It's not easy getting a medical report confirming the day-to-day oppression
June 09. 2022. – 10:31 AM
Why is the system unable to protect those whose partners are making their lives a living hell? Today, more than 200,000 women in Hungary are in a relationship in which they are victims of physical and/or sexual violence. Almost half of all Hungarian women suffer some form of physical and/or sexual abuse in their lifetime, and on average one woman loses her life every week as a result of domestic violence. Violence against women may be the most common human rights violation worldwide, and domestic violence is the most common yet least reported crime. What does it mean to say that abuse is systemic? What makes it difficult to leave an oppressive relationship? Why is the system unable to protect those in need? This article – part one of a five-part Telex series – explores these questions.
"There is no sign on an abuser's forehead that tells you immediately who you are dealing with, and even someone who may not seem like a victim at first glance can end up getting abused," says Zsófi, who, as a young urban intellectual, truly doesn't give the impression of the "typical" victim of abuse – after all, it is mostly women on the fringes of society who are portrayed that way by the media. The temperament of Zsófi's former partner was not obvious either: at first, he was fantastic and caring, showering her with romantic gestures when she was starving for attention. The good-looking, resolute young man – who happened to be an animal rights activist and later became vegan – seemed the perfect partner, and only gradually did it become clear that something wasn't right. First, he regularly had financial problems. Then, the conflicts between him and his family became more and more apparent. After a while, he also became rough and violent with Zsófi as well. "The first time he hit me was in 2016. We had been dating for seven months by that point. He was jealous because he had learned that I was still in touch with an ex-boyfriend. He struck my face, and by the next day, there was a dark purple shiner around my eye. He was a good 20 centimeters taller than me. I weighed less than 50 kilograms, while he was over 100 at the time." From then on, all forms of violence and supervision became more and more common: the abuser constantly monitored Zsófi's phone. If they were not together, she was required to send pictures periodically of where she was and with whom.
Following the first hit, the verbal and physical abuse continued according to the usual pattern. The abuse was always followed by theatrical displays of remorse, vows and promises. "There are four incidents for which a medical record or a police report was filed, but these make up only a fraction of all that happened because it is difficult to get a medical report on the emotional abuse that takes place day in, day out. It was extremely difficult for me to confront the situation I was in – I felt utterly alone, even though I had a friend who knew about what I was going through and often helped me," recalls Zsófi. After a while, not even the presence of Zsófi's son deterred the abuse, and it became clear that the many promises were meaningless: the violence would escalate, and they were both in serious danger. Then, after more than a year of struggle, she managed to get out of the relationship.
WOMEN, HUNGARY, 2022
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But the harassment persisted even after the break-up. Zsófi's abuser moved out of the shared apartment but did not give back the key, returning to the apartment when she was not home. As he knew her daily route between the apartment, the daycare center, and her workplace, he repeatedly showed up at these places, and they regularly encountered one another "by chance" on the way. "It was scary and overwhelming," recalls Zsófi, who eventually filed a complaint and sought legal assistance. The harassment only came to a complete stop when the abuser met his next victim.
Zsófi was confronted with the typical, abuse-related flaws of the system. There were instances when the officers responding to her report of an assault asked her in the abuser's presence if she wanted a restraining order: she didn't take them up on the offer. They informed her that she was not obliged to make a statement incriminating a family member, but they forgot to mention that no investigation would be opened without one. Zsófi filed a complaint alleging domestic violence, but the investigation was initially opened for harassment because the police officers in charge were not aware of the circumstances and downgraded the offense. "I now know that it should also be the doctors' duty to report a case of abuse when they become aware of it. And yet I've been to the emergency room several times and this has never happened. I've never even been asked if I would be safe when I walked out the door. I had one injury that wasn't even documented because 'it couldn't be seen well enough' due to my tattoo. I got information almost exclusively from my lawyer, but even he was often left in the dark by the police regarding the status of the investigation (e.g. the extension of the deadline)." Zsófi's case was due to have a preliminary hearing in March, but after waiting for 45 minutes in the corridor of the court, she and her lawyer were informed that the date would be pushed back to June. No reason was given – thus stands the case, now in its fifth year.
It is not for want of seeking out help
According to data provided by UNIFEM (The United Nations Development Fund for Women), violence against women is so commonplace that it may be the most pervasive form of human rights abuse – so the uniqueness of Zsófi's story is also what makes it typical. Even as a young, educated woman from Budapest, it was difficult to recognize and accept. It took tremendous willpower to get out of the relationship and report it. And yet her case is still open years later. Meanwhile, thousands of women in Hungary – from all over the country and from all walks of society – are affected by domestic abuse and have an even bumpier path towards acknowledgment and assistance — or they've gotten stuck on the way. According to the most recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), women nowadays are most at risk in their relationships: serious psychological abuse is almost entirely a phenomenon unique to relationships, and they are far more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse from someone close to them than from a stranger.
The presence of violence against women in a society is an indicator of the scale of the power imbalance between women and men. Today, more than 200,000 women in Hungary are in a relationship in which they are victims of physical and/or sexual violence. Almost half of women suffer some form of physical and/or sexual abuse in their lifetime, and on average one woman loses her life every week as a result of domestic violence (again, according to the FRA survey). While it may seem that these incidents have gained more visibility in recent years – as several particularly disturbing cases reached a broader portion of the public: the death of Beáta Molnár, a teacher's assistant from Cluj-Napoca, the tragedy of Erika Renner, the victim of the so-called "lye doctor", and the tragic case of the severely abused Bernadett Orosz or Gabriella Lakatos, who was blinded by her partner – experience has shown that even cases that generate the greatest amount of social resonance are glossed over. The outrage they provoke and the impetus of protests and demonstrations organized in response to them do not translate into a political will to change the situation. There is also the latency of violence against women, which is still extremely high: according to FRA data, only about 5 percent of physical assault cases and only about 2.4 percent of sexual assault cases are registered.
