She had been married for 10 years, but the relationship was more abusive than happy.  She was a shadow of the strong, boisterous girl she had once been.  Years of beatings had left her hunched and scared.  She fantasized at times about leaving him, but the reality was too frightening.  And she loved him.  

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This struggle was a cycle that, for years, had failed to escape. One day, when he struck her, her hand reached for the nearest object and hit back. Again. Again. And again.

What if it had been a book that she had grasped, instead of a baseball bat?

As she looked over his dead body, her hands were covered in blood, it was hard to believe what she had done. Shaken and terrified, she did what she had been raised to do whenever a crime took place, and called the police.

Many people would say she was an animal who deserved to be thrown in prison as punishment for her crime. Others, more knowledgeable about the cycles of abuse, believed she was a poor woman who had suffered dearly in the hands of the abusive man, and therefore deserved leniency.

But this is Africa, and here, our justice systems are male-dominated and male- favored. In this article, we have to consider the character stereotypes that

dictate our legal systems. In this unfortunate story, there are many at play: the Chivalry thesis, the “Evil Woman” thesis, and Battered Woman Syndrome.

Definitions

In the criminal justice system, the Chivalry thesis states that women are treated more leniently by the criminal justice system by virtue of their gender, whilst the Evil Woman thesis states that women who act or behave in any manner beyond the parameters of their expected societal roles will receive harsher sentences as punishment for breaking the “social contract” of feminine behavior. Battered Woman Syndrome is, in its unfortunate phrasing, characterized as a mental schism in which women suffering from protracted, serious domestic violence seemingly “snap”, and retaliate against their abuser with such force that they either severely injure, or kill, their abuser. All three schools of thought were developed in Western criminological circles in the late 1960s, and remain in use globally today. African criminal justice is largely based on the Western system, and none of the 3 schools of thought have been replaced, although some scholars do continue to seek viable alternatives to them.

In the aforementioned case, some applied the Chivalry Thesis to its process through the judicial system. The argument of the Chivalry Thesis is that, as women are considered subordinate to men in all patriarchal frameworks, men are therefore established as the protectors of women by virtue of greater intellect, composure, and dignity. By contrast, women are perceived as emotionally unstable, weak, and mentally fragile, which means that the most compassionate means of managing a violent woman is to embrace a narrative in which she is not primarily responsible for her own actions, so manipulated is she by uncontrollable emotion.

The Chivalry Thesis is linked, to an extent, with Battered Woman Syndrome, which says that had it not been for the abuse this woman endured, she would not have – rather, she could not have - killed her husband. This defense, which contextualizes the reactions of women who have spent a great deal of time in fear-induced heightened states, is a commonly used defense for many cases involving women, not least of all because it is effective: women who adopt the “Battered Women”defense tend to receive a lighter sentence, or are even acquitted in circumstances where the intensity and longevity of their abuse is irrefutable.

On the other hand, there are those who ascribe to the “Evil Woman” school of thought, in which this woman would be perceived as not only guilty, but less than human, for so intensely defying her perceived “feminine nurturing instincts”. Whilst the capacity for violence is considered part of the masculine identity, such aggression is not expected from women in male-dominated, patriarchal societies. As such, the “Evil Woman” is seen as not only warranting, but also deserving of, harsh punishment, for she has turned on her femininity, embraced hyper-aggressive masculine behavior, and is, for all intents and purposes, no better in social standing than a wild animal.

In a criminal justice context, with so much weighing against her, woman in this instance was fortunate. Not fortunate to have endured so much abuse, nor to have been married to a violent man, nor to have committed a violent crime that saw her tarnished with the brush of “murderer” for the rest of her life. But still, she was lucky. Because instead of being branded an “Evil Woman”, the sheer depth of her suffering during her experience of violent abuse was taken into account. Using the battered women theory as a defense, she was acquitted.

This is but one example of one crime, yet and there are many crimes committed by women where the system is not so forgiving. There have been a number of cases across Africa in which women and men commit similar crimes, but due to the prevalence of the Chivalry thesis in some communities, and the “Evil Woman” thesis in others, their sentences are vastly different.

These biases - oftentimes applied completely subconsciously by the presiding judge – are important to challenge and question to create a fair and equitable criminal justice system. The fate of every woman tried in a courtroom lies at the mercy of the men who decide their fates, and their philosophies about society. This is why gender equality initiatives are so important across all societal frameworks: health, education, the law, and so much more.

No matter how much we fight for gender equality, it cannot exist outside of our judicial systems. Because for as long as gender injustice is not addressed in the context of criminal justice, women will continue to be in the mercy of men... and whatever two-dimensional worldviews these men have of their gender. 

 

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