“Unacceptable failure”

When Darian Hailey Henderson-Bellman was killed by her boyfriend last week, she became one more of altogether too many women who are failed by the systems – police, criminal law, family law – that are supposed to protect all of us from harm.

Darian, like countless other women, did all the “right” things when her partner assaulted and threatened her: she called the police. The police, at least some of the time, did what the police are supposed to do: laid charges against the man who was abusing her. The criminal court did some of what it is supposed to do: imposed bail conditions, including a requirement that he stay away from her.

And yet, as Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duaraiappah said:

“In this incident, the sadness I feel for the victim and her family is mixed with frustration for a complete failure of our justice system to protect her. . . . This unacceptable failure is becoming entirely too familiar in our communities. Collectively, we need to do better.”

Same old, same old

Duaraiappah’s outspoken comments are notable mostly because they are rare: seldom do those inside policing and legal systems speak out to criticize repeated systemic failures to respond appropriately to gender-based violence.

But, his remarks don’t tell us anything we don’t already know and don’t offer solutions. And, while he seems to be pointing a finger at what he calls the justice system, there is plenty of blame to be levelled at the police as well.

Violence against women activists have long identified key problems with the criminal response to gender-based violence. Police response is often inadequate; women are not always believed or are blamed for the violence committed against them; mandatory charging directives, intended to take the pressure off women to ask the police to charge their abuser, result in women being charged along with or instead of the primary aggressor; bail conditions are inadequate and poorly enforced; charges are dropped or reduced; acquittals are common, and sentences, too often, do not reflect the seriousness of what has happened.

For Indigenous women, women of colour and other women from marginalized communities, the systemic failures are considerably greater.

What’s the point?

Making a bad situation worse, violence against women has increased during the pandemic, for reasons I have written about earlier. In Darian’s case, she had lost her job because of the pandemic, which may have increased her vulnerability to her partner.

That partner had “regularly” breached earlier conditions of release (after being charged for acts of domestic violence against Darian, he had breached his bail conditions four times and been arrested for doing so, only to be released again). Nonetheless, when he was arrested once more, this time on firearms related offences, he was released after just six days with a GPS monitoring system in place; quite possibly because there is pressure on the criminal system not to hold people in jail due to the pandemic.

Really? A man who has been charged because of violence against his partner, who has breached bail conditions four times and who has firearms is considered appropriate to release from custody?

Given this scenario, why would any woman bother to call the police when her partner abuses her?

It’s more than time for a change

When I sat down to write this a couple of days ago, I stared at my computer without being able to think of anything to say.

On one hand, I was encouraged by the fact that the chief of one of Canada’s largest police forces had spoken out but, mostly, I was overwhelmed by the need to keep writing about this. As I texted my daughter:

“Trying to write a blog about another murdered woman, but . . . .”

I desperately want to think we may be at a turning point.

The pandemic has put intimate partner violence at the front of many people’s minds in a way it has not been before.

Ontario is poised to conduct an inquest into the 2015 murders of Carol Culleton, Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk in Renfrew County, that has the potential to result in calls for important systemic change in how the criminal system responds to domestic violence.

Thanks to the courage of family members and the advocacy of women’s equality advocates and some MPs, there will be a public inquiry rather than a review into Gabriel Wortman’s killing of 22 people in Nova Scotia earlier this year. While this will take more time, an inquiry has the power to summon witnesses and compel them to produce evidence, and the proceedings will be public, unlike with a review. The inquiry will offer the first opportunity in this country to explore the relationship between domestic violence and mass shootings.

Making the personal political

Diana E.H, Russell, who died on July 28th, spent her life making the personal political. She “devoted her life to the remediation of crimes against women,” beginning her activism as a member of ARM (African Resistance Movement) in her home country of South Africa. She eventually located herself in the United States and, in the mid-1970s, organized the first International Tribunal on Crimes against Women. More than 2,000 women from around the world came to Brussels for the event, where they heard opening speaker Simone de Beauvoir say that the Tribunal was “the beginning of the radical decolonization of women.”

In 1976, Russell, defined femicide – not a well-known term at the time – as “the killing of females by males because they are female.” She believed that gender-neutral terms like murder did not identify the misogyny that drives crimes against women.

Even as those who knew and loved Darian Hailey Henderson-Bellman mourn her death, we all must understand her killing as an act of femicide and hold accountable the systems that enable gender-based violence to continue. Only then will that violence come to an end.

2 thoughts on ““Unacceptable failure”

  1. Pamela,
    Thank you so much for your wonderful work. As a women of color in and advocate in a sexual assault movement. You give me passion and strength to keep on going.
    Thank you

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