Opinion: 'What is the life of a woman worth?'

Last September, Borce Ristevski finally pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of his wife Karen, who was first reported missing in August 2016. Her body was found six months later, hidden in scrubland at Mount Macedon Regional Park. Ristevski protested his innocence for almost three years before admitting he had killed her and then dumped her body. Photo: AAP

What is the life of a woman worth? Gauging by the sentence handed down to convicted killer Borce Ristevski, not all that much.

Last September, Ristevski finally pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of his wife Karen, who was first reported missing in August 2016.

Her body was found six months later, hidden in scrubland at Mount Macedon Regional Park. Ristevski protested his innocence for almost three years before admitting he had killed her and then dumped her body. To this day, he has refused to offer any kind of explanation for why he killed her or even how it occurred.

Borce Ristevski killed his wife and tried to cover it up. He obstructed the ensuing investigation. He has denied Karen’s family any form of closure or understanding about the last days of her life. Yet despite his obstreperousness and clear lack of remorse, this week Justice Christopher Beale issued Ristevski a maximum prison term of nine years with a non-parole period of six. With time served, he could be released in as little as five.

Folks, this is our justice system in action. It’s one in which you can almost more easily kill a woman than divorce her. Cover it up, deny all involvement and then finally, after grudgingly admitting your crime, refuse to offer any explanation. And hey, with good behaviour you’ll be out of jail at the same time as the bloke who accidentally ran his bus into a bridge.

It should be said that the sentiment of the public appears almost without fail to be on the side of Karen and her family, with outrage being expressed from all quarters. Many have compared the paltry sentence with that of Joseph Esmaili, sentenced only a day earlier to a minimum of ten years after killing Patrick Pritzwald-Stegmann in a one punch attack. Esmaili’s sentence was the first to be handed down under new Victorian mandatory sentencing laws, created to deal specifically with the crime of ‘coward punches’.

We have yet to institute any kind of mandatory response to domestic violence and homicide but state governments around the country have been swift to act on one-punch attacks, presumably because that involves our sons being murdered rather than our daughters.

Unlike the gendered crime of men’s violence against women – which sees men on average murdering one woman a week in Australia, usually following a protracted period of violence, threats and intimidation – one-punch attacks are evidently seen as more of a community threat and concern.

But as anti-violence campaigner Tarang Chawla has pointed out, it isn’t enough to just be appalled by the sentence. More people need to be outraged at the fact we live in a country where men are still murdering women at an alarming rate.

Yesterday, Ristevski was handed a maximum prison term of nine years with a non-parole period of six. With time served, he could be released in as little as five. Photo: AAP

Domestic homicide is the extreme result of a continuum of violence that incorporates multiple different expressions, including sexual harassment, misogyny, aggression, entitlement and emotional bullying.

There’s no point in the community being shocked by a horribly lax prison sentence if that same community continues to minimise the inherently sexist actions of the culture that spawned it.

When Aya Masaarwe was murdered in Melbourne, I argued that it was time for the men of Australia to pick their side.

“How many women have to die before people decide to take seriously the very real, ever present, issue of men’s violence against them?” I asked. This sentiment was vehemently opposed by many of the same people now condemning Ristevski’s sentence. Why should good, decent men who would never, ever hurt a woman (debatable, to be honest) be held to account for the actions of a small minority? How is that fair?

Fair? Is it fair that men murder women and rob their children of a life with their mother? Is it fair that men kill women because those women wanted to leave them? Is it fair that women are raped and beaten every day, and that this violence is so frequently minimised by ‘jokes’ made by the ‘good, decent men’ who would never, ever hurt a woman but just find it great fodder for sophisticated comedy?

Is it fair that a woman has to be dead before anyone cares about her life?

But we come to that question again. What is the life of a woman worth? Ristevski’s sentencing shows us what it’s worth to the legal system. But this is the less important half of the answer. What is the life of a woman worth to a society still intent on denying the existence of misogyny and its impact on us all?

Karen Ristevski was killed and discarded by a man long before she was dishonoured by the legal system. She is just one of many – and their bodies will keep piling up unless we take responsibility as a community and start demanding change of ourselves.

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