Being Heard on interpersonal violence

Whenever a woman makes claims about violence perpetrated against her, especially when it happens in the context of an intimate relationship, there is an instinct among feminists to believe her without question. There is certain nobility in this political stand and adopting it as a matter of principle. Plenty of liberals prefer to make this position a function of political preference, a trend that ought to be resisted. Believing women when they make these allegations sends a message to other women out there that they too will be believed if they make similar allegations.

There are also valid concerns about the right to due process. If a person is accused of a crime, they ought to be able to access their basic rights without being accused of engaging in some sort of a technical avoidance mechanism. Due process rights are one of the few forms of protection against the crushing weight of the state coming down on an individual. The power of the state has been used historically in all sorts of ways to lock up and oppress minorities, as well as women. When we suggest that one person ought to be denied due process rights, we put all our rights at risk. Due process rights ought to be as much a matter of principle as the call to believe women.

For example, the rape allegations made against Bill Shorten were arguably handled in the best way possible within the system that we have. That does not mean that the woman who made the allegations was pleased with the outcome; she was not. But it is hard to see what could happen further without seriously breaching basics of the criminal justice process. Not all crimes will have sufficient evidence to be prosecuted, not all crimes that are prosecuted will be proven beyond reasonable doubt. We have decided that this is the price we pay for a society that is committed to fairness.

Or in the alternative, consider the experience of the five very young men at the centre of the Central Park Jogger case. In the 1989 case, feminist activists got on board with prosecuting the boys (they were between 14 and 16 years old) accused of the vicious rape of an investment banker. Again, this political move on the part of feminists is partly understandable, given how poorly police deal with allegations of sexual assault. But there is also something unforgivable about it. There is a moment in the recent documentary about the case where white women are protesting outside the court. These women are arguing they have the right to jog safely, uncomfortably next to protesters from the African American community who were concerned about police racism. For someone interested in solidarity with the oppressed – along both race and gender lines – my heart sank watching this scene. The five were eventually exonerated, but only after serving many years in prison.

Navigating the intersection of ‘believe all women’ and ‘respect due process’ is perhaps more tricky than it first seems, raising conundrums with no easy answers. It is fair enough that feminists critique a legal system that regularly fails women, but we also have to think carefully about where this can lead, to avoid what Carol Smart calls the ‘siren call of law … and acknowledge the power of feminism to construct an alternative reality to the version which is manifested in legal discourse.’

So it is certainly fair that someone like Amber Heard should be believed about allegations of violence in the hope that those in similar positions feel empowered to do the same. But Heard is a wealthy, well-connected woman; how similar are these positions likely to be? It is well and good on one level to support survivors of violence by bringing their experience into the mainstream using celebrity culture, but there is a need to go beyond this. We need to do the hard work of thinking bigger and more broadly about how to address the problems that everyday women face. Or in other words, to take up Smart’s suggestion, what does our alternative reality look like?

There are overwhelmingly economic reasons why women stay in abusive relationships. Some of the biggest barriers to women living in safety include the absence of proper housing and childcare. It is critical that the campaign to end violence against women prioritise increases in public and emergency housing, equal pay for women, investing more in childcare and properly funding to the woefully under-resourced legal aid system.

There are other policy priorities, but these ones tend to be the most expensive and therefore politically challenging. As such, it still remains the case that women are not getting what they need. The Liberals say that they are investing $100 million in their policy package, rendered somewhat disingenuous by the fact that they slashed money to legal services in the last budget, only to restore some of it in this package. Bill Shorten has promised an interim investment of $70 million over three years. His package looks better when paired with extra funding for legal services. The obvious point, however, is that none of these proposals come near to what is actually required in terms of dosh: the Victorian Government alone has pledged over half a billion dollars over two years. The Greens do the best on paper, with a stated commitment to an extra $200 million annually for legal services, as well as $136 million over four years on systems and services. They also explicitly talk about housing and the need to invest in it, planning to spend $100 million over two years. This certainly looks good, but the extent to which this will actually happen, given the Greens’ status in parliament, is another matter altogether.

It should go without saying that Heard and countless other women ought to have their harm acknowledged. But we also need to think about these issues beyond their cultural status, and start advocating for economic redistribution and social empowerment for women experiencing interpersonal violence. The agenda is there, the election is around the corner. Constructing our alternative reality ought be the focus of all feminists committed to ending violence against women.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Lizzie O’Shea is a human rights lawyer. She is currently writing a book on the politics of technology.

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