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Domestic violence remains concealed

Andrea is 29 years old. She got married when she was 22. She's a pretty woman but skinny, with a sad look in her eyes.
When she was 21, she met her future husband, a man six years older than she. Though he was very gallant towards her before the wedding, immediately afterwards he started to drink. He hit her for the first time when she was in her fifth month of pregnancy because she had fallen asleep before he came home. There were soon other reasons to beat her - a bad meal, a dirty flat, refusal to make love to him, high phone bills.
When she finally threatened divorce, he started to lock her into their home and threatened to kill her if she left. Too frightened to go to the police, she was at her wits' end, but ended up lucky. With the support of her parents and a year-old non-governmental organization in Petržalka called Hope Center, she was able to take her three children and get out.

Andrea is 29 years old. She got married when she was 22. She's a pretty woman but skinny, with a sad look in her eyes.

When she was 21, she met her future husband, a man six years older than she. Though he was very gallant towards her before the wedding, immediately afterwards he started to drink. He hit her for the first time when she was in her fifth month of pregnancy because she had fallen asleep before he came home. There were soon other reasons to beat her - a bad meal, a dirty flat, refusal to make love to him, high phone bills.

When she finally threatened divorce, he started to lock her into their home and threatened to kill her if she left. Too frightened to go to the police, she was at her wits' end, but ended up lucky. With the support of her parents and a year-old non-governmental organization in Petržalka called Hope Center, she was able to take her three children and get out.

Domestic violence is a common problem in Slovakia, although no one knows how widespread it is. Slovak culture glosses over the topic, while the courts offer little protection to women, meaning that the vast majority of victims do not press charges if they are hit or beaten.

Ivan Šándor, director of the criminal law section at the Justice Ministry, said that over 50% of Slovak women who are raped do not report the incident. Officials say the vast majority of those women who do report abuse drop the charges sometime during the legal process.

Women's advocates in Slovakia blame the Slovak legal system for part of the problem. They say the legal process should be streamlined and that new laws should be adopted, such as restraining orders that keep men accused of abuse away from their spouses, and laws which allow the state to pursue abusers even if a woman recants her testimony.

But such changes encounter stout resistance. The standard line among police and justice officials is that it is enough to treat domestic assaults as they would any other kind of violence.

"A woman is an adult person who is responsible for her own life and decisions," said Štefan Omasta, a senior specialist from the violent crimes section of the Bratislava Police department. "If she stays with a violent husband the police cannot help her. We are not bodyguard providers."

Complex legal system

When a domestic assault takes place in Slovakia, it is treated much like a fight between two people in a bar. First, the woman or someone on the woman's behalf has to go to the police and file charges. The police then contact the husband and invite him to come down to the police station, a process which can take days. If the charges have not been withdrawn, the police may begin an investigation, which generally proceeds with the accused not in custody but living in his home.

If the woman's injuries are not serious, the case proceeds to a civil court. A minor beating may be categorised as a "delinquent act," and be punished by a 500 crown ($12) fine, according to Beata Dobová, a social worker at Hope Centre. If the injuries were more serious, the husband may be taken into custody.

The Slovak Co-ordinating Committee for the Problems of Women, a governmental committee formed in 1996 to deal with women's issues, would like to see the state adopt a law allowing police to prosecute an abuse case even if the woman victim drops the charges, said Zuzana Vranová, a member of the committee. Such rules are common in western countries, she added. The group would also like to see husbands kept away by a court order from their wives and children during an investigation.

"The state is treating these assaults as fights between two equal partners, which is not the case," Vranová said. "It is not a fight between two equally motivated people. The victim usually blames herself for the partner's anger and she thinks that she deserves to be hit or abused. Though lawyers argue that the term 'domestic violence' is vague and say that every kind of crime is described somewhere in their law book, they should try to make it less complicated for a victim to free herself from a tyrannical partner," she said.

Slow to change

Though the co-ordinating committee is now three years old, none of its domestic violence initiatives have been realised, Vranová said. In part, it appears this is related to the low priority assigned the crime, which in turn is linked to a complex set of social mores which make it difficult for people to take familial abuse seriously.

According to Vranová, who is a psychologist by profession, the Slovak population has a high tolerance for violence. "Part of the complex problem is that people often do not consider domestic violence a crime. If a neighbour decides to call the police, often it is because he feels bothered by the noise, not because there is some fighting. "

Slovak society still believes that problems within a family circle are a matter for the members of the family only, added Dobová from Hope Centre. It is only in the most extreme cases that a beaten woman will tell police or seek professional help, she said.

She added that there are many myths surrounding the problem of domestic violence. "One common notion is that if a man beats his wife, she either deserves it or she likes it that way. We unconsciously adopt the domestic violence myths, and what is even worse, we are not willing to admit that we may be influenced by mistaken stereotypes."

Not so long ago, Slovak culture viewed wife beating as positive, she said, citing a traditional Slovak saying still heard often today: "When a man beats his woman, its as if he was ploughing his own field."

Because the Interior and Justice Ministries don't classify domestic abuse as a separate crime, no statistics are kept on the matter. The closest figure counts how many crimes are committed in "homes." In 1997, the last year for which such a number was available, a total of 1,807 serious crimes, including murder and rape, were committed inside someone's home. Out of this number, 84 were committed against women.

Women's advocates, however, say they believe domestic violence is increasing. In the past few years, domestic tensions have been exacerbated by financial troubles and other concerns, likely translating into more violence, Vranová said.

While attitudes and laws are slow to change, however, more attention is being focused on domestic violence than ever before. Police official Omasta said he had been interviewed three times about domestic violence this year, compared to one or no interviews in previous years. In addition, though there are still only a tiny number of shelter beds or counsellors provided by the state for women at risk, more NGO's, both international and Slovak, are starting to deal with the problem.

Hope Centre in Petržalka was founded in October 1998 by USAID and the American International Health Association, and now has partial funding from the Slovak government. Dobová said that the center has so far helped 285 people, mostly abused women.

"Often the victims are young women between 25 and 35 years of age, and the violence itself is not the driving force behind their decision to come to us. Usually it has to do with children, who either start failing at school due to stress from what they witness at home, or they start to turn against their mother under the influence of a manipulative father," she said.

The center has a police officer who comes regularly to give advice to women on what to do when they are attacked by their husbands. Legal help is provided for women seeking a divorce. But despite the help, many women choose to stay with their husbands, either because no shelter is available to them, because they are frightened, or because they have no alternate means of financial support.

To help deal with the problem of financial dependence, a Canadian NGO called Integra is launching in September an entrepreneurship project intended largely for "women at risk." The programme will provide small loans and training in basic business skills to divorced or single mothers or victims of domestic violence seeking to launch their own small business.

In Humenné, a town in eastern Slovakia, there is an advisory organisation for abused women called Pro Familia. There are other groups in Košice and Nitra. But only a tiny minority of all victims now receive help, Vranová said.

Sharon Otterman contributed to this story

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