Johnson: Intimate partner violence: Misogyny is embedded in both our culture and our justice system

All the passes given to rapists, abusers and stalkers, all the safety obstacles that stand in the way of women, do not happen by chance, but by design.

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I walk into the Renfrew County coroner’s inquest into the massacre and burst into tears. A victim services worker who had supported Nathalie Warmerdam and Anastasia Kuzyk hands me a tissue. “Everyone feels that way coming here,” she says. The investigation is ongoing into her and Carol Culleton’s murders, all by the same man on the same day in 2015.

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Germaine Greer describes women’s tears as “the cheapest fluids in the world”. Pain is an emotion allowed to women. The anger we need to turn this ship around is not.

It has been 36 years since I began working with battered women. I have lost count of the women and children killed in my area alone. In Ottawa, after a series of femicides in the early 1990s, we established a memorial to our murdered sisters. Soon, we ran out of room for names.

All the women were killed in horrible ways. They had all committed the same crime. They had said “no” to a man. Not to sex. Not to be doormats and punching bags. Not to be controlled, to live in fear, to see their children hurt. Not to be silent. At its heart, intimate partner violence is the anger of some men at the “no” of women.

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During the course of the recent three-week investigation, three other Ontario women were killed by their partners: Kinga Kriston, 55, of Collingwood; Vanessa Virgioni, 29, of Brampton; and Henrietta Viski, 37, of Scarborough. They were all mothers. Viski was doused with gasoline and set on fire by her ex-husband. On the last day of the investigation, we learned that a young man from Ottawa had stabbed a mother and her two daughters after one of the girls told him “no.” Anne-Marie Ready, 50, and Jasmine Ready, 15, were killed in that attack.

It seemed that the gods of the patriarchy were mocking us. “Have your little investigations, ladies. Nothing will change.

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Sitting in the inquest, I heard powerful testimonies from frontline workers: the women who do everything in their power to limit the harm, not just to Basil Borutskis of this world, but to the justice system itself. Borrowing from Hannah Arendt, the problem with Borutski, who killed Culleton, Kuzyk, and Warmerdam, is that there are so many like him, and many are not sick, but terribly normal. Borutski’s actions were extreme, but his mentality is not; his justifications do not differ from those of many who make this Earth a hell for women.

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The system crashes in this case were also terrifyingly normal. This is not a problem unique to Renfrew County, or Ontario, or Canada. Women everywhere are handed to abusive men on a silver platter. We pave the way for these atrocities with attitudes, policies and practices that systematically privilege the rights of male offenders over the rights of women to live and raise children in peace and safety. Abusers are actively enabled by police, courts, and child welfare agencies. Their distraught partners actively oppose these very systems. No woman on the planet can turn to her justice system with the confidence that she and her children will be protected.

From left to right: Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk.
From left to right: Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk. Photo by brochure photos

Myths of hysterical and vindictive women run rampant in society, but in the hands of Children’s Aid workers, judges, lawyers, etc., these myths are grenades that destroy women’s lives. Women find themselves defensive, their motives for reporting abuse suspect, their concerns trivialized and dismissed. Mothers are forced to hand over their children to dangerous ex-partners. Offenders are rarely charged, inadequately punished, and ineffectively held. Protection orders are not worth the paper they are written on.

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We abandon women to the fate of dealing with violent men, content to offer “supports” to help them “cope.” There are now courses to help women “cope” with being strangled. Choking has become such a common method of subduing women that strangulation prevention classes are taught to women all over the world. Neck compression can leave lasting physical and psychological damage and is a strong predictor of femicide.

Unprotected as victims, women who resort to force to stop the threat are brutally persecuted, their acts of self-defense indistinguishable for the courts from the violence used to subjugate them.

When women and children are murdered, neither side admits guilt, no connections are made, and no lessons are learned. In any case, it is the actions of the deceased woman that are subject to scrutiny and censorship.

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After decades of watching this dynamic play out case after case, I no longer see the system as broken, but as working exactly as intended to keep women in control. We live in a patriarchy, a system of government in which men hold power and women are largely excluded from it. “The legal system is designed to protect men from the superior power of the state, but not to protect women or children from the superior power of men,” wrote Judith Hermann.

The Ottawa Women's Memorial, which honors the lives of local women and girls killed by men, is located in Minto Park.
The Ottawa Women’s Memorial, which honors the lives of local women and girls killed by men, is located in Minto Park. Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /ERROL MCGIHON

Once this is understood, the insanity of the justice system makes sense. All the passes given to rapists, abusers and stalkers, all the security obstacles that stand in the way of women make sense. They are not happening by chance, but by design; structured in a power regime so ubiquitous that it goes unnoticed. Like rats in a maze, the women run from one side to the other in search of an exit that does not exist. The truth is that they are not meant to come out. Women are not meant to be free.

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Violence against women is essential for men to maintain sovereignty. The murders of women are not accidents. They are allowed, to keep all women at bay.

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Will the investigation into the Renfrew County massacre change anything significant for women? How I long to say yes. Hopefully, some of the more glaring flaws identified will be addressed, and eventually a few more women will be able to sleep a few more nights while their assailants are restrained. But plugging holes and small fixes is not going to be enough.

Simone de Beauvoir said that some things given to women are not better than nothing because they ease women’s rebellion. “In fact, it is a way of subjugating women by making them believe that things are being done. It’s not just a way to co-opt the women’s revolt, but to counter it, suppress it, pretend it doesn’t have to exist.”

Shelters, alarms, safety plans, longer custody periods, and medical examiner investigations represent critical responses to intimate partner violence. But until we start to address the misogyny within our men and institutions, it will continue to be bones thrown at women to make us believe we are being cared for as we continue to suffer and die.

donna f johnson She worked at the Lanark County Interval House from 1986 to 2002 and remains active in the fight to end men’s violence against women.

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