lawyergirl

“So You want to be An International Lawyer… Domestic Violence Should Not be A Spectator Sport”

One sad truth remains haunting across many exciting travels. Women are physically hurt by men in their households in every nation. No nation is immune to the ancient plague of domestic violence, and, disproportionately greater numbers of the victims are women harmed by men. Few accidents are more capable of disabling the worklife balance of working women, lawyers, domestic or traveling abroad compared to the domestic violence phenomenon. Our beloved First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had six children, was married to a President famous for his wheelchair and his mistresses. Mrs Roosevelt helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of World War II. In Geneva, an exhibit near the United Nations gates quotes her belief that applying human rights values begins “in the small places”.

By that reference many commenters believe she was speaking of protecting women and children against violence at home. The reference to small places is viewed as a call for internalizing human rights values and then implementing those protections of the right to life and respect for each other in daily life, among the people with whom one lives and works anywhere in the world.

A common myth across nations and professions is that domestic violence is rooted in fighting about limited household money; a bi-product of poverty, which hits particularly hard women who have no economic opportunities and little or no education. Two generations after Mrs. Roosevelt, an outstanding quality of life in the USA and Europe has enabled more women to enjoy higher education. More women are working as professionals with legal education, and more mechanisms exist for preventing violence in the home. So theoretically, as the poverty and ignorance that fester domestic violence are reduced, the problem should be slowly eradicated like any global malady targeted by intnerational progamming: smallpox, malaria or polio. Paradoxically, a major European survey released in March 2014 revealed:

One in three women have reported some form of physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15, in a major survey published on the extent of violence against women across the European Union (EU).

The report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), as reported in The Guardian by Ami Sedghi Wednesday 5 March 2014 17.31 GMT Violence against women: an EU-wide survey, is based on 42,000 in-person interviews with a randomly selected sample of women across the 28 EU member states.

So the international legal puzzle is still missing good data about a central question

If domestic violence has root causes in ignorance and poverty, how can it be that there is documented increase in violence against educated professional working women in the wealthy countries of Europe?

There are several answers. First: the surest way to get hit is by standing up for your rights when someone steals your money or tries to boss you around in your own home and you tell them that they have no right to do so and you then state that you intend to go to the police or take other action.

Smart women know their rights and defend those rights and get hurt defending themselves.

But the deeper answer is actually cultural: so called civil society tolerates domestic violence as if it were a spectator sport. The most common responses to a woman victim of violence are victim-blaming:
So why do you stay with him anyway?

Why do you let him do that?

I dont believe it happened

And...

What do you expect me to do about it?

It is at that moment that domestic violence becomes a spectator sport, something a good friend will hear about a few times or for a few hours and then urge one to leave the violent partner.

For women with children this is beyond problematic: how to explain leaving to the children, knowing that the partner will invent an equally accusatory version of the events, especially if things just before departurue happen fast, probably when no witnesses are around, and the objective line between right and wrong is blurry. If taking the children where to go, for how long, days weeks or years? And most of all, if going to the authorities involves use of criminal process, how will the family survive without that partner's income, other forms of emotional support and yes, love?

Friends just nod their head insisting it is time to leave like fans cheering in a crowd, but little useful change comes and nothing helpful is done.

In Geneva Switzerland, there is an attempt at another approach that makes the statement that domestic violence is unacceptable but also tries to keep the family together. The program is called

OSER EN PARLER.

DARE TO TALK ABOUT IT

I had a boyfirend in Geneva who was magical but he had one small problem. He liked to hit people whenever he did not get his way. He could read and write in five languages using three different alphabets, he was an amazing chemist with patents in USA and he sang so beautifully that his little surrounding community treated him like a rock star. He was not handsome but his effervescent passion was charismatic. When his children disobeyed he hit them, and he hit his daughter far more often than his son. The first time I intervened he was hitting his daughter because she refused to wash the dishes after he had invited a dozen guests to the dinnertable, and I stopped him from hitting her. One of the guests drove me home expressly to explain that my boyfirend loves his children very much and if I did not understand that and wanted to challenge his method of parenting I should leave. There was no doubt he loves his children even the children really believe the depth of his love to this day. The second time I intervened, I had given his daughter my used laptop because she had none and was failing all her courses. Indeed she did fail all her courses that year and was obliged to do over the entire year. He grabbed the laptop away from her late one night complaining that ever since she had it she did not speak to him and wasted time and expensive electricity on facebook. And he blamed me too claiming that if I was such a great lawyer why didn't I need my laptop instead of giving it away. The scene was not pretty. The third time his daughter turned on me, saying this is not your family. If you cant stay out of this fight that is not your business anyway then you should leave.

