Thursday, 20 December 2012

What's in a name?

... I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive, I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise...”

I love these particular lyrics from the song ‘Fly’, by Nicki Minaj, featuring Rihanna.  The pink haired pop star may not be to everyone’s taste, but these lyrics speak to me of a woman claiming her own power.

For the last 2 weeks, I’ve been reminiscing about my time as a public prosecutor and looking forward to the opportunities to make a change as a violence against women activist in Nigeria.  As a lawyer and as a writer, I’m always thinking about the importance of words.  Their meaning, how I use them to convey what I mean.  In the context of the law, a word that I have been using a lot recently is ‘victim’.  As you all know by now, I’m a sucker for a definition, so I looked it up.  The one I found, that properly expresses what I mean when I use the word is: “a person harmed, injured or killed as a result of a crime, accident or other event or action”.  In that sense, it’s not wrong to call someone who has experienced violence against women a victim. However, I’d like to explore two consequences of using the word and why I prefer the word ‘survivor’.

The first thing I’d like to say is that using the term ‘victim’ even when the person is no longer experiencing the violence keeps them in a place of powerlessness.  It doesn’t reflect the fact that they may no longer be in the abusive situation. For the woman who has either left the relationship or the perpetrator has been held to account through the courts, to continue to use that word keeps her stuck in a place that doesn’t reflect her anymore. I understand that other people may take the view that although the violence may have ceased, the harm or injury done, is ongoing and therefore ‘victim’ is the correct term.  To my mind, ‘survivor’ is a much more accurate description of where that woman is now and allows her to begin the journey back to her best self.

The second point that I would like to make, flows on from the one above.  Whatever terminology is used, it’s still about someone else making the decisions.  Someone else is labelling you.  As a prosecutor and even as an activist, no matter how sensitive I think I am being, when I choose to use the word ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’, I am doing the labelling. I am making the decision about how best to describe you.  For a victim of violence, one of the most corrosive consequences is when the perpetrator takes away your choices and labels you. When you are kept away from friends or family and constantly called abusive and derogatory names, it makes the job of destroying your self esteem and self confidence much easier.  The most respectful thing for us to do as people who work with those who have experienced violence is to ask how they would prefer to be addressed.  It may require us to change our way of thinking or even learn a different language, but in the end, if we are serious about being respectful, then it’s something we will have to do.

‘Survivor’ means “a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died”.  In the UK, 2 women a week are killed by their current or ex partners[1]; In Colombia, one woman is reportedly killed by her current or former partner every 6 days[2]; According to the World Health Organisation, 40-70% of female murder victims in Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, were killed by their partners[3].  Given these statistics, it’s clear that women experiencing violence should take the perpetrator very seriously, when he threatens to kill them.  They also demonstrate why I prefer the term ‘survivor’.

In this work that we do as lawyers, activists, policy makers, advocates, it’s important to remember that we get to work with women who are on a journey.  It is not our journey and we don’t get to take over.  It’s about affording people respect and dignity, whilst they make their life choices.|

I’ll end, the same way I started, with lyrics from Nicki Minaj, because I think she says it best:

“Everybody wanna try to box me in, suffocating everytime it locks me in...I am not a girl who can be defined...I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive, I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise...”[4]

Born2bebeautiful is taking a 2 week break and will be back on the 3 January 2013.  Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season.


[1] Women’s Aid website
[2] United Nations website
[3] United Nations website
[4] Nicki Minaj ft Rihanna-Fly

Thursday, 13 December 2012

That was then, this is now...

“Use the buddy system: if you are not able to stop yourself from assaulting people, ask a friend to stay with you, while you are in public”

“Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone ‘by accident’, you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can blow it if you do”

Before you wonder if I’ve lost my mind, these are just two of the sexual assault prevention tips-guaranteed to work, put together by the feminist law professors[1].  The other 8 are well worth a read too! Funny, but then again, not so funny when you realise that the law which is meant to protect victims of violence often ends up re-victimising them, by blaming them for the crime committed against them. If they look a bit odd to you, it’s because these tips are aimed at perpetrators of violence, rather than their victims, which is the more usual scenario.

This week’s piece is a sort of sequel to last week’s.  Last week, I was reflecting on my experiences as a prosecutor in the UK.  This week, I spoke at a domestic violence symposium and was looking forward, at the laws in Nigeria and how they can help victims of domestic violence.  What struck me was the fact that although I was talking about 2 different countries, there are certain principles that hold true, no matter where you are.  I’d like to look at my top three here, which are:

the law is a blunt instrument; it’s only as good as those who are implementing it and the law on its own is not enough to end violence against women.  For some of us, this is not news, but for others, it may represent a sea change in the way that they think about the law and how it helps in violence against women situations.

Are you curious about what I mean, when I say the law is a blunt instrument? I mean that typically the law looks at separate incidents of behaviour as separate crimes.  Apart from some specific crimes like conspiracy, the law doesn’t tend to acknowledge that seemingly separate incidents could actually be part of a bigger pattern.  In violence against women cases and particularly domestic violence, we are talking about a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. Incidents that could be explained away individually, take on a very different complexion, when seen as part of a pattern.  I mentioned back in October that the UK has recently amended its definition of domestic violence to specifically include the pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour.  That’s a great start, but how well that’s understood and how it will translate in the courts, is something that remains to be seen and leads me neatly onto my second point, which is;

The law is only as good as those who implement it.  The law by itself is just a collection of words, definitions and principles.  It comes alive, when people use it and test its boundaries.  Something that seems very clear to the drafters of the law, can keep the courts busy for years as lawyers argue about the finer points of a definition!  That’s why training is such an essential part of improving the response to violence against women.  Training helps us to have the conversations about what is meant, long before we step into a court room. Training defines what behaviour is expected of every individual who will come into contact with a victim of violence.  From the police officer who makes the first contact, all the way through to the judge who will hear the case, there needs to be an awareness and sensitivity of the issues involved.  People don’t just need to know what to say, they also need to know what not to say! Victims need to be reassured that there is a standard that has to be met.

