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Domestic violence: when cosy nests turn into living hells

A COUPLE of years ago a campaign called "Every fifth woman" tried to increase public awareness about the existence of domestic violence. The campaign suggested that in Slovakia, every fifth woman is exposed to various forms of abuse at home.

A COUPLE of years ago a campaign called "Every fifth woman" tried to increase public awareness about the existence of domestic violence. The campaign suggested that in Slovakia, every fifth woman is exposed to various forms of abuse at home.

In May 2005, the Centre for the Study of Work and Family released a survey claiming that one out of four women in Slovakia are exposed to domestic violence.

The centre was quite critical of state institutions, saying that they have not done enough to protect victims of domestic violence or bring the issue to the public's attention. Non-governmental organizations are primarily fulfilling this role.

Only a very narrow majority of Slovaks report domestic violence or take action, even if they know that women and children are regularly exposed. Almost 20 percent of those polled said they would not react if they witnessed domestic violence and an additional 30 percent did not know what they would do, based on research conducted by the MVK polling agency for the daily SME.

Many Slovaks still tend to consider domestic violence as something that does not concern them. Besides, certain kinds of abuse are culturally acceptable, mainly in rural areas.

Though domestic violence is not exclusively a female problem, women and children remain the most frequent victims in Slovakia.

The poll showed that 7.9 percent of the respondents were regularly or occasionally beaten by their partner.

Activist Monika Grochová of the association Fenestra claims that domestic violence is a huge problem in Slovak families. What most people do not realize is that the violence transcends economics.

Recent researches show that both wealthy and poor homes can become a living hell. Violence occurs equally in religious and atheist families as well.

"It does not really matter whether a family is religious or not," says Hana Bartová of the Hope Centre, which provides assistance for abused people.

Sociologist Zora Bútorová thinks that new economic conditions are bringing about new risk factors that hit families hard when both parents are unemployed. But even families with steady wage earners suffer from domestic violence.

People are often confused over what is torture and what is violence. While there is a very fragile border between physical punishment and torture, sometimes it is the intensity of anger that determines the category.

Many, given their family histories, are not fully aware that they are victims of domestic violence.

Children grow up learning that shouting and slaps to the face are tools of "communication" to define power.

In fact, 61 percent of respondents still think that spanking is an acceptable form of punishment; 21 percent feels that face slapping is all right. Poking children with a rod appears an effective and acceptable punishment for 10.7 percent; while 14 percent think sending children to kneel in the corner is tolerable. Two percent would even use cold showers to punish their children.

However, 34 percent of those polled oppose the use of physical punishment.

Psychologists warn that psychic torture [verbal and emotional abuse] is not rare and has been largely underestimated for years. Under the Communist regime, domestic violence was "non-existent" and no laws treated it specifically.

Sociologists say that the country's legislation has greatly improved in this sphere but that it will be a long and thorny journey before the state will enforce them.

Activists say that the police should be more cooperative and treat cases of reported violence with complete seriousness.

Statistics warn that the number of violent crimes have been on the rise in Slovakia. In fact, childhood exposure to domestic violence is directly linked to 13 percent of the crimes. Seventy-five percent of pedophiles were sexually abused and tortured as children.

The lack of shelters that are able to provide professional help is still a problem.

The demand for shelters to protect male victims of abuse arose in 2004 and there are plans to create two within five years. While there is no official statistics on violence committed by women against men, Slovakia does have an organized Union of Tortured Men.

Imrich Galia, a union member, says that two shelters for the whole country are not enough. He is convinced that men are frequently subjected to psychic torture by women.

The Penal Code has defined domestic violence a crime since 2002. Anyone who has been exposed to violence or witnessed torture can file a complaint. Moreover, the complaint can no longer be withdrawn. In the past, abused women have withdrawn their complaints out of fear of recrimination.

People exposed to domestic violence for more than a decade can take some refuge in Slovak law. Courts can issue temporary restraining orders or even ban the abuser from shared living space if the abuse happens frequently within a seven day period.

The statistics are more frightening when one imagines that behind the neighbours' windows or somewhere in a distant village of Eastern Slovakia, there are victims who are not aware of being abused. They only feel that something is not all right and they don't know that there are laws designed to protect them.

By Beata Balogová

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