That third time I did not sleep; daylight found me in the offices of social services asking for help about the violence in the household. To my shock, the director who knew the family well looked at her staffer and said, “That is exactly what his wife said when she came here. But we didn't believe her”.

As if these tales that emerged from women were a sort of spectacle, free theatre for the listeners without paying for the show. Maybe there are women who fabricate or exaggerate, but maybe someone could do more than simply telling them if you don't like it leave and if necessary call the police.

I did not know much Genevoise law, but I knew that what I had seen, if proven in a court of law, could have criminal penalties that would destroy the family because the father, in jail, would no longer work and the children would not have his emotional support in any of their other activities. I had disquiet about dismantling an otherwise loving family: a father who was there for everything his children wanted and no one disputed for a nanosecond that he loves them more than anything else in his world. Too many fathers refuse responsibility, neglect their children for days months or years, not visiting and staying with lovers without ever introducing their children or caring about the children's daily needs. Those men are quick to claim that anything wrong with the child is the fault of their mom. Here was a father struggling with his responsibility, claiming that he needed to hit them because he loves them so much and this was his tool to make them understand right from wrong and behave with respect. In an odd way, his candor that it was too difficult to manage his responsibilities simply with reason and without violence, combined with his unflinching desire to be there for his children, was something to admire not destroy. He never shirked responsibility. But he was overwhelmed and the enourmity of the task made him cruel, not correct but clearly a force driven by his love. If only he could be tamed...

In this case it mattered very much that I am a lawyer, infused with legal principles across many lands. Without ever reading a specific statute about Geneva domestic violence law, I was sure some law had been broken. I feared for safety but I feared too that if I called the police it would just make a bigger mess and not solve anything. And I knew good lawyering is as much about refraining from using a statute, sometimes, just as much as invoking it. It wasn't merely a huge burden of proof: I had no rights as a foreigner and surely his children would rather protect him than enforce the law.

DARE TO TALK ABOUT IT

And the next step is what seems to be unique to Geneva.

Because I have not found it elsewhere although I am sure this solution meets a transnational women's need, I describe here the municipality-funded program that helped this man to understand he needed to change. A program that brought him to a place where he could rethink the use of violence at home as his tool of choice for dealing with problems.

Social services made an appointment and referred me to a place that listened to my complaints. It was in the heart of the city with bus access from several routes, a small bright colored plastic playground for little children inside the double set of locked doors. When I spoke, the staff took notes attentively and served me hot tea with honey. It was a clean and quiet place that inspired calm.

When the staff asked what I wanted them to do, it was not some empty spectator cheering for the demise of a relationship, they wanted him to come to talk about his feelings and wanted my suggestions about how to appeal to him to go there. Because he was their citizen and his children were their city's future, they wanted to effectively reach out to change the situation using local Geneva law. Their staff keenly understood too that my leaving provieed only short term safety for me, but no long-term security to the greater society. As happened to me, he would find a new girlfriend and his cycle of violence would start again. Maybe one of their daughters or maybe one of them could be his very next victim. Leaving merely rewarded his bad behavior so that he could be stronger to start all over again, and taught his children, especially his son, that domestic violence was a successful tool for managing domestic conflict. They wanted the entire pattern to change.

Although I did eventually leave that relationship, it is equally true that we have a friendship of sorts now that I would not have imagined, with respect for each other. The staff for Geneva municipality made contact with his daughter and got her into weight loss and fitness classes, and helped her in the decision whether to re-do her academic year. Fortunately she repeated the academic year, because she is very bright. She went on to business school at the University of Geneva, where her father is still a full time member of the academic staff. It would be false to say that everyone lives happily ever after such situations, but the way that Geneva created a space to speak about domestic violence problems openly without the knee jerk of prosecution is more than encouraging. I do not know the details but I know that the Geneva municipality's efforts brought change to one family in one small place. It is a model that renews one's faith in the value of forethought and intelligent programming in local law.

DARE TO TALK ABOUT IT, not as a spectator sport cheering for the demise of a relationship and dismantling a family, but as a first step towards healing. Then create solutions that encourage people to grow and change under the law. Only law can do that and when law does create such spaces, the results are impressive. That is the beauty of law.

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