Living in an abusive relationship is an extraordinary experience. Not only must battered women seek ways of coping in a context in which the person who supposedly loves them most is also the person who harms them the most – but they must also take the blame both for causing such injury to themselves and for failing to stop it.
They may be stigmatized for airing private problems, yet condemned for staying silent.
They are expected to leave at the first sign of abuse, but also to keep their families together and stand by their men.
These paradoxes must also be resolved within a context in which they are often literally helpless – in the sense of being bereft of help – and confronted with the indifference and judgments of others.
These impossibly contradictory circumstances are not well-understood by most people, including Magistrate Samson Dunywa, who recently sentenced Fikiswa Meintjies to nine years' imprisonment for killing her abusive husband.
Part of what damned Ms Meintjies in the magistrate's eyes was that she stayed in the relationship, rather than leaving it.
Magistrate Dunywa is not particularly unusual in taking this attitude; it is one shared by very many people from all walks of life. For many, the fact that women do not leave but 'choose' to stay is interpreted to mean that they are taking no action to stop the violence and are therefore consenting to it, and thus cannot take action to protect themselves from something they have essentially agreed to.
This is fundamentally unfair.
As Judge Satchwell pointed out it in the Engelbrecht decision (which also involved a woman who had killed her abusive partner): "Courts do not normally demand an accounting from nor penalise the victims of crime or abuse as to the steps they have taken to avoid being murdered, raped, robbed, assaulted, stolen from and so on."
Demanding that women leave before they are allowed to defend themselves from their abusive partners essentially holds women responsible for creating the dangerous situation, thus blaming the victim and removing all responsibility from the abuser.
Condemning women for remaining in abusive relationships also misunderstands how limited and constrained so many battered women's choices are.
They stay because they face impoverishment and even destitution if they leave; because they have been told not to deprive their children of a father; because they have been told to persevere and persist; because they hope their partners will change; because they have no alternative accommodation; because their partners are fanatically dedicated to finding them and bringing them back; because they are terrified of their partners (and for good reason. Our study of 941 cases of men killing their intimate female partners in Gauteng found that ending the relationship was the second most common reason why women were murdered); because their families have told them to go back; because their religion makes divorce impossible; because the police and courts cannot protect them from further violence; because their self-belief has been so eroded they believe they're incapable of surviving without their abusive partner – and so the complications multiply.
In 2004, in the landmark decision S v Ferreira, the Supreme Court of Appeal began acknowledging the grim complexities of battered women's choices and grappled with how this context needed to be incorporated into legal decision-making.
Recognising how misunderstood domestic violence is, the judges acknowledged the need for a court to "plac(e) itself as far as it can in the position of the woman concerned, with a fully detailed account of the abusive relationship and the assistance of expert evidence."
When this particular bench did indeed place itself in Ms Ferreira's shoes, they overturned her life sentence and substituted it with a six year suspended sentence.
Courts in Gauteng have certainly taken note of this decision, using it as a basis to hand down just and appropriate sentences to Annemarie Engelbrecht and Zelanga Mandulo.
Two things happen when we repeatedly make the question of why women stay the focus of our judgement.
First, we are stopped from asking the more important question why abusive men will not stop their violent behaviour and second, we punish women not only for killing their abusive partners, but for remaining in the relationship – a circumstance for which they are not on trial.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In Daily Dispatch, 25 August 2005.
© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation