Battered Woman Syndrome

11 Pages Posted: 9 Oct 2010 Last revised: 9 Nov 2010

See all articles by Paramita Nandy

Paramita Nandy

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: October 8, 2010


Battered Woman Syndrome came up as a theory in the 1970’s when a prominent Psychologist, Dr. Lenore Walker, tried to explain the psycho-social condition of a woman suffering from domestic violence in her book “The Battered Woman.”. A theory of multiple victimization, Battered Woman Syndrome used the cycle of violence and “learned helplessness” to explain the development of a psychological problem in women who are repeatedly abused by their husbands. Battered Woman Syndrome later entered the legal realm when Walker began giving expert testimony about BWS (Battered Woman Syndrome) at trials of women accused of killing their abuser. Although her intention was to show that the woman's actions may have been justifiable, the only way that translated in the courtroom was as an argument of self-defense. Despite not addressing any of the three prongs of the self defense law (use of an equal amount of force, being faced with immediate provocation, and being in imminent danger) defense attorneys would commonly call expert witnesses to the stand to testify about BWS and speculate how it may relate to the case at hand. This has been problematic because there is no consensus in the medical profession that such abuse results in a mental condition severe enough to excuse alleged offenders.

Dr. Lenore Walker has clearly stated that the syndrome is not an illness, but a theory which explains why a woman would not escape the abuser but would rather kill him after being pushed to the wall. Therefore, the battered women's syndrome theory is best regarded as an offshoot of the theory of “learned helplessness” and not a mental illness that afflicts abused women.

In India, The battered woman does not have a legal status, per se, because there is no specific law dealing with her. None of the exceptions to murder as laid down in Section 300 are applicable to the case of a battered woman who has committed a murder. The courts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States have accepted the extensive and growing body of research showing that battered partners can use force to defend themselves and sometimes kill their abusers because of the abusive and sometimes life-threatening situation in which they find themselves, acting in the firm and honest belief that there is no other way than to kill for self-preservation. Again, Battered Women Syndrome is not a legal defense, but may legally constitute 1) Self-defence; 2) Provocation; 3) Insanity (usually within the meaning of the McNaughten’s Rules); and 4) Diminished responsibility.

There are some theorists who argue that the use of Battered Woman's Syndrome, as presented by an expert witness, poses the danger of encouraging courts to find the women mentally ill, with the consequence that the woman's own psychological condition, rather than the underlying social conditions, will be blamed. This inculpation of women being mentally ill results in the strengthening of the stereotype of women as irrational and emotional. Additionally, this presumption, if accepted by the court, results in the woman being put away in a mental institution indefinitely.

Suggested Citation

Nandy, Paramita, Battered Woman Syndrome (October 8, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Paramita Nandy (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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