The Brána do života (Gate to Life) centre for battered women and children is a refuge of hope for the abused.
photo: Ján Svrček
"I dreamt that dad was fighting again," reads the journal entry of Radka (not her real name) of Bratislava. "He said something very bad to mummy, and I don't remember what. When he told it to her, I told it back to him. I said the same thing back to him. Then he wanted to beat me. He had a big heavy backpack, and he wanted to hit me in the head with it. But I dodged it every time."
Radka's mother calls herself Božena - not her real name either. She has given false identities for fear of being identified by her husband, a man who over the years has beaten both her and her daughter.
Božena (41) agreed to an interview because she says she wants her story to be heard. Although she is determined, the memories occasionally get the best of her, causing Božena to occasionally break into tears as she recounts the painful and humiliating 15 years she experienced with her husband.
"My problem may be nothing compared to what other women and their children are going through," she says. "But I decided I want to fight. I won't shut up."
Božena is married to a man she calls a tyrant, who waged psychological warfare on her and her two children (she also has a younger son). Although he earned a healthy salary, she says, he rarely gave her more than 300 crowns ($7) a week to feed herself and the infant children. He forbade her to work, and did not allow her to have a bank teller card for their account.
The diary of a 10 year-old girl who has been beaten by her father: "He wanted to beat me... and hit my head with his heavy backpack."
photo: Source withheld at the victim's request
To help battered women like Božena and their children, a new crisis centre was opened March 1 in the Bratislava suburb of Petržalka. Run by the Brána do života (Gate to Life) NGO, the centre is staffed by 17 social workers and offers 34 beds for women who have nowhere else to run from abusive husbands.
"We are opening this centre because we believe that the only life worth living is one lived for others," said Brána do života head Mária Prieložníková at the opening ceremony.
Slovak psychologists and social workers attending the opening said that such centres are necessary here because Slovak society tolerates 'minor' acts of violence which other western societies considered as serious crimes. Acceptance of domestic violence, they said, made the existence of such centres crucial as a "refuge to those on the run".
"Our society is burdened with prejudice and myths surrounding domestic violence," said Jana Štúrová, psychologist and leader of Bratislava's Hope Centre for "silent victims of domestic violence".
To make her point, she then quoted what she said was a mantra of some Slovak men: Ak má muž naozaj rád svoju ženu, môže ju aj pre lásku zbiť - If a man really loves his wife, he may beat her out of love.
While most Slovaks would today call the statement preposterous, Štúrová said it aided lingering male-dominant attitudes, evidenced by why "even our youngest generation of teenage girls don't break-up with their boyfriends when they've been slapped around or hit by them."
Štefan Omasta of the Slovak Police Presidium (a central police body) said that during his years on the job, he had witnessed extremes from "continuous beatings resulting in big bruises to a 10 year-old child who had had cigarette butts snubbed out by one of his parents around the intimate parts of his body".
Experts gathered at the centre's ceremony said that for many Slovak children, being beaten was a usual occurrence. Omasta said that in Slovakia in 1999 there were reports of 189 children under the age of 15 who were beaten by their parents, 9 who were tortured, and 50 sexually abused. Last year, 192 children were beaten, 26 tortured and 42 sexually molested.
But the numbers don't begin to tell the whole story, said Štúrová, because by her estimates, "only one out of every 15 cases of domestic abuse is reported, and these are usually just the most extreme." The police say that for every single case reported, three are not.
"Believe me, despite tens of years of experience in this field," said Štúrová, "I still frequently feel helpless."
"The children often think that they've done something wrong," she continued. "They think, 'my parents are good, so I must not be worth their love. It's my fault.' In a child's world, their parents are the ones who know everything. So if the parent then decides to hit the child, they think that they must have deserved it."
The end-result, Štúrová continued, was a deeply wounded child. "They are usually very stiff, and when you reach out to touch them, they flinch as if expecting to be hit. These children also tend to avoid company and are in permanent stress. Their souls are broken."
Andrej Poracký, head of the new Petržalka crisis centre, said that helping abused children should be a priority of the state. "The NGO sector is more active in this sphere than the state," he said. "But even with our efforts, you could still count centres like this one on one hand."
The Family Ministry's Peter Guráň said that the state understood the need for more help. "We established the Committee of Children's Rights last September, which is composed of 17 members from the Health, Education, Foreign Affairs, and Family Ministries, as well as representatives of NGOs helping children in Slovakia," he said.
The police say that more power should be given to NGO centres in helping abused women and children. "Why should the state do this?" Omasta asked. "In the West most of these centres are typically run by NGOs. We should learn from them."
Meanwhile, Božena says that she just wants "to be left in peace. I'm sorry for my children. I wish I could have given them a better family environment and better models to follow."