National Post

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Tuesday, May 23, 2000

What about the rights of battered men?
Donna Laframboise
National Post

According to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, it's "against the law" for government services to discriminate against you because of your sex. But as a 19-page report released last month makes clear, if you're a man treated shabbily by such services, don't hold your breath waiting for that province's human rights apparatus to correct the injustice.

Back in September 1998, several people filed human rights complaints alleging the legal system is biased against men. Despite a mountain of studies indicating that family violence is an equal opportunity activity, men are overwhelmingly arrested, charged and convicted of this crime.

In the view of the complainants, the logical explanation is that the system has built-in, preconceived notions of who the attacker is and who the victim is, of whose version of events should be believed and whose should be discounted.

Things get even stickier in acrimonious divorce situations where unscrupulous or unstable women can -- and do -- get their spouses and ex-spouses arrested, charged and detained merely by invoking the spectre of domestic violence. It sometimes takes days for these men to contact a lawyer, appear before a judge and post bail. Afterward, they are often crippled by legal fees.

In a zero tolerance environment -- which Saskatchewan officials publicly admit prevails -- police tend to lay charges even when evidence is scant. In other jurisdictions, officers report feeling pressured to charge the man since they're required to fill out more paperwork when they charge the woman or when they decline to lay charges.

Saskatchewan's Human Rights Code not only condemns gender prejudice, it says "Every person and every class of persons shall enjoy the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention." Therefore, allegations that people who may actually be victims of domestic violence are being wrongly arrested due to gender stereotypes -- or are being arrested on no evidence -- should be of grave concern.

Initially, the commission dismissed the complaints. Insisting that such matters "fall outside the commission's jurisdiction," it told the men to seek redress in the courts. Shortly afterward, it relented somewhat, agreeing to undertake what became a 10-month study titled Review of the Application of the Victims of Domestic Violence Act (1994).

The problem is: the "Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission reports to the Minister of Justice" (to quote from the commission's Web site). And Bill Rafoss, the author of the study, turns out to be Supervisor of Investigations for the commission. His unenviable task, therefore, was to evaluate his own employer's laws and policies.

According to the report, Mr. Rafoss interviewed six people: two justice department officials, two justices of the peace, a police domestic violence co-ordinator, and a crisis worker. Quelle surprise, none of them think there's a problem. "Most of the professionals I spoke with said they would entertain [an abuse complaint] from a man in the same way as they do for women, and there is no evidence to show the contrary," he writes.

Citing everything from the one-sided United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, to Statistics Canada studies that asked only women about the violence they experience at home (as did the recent Armed Forces survey), the report declares gender bias a non-issue.

Even "though recent statistics show that women may be as prone to violence as men," reads the report, men "appear to be dealing with domestic violence differently than women." In other words: don't be silly. Rather than demonstrating alarming discrimination, the lopsided arrest and conviction rates just prove that, being bigger and brighter than women, the average man figures out -- all by himself -- how to cope with a spouse whose rage he lives in fear of.

Since Mr. Rafoss was so uninterested in the experiences of abused men that he declined to interview even one of them, he clearly has no idea how, exactly, these men deal with such situations. An entire book has been written about battered husbands, in addition to a growing list of journal and magazine articles, but there's no indication Mr. Rafoss consulted any of them.

Mr. Rafoss may have been living in a cave for the past 20 years, but the rest of us know it's pure fantasy to believe the average police officer, prosecutor, judge or jury member thinks of domestic violence in gender neutral terms.

There are no ad campaigns declaring husband abuse is a crime. There are no sensitivity courses explaining violent marriages from the perspective of battered men. No network of social workers, lawyers and shelters toils ceaselessly to educate the public about these men's plight.

It would have been outrageous to suggest, in 1975, that since so few battered wives complained to the authorities anyway, society didn't need to improve how it responded to these women.

But in the year 2000 this is, in a nutshell, the position of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission with respect to battered husbands.

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