Domestic Violence: Why Do Some Women Retract Accusations?
Fears of reprisal mixed with emotional guilt prompt some of the women battered at home to withdraw accusations against an aggressor. In Argentina, however, depending on the gravity of allegations, the state must investigate household violence regardless.
BUENOS AIRES — On the morning of Dec. 10, 2011, Argentines were informed of another femicide in their country, this time in the province of La Pampa. Carla Figueroa, 18, was stabbed to death by her husband. Their two-year-old son witnessed his mother being stabbed 11 times.
The assassin, Marcelo Tomaselli, had been freed from jail a week earlier. Convicted on rape charges, he was "pardoned" with Carla's consent, which led him to marry her and then kill her.
His prior violence was no secret and had even made the news. According to Carla's family, the convict's lawyer "pressured" her to sign a conciliatory agreement or pledge of good conduct (avenimiento), allowing Tomaselli's release. This formula, envisaged as an extrajudicial solution to cases of domestic strife, was abolished in 2012, soon after the Figueroa case.
The norm came to be seen as sexist towards women and as "unacceptable in a democratic society that respects human rights," says María Laura Altamiranda, a judge at the Criminal Court Number 6 of Lomas de Zamora in Buenos Aires. Altamiranda, a veteran of household violence cases, told Clarín that, furthermore, it violated Argentina's international treaty commitments to "duly investigate and sanction culprits" for sexist crimes.
The avenimiento mechanism contemplated the possibility of couples reconciling, even if in this and similar cases, the two sides are in positions of total inequality. The key to a successful reconciliation is voluntary participation on equal terms and with both sides confident they can reach a fair agreement. Altamiranda says the conciliation mechanism "did not make amends for the victim's vulnerability before the attacker, since, as is known, there is an unequal power relationship in relations marked by violence."
Pressures, instead of the law
The judge observes that even with a change of laws, certain dynamics like social and family pressures or resuming an abusive relationship had yet to change.
They return to the authorities with another version.
"In quite a few cases, you have people going to the police and speaking in terms that indicate criminal conduct. After a while, they return to the authorities with another version that notably differs from the first one," says Altamiranda.
She says the plaintiff will often default on a decision to take legal action against the attacker, declaring that she was "confused, [had] exaggerated and that things weren't quite like that." Such cases of confusion, she says, "notably only happen with plaintiffs where there is gender violence. You won't see this in offenses" like house thefts. In other cases, says the judge, women maintain ties with an abuser during prosecution and even after conviction.
Yet there is "coherence" in these apparent contradictions, says María Florencia Bazo, head of the Femmia Civil Association. Before the repeal of the avenimiento, she says, women would change their complaints after receiving threats against themselves or their children. Psychologist Fernanda Tarica, head of Shalom Bait, an NGO working to stop domestic violence, says that "women go back to their aggressors because the aggressor makes sure this happens through the violence they enact, which always seeks to control and subject, (or) they use denigration."
Abusive men never let go of these victim women, she says, which makes it difficult for the women to let go, even after the attacker is jailed. "There is a voice, the man's voice, which is internalized in the victims," she adds, which reveals the mental "reality of chronic victimhood."
A woman pointing to a sign saying "I choose who to undress with" at the Buenos Aires women's rally against domestic violence.
Judge Altamiranda says Argentinian laws obligate the state to proceed with investigations into cases of violence once a complaint is filed, "regardless of any (subsequent) retraction." Article 72 of the Argentine Criminal Code allows this for "reasons of security or the public interest."
She adds that the constitution, which was amended in 1994 to include the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, now obligates the courts to adopt a gender perspective on cases of domestic violence and not to overlook or minimize a suspect's history of gender violence.
"It is very important to know the motives ... behind a new position of 'I'm retracting the complaint,' because it can come from the circle of violence that created the situation in the first place," she says. "In such cases, it is crucial for all judiciary ... operators to analyze the context in which the incident reported took place, to uncover the possible existence of a criminal offense."
Psychologist Ester Siegel says a threat can often be silent, but still real. It may not be explicit, she says, "but the woman knows it's there. She knows it because she has seen it on other occasions, because she recognizes particular gestures, a stare or a tone that aren't necessarily threatening death but are threatening nonetheless." When such impressions or fears are reported, they can be dismissed as delusions or exaggerations.
They don't want to do them harm or for them to lose their job or end up in prison.
She adds that many women will also feel they have a duty to "care, sustain and keep things together, which keeps them from going out. And often that's where death happens."
Tarica says in turn that women, largely thanks to social and family conditioning, "are concerned for their aggressors. They don't want to do them harm or for them to lose their job or end up in prison. And these concerns block their own needs. (The men) have all the power and every right to be attended to and cared for."
As for the state and society, she adds that "there is a place where we have to take care of the victims. We need to know if these women had the chance to enter a therapeutic space and undergo a process in which they can understand and see these things. In most cases where there is a retraction of the accusation, you can also see a total lack of response from those who should be caring for them."
Florencia Bazo from Femmia says more public monetary assistance is needed to provide women facing violence at home with financial support, psychological counseling, but also legal advice. "Then they can understand the possible scenarios when they begin civil and criminal proceedings, and there are no retractions or a change of heart once a formal complaint is made."
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