Finally, although the law is an important tool in the fight to end violence against women, it’s not the only weapon we have and may not even be the most important.  In order to end the scourge which is violence against women, there needs to be a combined effort, from different people and organisations.  The government, police, lawyers, educators and civil society players, all have a role to play.  We need to raise awareness of the issue, we need to come up with ways to prevent and protect victims of violence.  We also need to come up with effective sanctions for the perpetrators of violence.

Whenever I tell people what I do, they invariably tell me that there is a lot to do.  When I was preparing for my talk this week, I found that there is a very comprehensive law on domestic violence in the state where I live.  However, in spite of it being law for 5 years, hardly anyone seems to know about it and that was pretty shocking. For my part, I’m excited about being part of a movement that is still in its infancy.  The obstacles are many, but there are many more opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of the women and girls who experience violence on a regular basis.

Have you been affected by anything in this piece? Would you like to know more about how our coaching or training services could help? Would you like a free, 30 minute consultation to help you begin to make changes in your life? Contact us through the website, to start the journey to your best you.

Until next week, go well.




Thursday, 6 December 2012

The chronicles of a mad feminist

I fancy myself as a bit of a runner (questionable, given my current pace!).  I sometimes use visualisation to improve my runs.  Rather oddly, I always envisage myself bobbing along with a perfect ponytail swaying in the wind (odd, because I am currently sporting a red, teeny weeny afro).  As I visualise my perfect pace, stride –and hair, I’m reminded of my time as a prosecutor.  I used to dream of the ‘perfect’ domestic violence case.  The victim would be articulate and persuasive, she would support the prosecution and I would win my case without any difficulty.  

As I reflect on the fact that I’ve been a qualified barrister for 18 years now, this week I’d like to share 3 lessons that I’ve learned and the cases that reinforced those principles for me.  These aren’t exciting new revelations, just some principles to live life by, that we could all do with being reminded about.

“If you change the way you behave, you ‘force’ the people around you to change too”

The case that taught me that involved a man who had assaulted his girlfriend.  He admitted what he had done to the police and repeated it in his interview.  When the case came to court, his solicitor wanted me to drop the case, because the victim didn’t want to go ahead anymore.  I told him I wouldn’t and that I would prosecute on the strength of what he had said to the police.  This was a bit of a shock for his lawyer, because that’s not how things had been done, up until this time.  After a lot of grumbling, they finally came back and agreed to plead guilty.  It was as his lawyer was leaving my office that he paid me the best compliment ever.  He said “you’re just one of those mad feminists”.  I know that might not be a compliment to some, but if he responded like that because I was doing the right thing, then I’m okay with that.  I changed what I did, and it got me the result I wanted.

“Just because something’s not been tried before, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be”

I learnt this lesson by prosecuting my first case without the support of the primary victim.  Once again, it was a case involving an assault by a man on his partner.  They had gone out for his birthday, had an argument and it ended with him assaulting her and someone who tried to help her.  He was arrested very shortly afterwards and admitted what he had done to the police.  I was sure that he would offer a guilty plea straightaway. I thought I’d misheard when he pleaded not guilty! His partner said she didn’t want to give evidence against him and wanted to drop the case.  His lawyer said I had to drop the case because I had lost my main witness.  I refused because I was sure I had enough evidence-even without the primary witness.  We went to trial and he was convicted on the strength of the other evidence that I had.  Before I tried that case, I’d never done one like that before and I didn’t know anyone else who had done it either.  It was risky and there was the possibility that I would fail, but I thought it was worth a shot. If only to learn how to succeed next time.

“Work with what you have”

As I said at the beginning of this post, I used to dream of the perfect domestic violence case, with the perfect victim. My last illustration was none of these things. The defendant was a drug dependent, career criminal and the victim had a serious alcohol addiction, as well as convictions for prostitution. In short, it was the case from hell!  The victim had made complaints before and always withdrawn them, before they came to trial.  I remember being in court a few weeks before the trial came up and seeing her.  She said she had come because she thought her case had come up already.  I had a serious case of the jitters, thinking that my case was about to head down the toilet.  I had a chat with her about her drinking.  She told me that she was best in the morning, because she hadn’t had a chance to drink too much, first thing.  I went ahead and re-scheduled her case for the morning, she gave evidence and her partner was found guilty.  Fellow colleagues had dismissed cases involving her in the past and at different stages in the case, I was tempted to do the same.  What stopped me, was the fact that she was consistent about what she said had happened.  She never tried to hide the less than ideal aspects of her character as a witness- perhaps because she thought the case would be dropped anyway!  That case taught me, that if you wait for perfect conditions, you’ll probably never do anything, because there’s no such thing as perfection.

For me, these cases are a metaphor for life.  How many of us keep doing the same thing over and over and end up with the same unwanted result?

How many of us have big dreams and ideas hidden in our hearts, but are too afraid to step out, because no-one’s done it before and we’re afraid to fail?

How many of us are putting off living, until the conditions are perfect.  How often do you tell yourself you’ll go for that dream when you get the perfect job/lose the weight/meet the right person?

Today, I invite you to think about these principles and remind yourself of the areas where you could make a change and take that first step.  What’s the worst that could happen?

Are you feeling a bit stuck? Would you like help working through any of these principles? Sign up for a free, 30 minute consultation and see how coaching can help you to be the best you there is.

Until next week, go well.