In July 2003, Julie Ramage told her husband James that she was leaving him. So he killed her. In October 2004, the Victorian Supreme Court jury found him guilty of manslaughter, not murder, because she provoked him. The argument to the court went like this: Julie told him that she was in a relationship with someone else. She also said that she found sex with James “repulsive.” He “lost it.” He was later sentenced to 11 years but will be free in about six and half. Public outrage, from women and men, ripped through the media with a clear message: the defence of provocation, which in effect gives men the licence to kill women, is barbaric.
The legal defence of provocation is centuries old. Since the dawn of private property, women’s status has been as chattel belonging to men. In fact, “family” comes from the ancient Roman term, “famulus,” meaning “household slave.” Laws governing all forms of bondage — whether they be of the bygone plantation system of the U.S. South or today’s family — severely punish slaves who attempt escape. The celebrated case of Heather Osland, jailed for 12 years for killing her violent husband, is symbolic of the countless women who have paid a huge price for defending themselves. As in the Ramage prosecution, the provocation defence reverses the roles of victim and persecuter: the court heard how Julie’s declaration of independence made James snap. She was portrayed as a femme fatale whose decision to walk out on her loving husband, after 15 years of psychological and physical violence, caused her own death. The law gives women a clear warning: leave against a partner’s wishes and the penalty is prison or death.
It’s time to put out a warning to abusive control freaks and the legal system that protects them: We’re not going to take it anymore! Tasmania has already abolished the provocation defence. The Victorian government is considering the same step as well as introducing other changes which would take into account circumstances that make women kill in self-defence. This long-overdue reform is a first step. Women’s right to leave and to defend themselves must be enshrined in law. These rights must be backed up with state-funded shelters for women fleeing domestic danger as well as job training and employment to enable them to live independently. Equally urgent is the establishment of a community-based authority with full legal powers to immediately intervene, and to remove the abuser, when a woman or her children feel threatened.
Women will not be truly safe until we have economic and social independence, and our autonomy is both recognised and honoured. This is not possible as long as society is divided into owners and owned, rulers and ruled. But fighting now for women’s right to choose how we live will break crucial ground. For all the women and men who want a world in which cooperation between equals replaces ownership, winning the right for women to leave a relationship safely would boost the collective strength to bring it on.