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Why Killing Her Partner Was The Only Solution For Jessica Silva

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By Susmita Abani:

On Mother’s Day, May 2012, Jessica Silva, a 22 year old girl in Sydney, committed a crime that would change her life forever. Her ex-partner of 4 years, James Polkinghorne, lay dead on the road in front of her parent’s home, bleeding from several stab wounds—marks of her desperate act of self-defence.

sexual abuse
For representational purposes only

Polkinghorne was deeply involved in the drug scene, and was a murder suspect himself. On the night of his demise, his veins were electric with ice. He had charged at both Jessica and her brother, threatening to finish them. Within seconds, she lashed back, eternally silencing her child’s father, a man who had tormented her mind, and injured her body for too long.

Today, I feel compelled to write about this issue because to me, Jessica Silva’s story hits close to home. She was a fellow classmate, a neighbour. For six years we attended the same high school, knew the same people, read from the same books. Only one wrong relationship made the difference between our lives. So far this year, at least 25 women, 5 children and 4 men in Australia died at the hands of their violent partners. Today I write this article in remembrance of them.

There are hundreds of cases similar to Jessica’s across the world, involving women who’ve killed their abusive partners – and of others who’ve taken their own lives in response. These women were not heroes, or martyrs. They were victims of circumstance, who retaliated with extreme measures against their suffering. They are a metaphor for the limits of human tolerance, and quite often an underlying condition known as Battered Wife Syndrome, a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Some people in recent years have tried to distort the narrative of domestic violence, particularly against women, by denigrating the gravity of the issue. They ask why these women “didn’t just leave” their violent relationships, expressing suspicion about the victim’s story, perhaps to partially blame her for tolerating, or even triggering, the abuse. I want to dispel the myth by explaining what Battered Wife Syndrome is, what it can turn people into and thus why it’s crucial to address the destructive and debilitating nature of domestic violence.

Why Won’t She Leave?

Most abusive relationships follow a cyclic process that undergoes three phases. The first phase involves the build-up of tension, leading to the second stage of explosion – where the abuser batters their partner. This is followed by a show of regret by the abuser, where they may apologise profusely, admit to their faults, promise to cease the violence and remain (temporarily) loyal to their words. This is the honeymoon phase, a delusion of optimism that keeps the battered victim hopeful about the future at the end of each cycle of violence. Victims then feel guilty, second guessing their instincts, convincing themselves to remain committed to their wrongdoer.

With repeated and more severe episodes, the victim feels increasingly helpless, assuming that their offender is invincible and therefore no normal course of action can improve their situation. They hang onto the threads of an unwinding relationship, for the sake of their safety, their children, economic and emotional dependence, and a lowered self-esteem. The shame and self-loathing that accompanies abuse often isolates victims further from seeking help from family and friends, reducing their capability to make rational choices –

Did She Trigger The Violence?

Victims of domestic abuse don’t ask for it. In fact, the underlying issues stem from the abuser’s own psyche, and the societal influences. A heightened response to their own negativity causes an abuser to assign blame on another for the woes in their life. They then seek to control their situation through exerting physical, emotional, sexual or even economic and spiritual power over their partner. In some cultures, the external manifestation of masculinity is often linked to physical and behavioural aggressiveness – further legitimising their imposition of power on what they perceive to be the “weaker” sex.

Is There Anyone Out There?

Society’s overwhelmingly unhelpful attitude can often render the victim cynical about whether a higher authority can, in fact, help. I recently spoke to Pauline Gomes from Breakthrough, on the current situation in India for abuse victims. Pauline explained that help is absolutely accessible to victims even though it’s not always forthcoming. The Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act 2005 in India, allows women to seek refuge from household violence – from their partners or their relatives in shared households. It offers Protection Officers at police stations who are trained to assist abused women. However the efficiency of each Protection Officers varies widely and there’s inconsistency in the scheme’s implementation, not every station has a designated Protection Officer. In such situations, the police officer on duty may not have the time or understanding to focus on abuse cases, or may send the victims home. Nevertheless it is far better to seek help than to assume there is none, as the laws are certainly in place.

Where To From Here?

In a touching episode of 60 Minutes Australia, Jessica gave a strong warning to female victims of violence. “You need to let people know what’s going on in your life,” she said, “don’t keep it a secret“. By reaching out to others through her own experience, Jessica exemplifies to us the strength of communication. The best weapon one can use to overcome any form of oppression is education – to recognise the abuse, to safely remove themselves from it, to seek help, to live again, to inform others. It is crucial to vocally condemn domestic violence, to never blame the victim, and to alter as a society, our language around masculinity – to not associate with authority or power, in charge of reward or discipline. We need to ensure that children who have suffered or witnessed abuse, learn the right lessons from their experience and any unhealthy tendencies towards aggression should be treated from an early age. These are but a few steps we can take in the right direction towards changing the face of domestic violence, and to slowly retreat from the tragedies that befall those like Jessica.

Update: Jessica Silva was found not guilty of murder and will not serve any more time in prison apart from the 29 weeks that she served before the trial.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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