if need be, litigation.”

The dean called for a different way to address these cases in which women who may have acted in self-defence end up being penalised disproportionately due to delays in the system. In some cases, accused women have been languishing behind bars for more than a decade, she noted, when the facts disclose a clear justification of self-defence.

“Women are mothers and are leaving children behind,” she observed. “The whole situation is really quite horrendous. I think there are forgotten women in our prisons. There are about 300 women and most of them are in for murder.”

Some may say, as already a few voices on social media have, those female killers should not get a free pass by crying domestic violence. They have argued women can abuse men for material gain or other reasons and escape the full brunt of the law. But this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what Antoine is referring to. Battered woman syndrome has long been recognised in courts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US. It does not give women a free pass, but rather operates under the defences that determine the ultimate classification of the crime: self-defence, provocation, insanity and diminished responsibility.

There is growing research demonstrating how abused women use force to defend themselves because of a history of abusive and life-threatening behaviour, acting in the genuine belief that there is no way out other than to kill their abuser for self-preservation.

Because there is such a large backlog when it comes to murders, such cases are caught up in the general quagmire. Instead of getting to trial and having these claims ventilated and the evidence of these women weighed and tested in court, they are effectively being punished. Thus, the burden is particularly heavy on them.

The syndrome is not meant to give anyone a free pass, but rather it makes men accountable for abuse and allows the court to impose appropriate justice.

Antoine’s stunning insight is that women are being abused twice: first by men and now the broken system.

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