The current sociopolitical climate overtaking the west is very interesting. We are now becoming more aware to the systemic marginalization of women and have become more keen to call out sexism from its hiding places. At the same time, we still have individuals who are holding on firmly to the patriarchy and who are trying their hardest to maintain the silence of women.
Every day I look on the internet and I see, even on the television, the stories of women who have come forward and who are using their voices to call out their abusers. I see men being held accountable and I see more people realizing the disadvantage that women have been subjected to over the years. Well maybe realizing is too nice of a word to use as i feel that the oppression of women has always been known by the system and society, but it is only now being given recognition as women have become self-actualized and are demanding that they be seen and heard.
As a feminist, an individual who believes in the social political and economic equality of women and men, I am immensely happy to see that the tide is changing. I am happy that women are no longer being choked in silence by their abusers. However, as a Law student, I have come to be critical of the #MeToo movement and its mode of operation as fundamental principles in Law that I have studied from A-Level up to this point where I am about to graduate with an LLB is being threatened.
At one point, I sat down and I had an internal debate with myself. How can I call myself a feminist and advocate for the protection of women’s rights and issues and not be 100% behind the cause of the #MeToo movement? I should be happy that the movement is bringing about a system where women who have been abused can come forward without fear of being victimized and shamed by their abuse. I should be happy that the abusers are being hauled over the coals and that justice was being served. I should be happy that the victim is believed and the abuser is coloured by their guilt.
I am happy that those men are being brought to justice, but my education has caused me to question certain aspects of the whole picture. A few weeks ago I was in class and we were discussing an issue relating the different things that can be brought up while cross-examining a witness… and it so happened that the scenario surrounded sexual abuse. A fellow classmate/friend of mine was irate on the point that the Victim must be believed and stated #BelieveHer totally forgoing the actual answer to the lecturer’s question. I sat in my chair in the class and proceeded to state that any good defense lawyer would seek to discredit the witness and state the client’s case to the witness and try to poke holes in the witness statements. My friend looked at me and I could tell that she was miffed.
In my criminal law lectures at the Antigua State College class one, day one, the most important thing we learnt was the principle of the presumption of innocence, an person in a criminal trial is innocent until proven guilty. In my lectures at University the same principle was being taught… it’s called the golden thread theory set out in a case called ‘Woolmington v DPP’. It essentially says that an accused in a criminal trial is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In my Human Rights lectures i’ve been exposed to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights which in Article 6 enshrines that principle of the presumption of innocence in international law which is binding on every country. From that standpoint I answered my lecturer’s scenario as anyone would given that legal rationale. The accused in a sexual abuse case is innocent until proven to be guilty by due process (the court system) beyond a reasonable doubt. Even though the procedure i mentioned to address the scenario was correct in its approach, my heart still felt heavy when delivering it.
What i’m reaching at here is that as a feminist I am inclined to side with the disadvantaged sex when I hear about sexual abuse allegations. I so greatly wish that people would stop trying to discredit the experiences of women who are abused. At the same time, the law student inside of me understands the shakey precedent the “believe her” movements that push for convictions set. In these cases of sexual abuse, the public scrutiny that is placed on the accused has already drummed up the guilty sentence. Even if in the end the individual is shown to maintain innocence, a stigma is still attached to them. It’s as if this protected right to be presumed innocent until shown otherwise in front of a court is completely disregarded. In these cases it seems as if individuals are required to prove their innocence to the public and the courts when in fact it is the defense who hold the sole legal burden to dismantle the innocence of an accused. In sexual abuse matters society has so reversed the burden of proof that an accused struggles to distance themselves from the noise and their identity is choked out.
Looking back at the small paragraph i just wrote, I feel like people might read it and misunderstand the points I’m attempting to put across. I feel as if my feminist card might get withdrawn or people might start to question what my agenda actually is. For one, I am in no way shape or form defending individuals who have sexually abused individuals. That is not the point of this little spiel. The point of this controversial food for thought was to use this timely example to show how societal movements can have a major impact on jurisprudence. I can completely understand that individuals can and have used these same legal protections which exist to cover up their guilt. I understand that this same presumption of innocence has been used as a noose around the neck of victims of abuse to kill their claims and enable the abuser. However, at the same time, the complete and total disregard for the legal protections afforded to an accused has lasting an major implications for cases outside of sexual abuse claims.
If in one instance we completely ignore the human rights of an individual, that right to a presumed innocence, it sets that precedent for every other case, not just ones of sexual abuse. In criminal cases we could have miscarriages of justice if we then automatically shift the guilt to that person if this precedent takes shape. A precedent does not only change things for one area, it has a ripple effect on every other case to come.
Do I have any solutions or recommendations for this? Not really. That in and of itself is my dilemma. How do I balance the concerns of my feminist self who pushes to hold the accused/abuser accountable with the lawyer who wishes to see judicial procedures upheld and the enshrined rights of individuals preserved? Some might say the blanket answer is judicial reform, but what exactly does that entail and what exactly would it even mean in context?
I understand deeply the necessity to believe the victim/claimant in a sexual abuse case. Too many times have women been silenced by a society that is unwilling to listen and believe what is being said by victims. I support the work of movements like #MeToo who have brought so many to justice and have given a voice to the abused and the disadvantaged. But while I appreciate all that is being done to ensure that women who have been silenced and stereotyped and victim shamed can no longer live in fear; I am at the same time mindful that with every step toward securing this safe space for women; in court proceedings on these matters a bias has developed that has put the rights of accused individuals in jeopardy. It is hard attempting to look at this controversial issue with an objective point of view. As a woman I would hope that should anything happen to me or anyone I know that I would be believed, they would be believed… supported and advocated for. As a lawyer to be, I would hope that jurisprudence be preserved and that human rights be respected and that the presumption of innocence not be thrown away because of how important it is to the fairness of a trial.
Writing all this down has gotten me no closer to quelling the internal debate that i’m having with myself. However, it is allowing me to open up my thoughts to all of you the readers in hopes that you’d join in on the discussion and we can perhaps explore it further and work towards some timely recommendations. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
Peace & Progress.