Contrary to popular belief, however, this latency is not due to a lack of seeking out help:
a considerable proportion of those abused try to seek assistance from medical professionals, law enforcement, or even social services,
but they don't receive it, or at least not in the manner that they need it – they are effectively betrayed by the system.
At a moment when they are in need of emotional support, practical assistance, protection, and medical help as they face serious domestic problems, they are instead met with victim-blaming, whitewashing and the acceptance of the abuser's narrative. They also find that violence is often described as an anger management problem triggered by the woman's improper behavior – even at times paired with the expression "a crime of passion". "If abusive men are thought to be incapable of managing their anger, it makes them appear as though they are not responsible for the victims' injuries. And if we make women's self-assertiveness the root cause of the abuse, we create the absurd situation of blaming the woman for the violence a man has committed against her, not to mention sanctifying inequality," writes psychologist Gábor Kuszing in an essay published on Nőkjoga.hu.
Dr. Vera Péterfi, a lawyer at the Patent Association, also considers it extremely important to make a clear distinction between aggression and violence. "There is aggression inside all of us, but it is solely the responsibility of the abuser to decide whether to turn it into abuse," she says. According to the lawyer, our society teaches us to see violence as acceptable, so victims are often unable to judge whether what is happening to them is normal. What's more concerning is that even those whose job it is to help are unable to appreciate the gravity of each event. The inequality at the root of domestic violence is not a Hungarian phenomenon, nor is it even an Eastern European one, and yet, it is a fact that in countries (e.g. Scandinavian countries) where men take on a greater role in the home and women have more opportunities to build their careers, as compared to the more traditional model, the vulnerability of women is reduced and their chances of being able to escape an abusive environment are increased. However, where there is a high degree of power imbalance (of which financial dependence is only one aspect), the scope for action is very limited for those who want to escape. Women who have experienced domestic violence often find it very difficult to get out of the relationship, which often leads to victim-blaming questions: "Why did she stick around for so long in such a bad place? Or: why did she go back to her abuser? There are rational answers to these questions. The fear of escalating violence, of being powerless, is well-founded in experience, as
abusers will make good on their threats if given the chance"
says the specialist. It is common for the abuser to threaten to take the children away, which is more than merely scare tactics. "Research shows that almost 50 percent of abusers who ask for custody of the children – regardless of how involved or not they had been in the children's lives prior – are granted it by the court," she explains. Societal pressure, and even pressure from the immediate family, also makes it difficult to leave: a family has to stick together even when "there are problems", and it is the woman's role and responsibility to hold it together. Another fundamental problem is that the system does not signal to the abuser unequivocally that what he is doing is not acceptable and that there will be consequences.
Often just the opposite is the case (for example, according to court cases published on Nőkjoga.hu, shared use of the residence is a very common outcome, and even if the court recognizes that such a situation is life-threatening, the abuser is awarded a multi-million forint [~tens of thousands of euros] compensation for the ownership right in return), and the lack of accountability seems to vindicate the abuser, further exacerbating the violence. According to the Communications Department of the National Police Headquarters, "the police shall issue a temporary restraining order within the framework of the on-the-spot measures according to Act XXXIV of 1994 on the Police if it is reasonably established that the immediate protection of life, limb, and property justifies doing so." Experience shows, however, that this is not always a clear-cut decision out in the field. However, if there is no accountability, the abuser will feel that such actions are permissible.
The system assumes that abuse doesn't take place in nice neighborhoods or pleasant households
At the root of these issues is a fundamental shortcoming in the education of legal professionals – and even that of psychologists: it doesn't cover abuse and its dynamics. As a result, such professionals do not know what exactly to look out for, nor do they have the proper context in which to interpret such incidents.
"For one thing, the system assumes that abuse doesn't take place in nice neighborhoods or pleasant households. Secondly, it is focused on finding the trail of blood or the slap mark, whereas the real problem is the systemic exertion of power. Smacking, monitoring the partner's phone, and sexual violence are all symptoms of this. The underlying basis of violence is always some kind of power imbalance that has been validated – often even promoted – by society. At the moment, it is possible to report a crime of domestic violence, but this is often not even known to the police. The scope of offenses for which someone can be prosecuted is very narrow, as abuse is much broader than what is punishable according to the Criminal Code: from menacing control to economic violence and the restriction of reproductive rights, there are many ways in which the systemic exertion of power is manifested,"
– added Péterfi.
NGOs are trying to address the shortcomings of the system, among other things, but a much quicker and simpler solution would be to ratify the Istanbul Convention. Given that violence against women and children is a global phenomenon and therefore a serious problem in all EU countries, the Council of Europe's convention was created precisely to ensure a more effective, unified European response to it. In the countries where the Convention is applied, a number of advances have been made (the creation of shelters, the introduction of violence against women as a subject in the curriculum of relevant professions, the redefinition of harassment and sexual abuse) that allow for a better, more effective, and victim-centered procedure. But the most important message of the Convention is that violence is not a private matter – rather, putting an end to it is in everyone's best interest.
Although the Hungarian government signed the convention in 2014, it did not ratify it. This is partly because some points of the convention are “incompatible with the government's migrant and gender policies.” In addition to education and the creation of the material conditions for victim protection mentioned above, an important part of getting more victims help could also be to bolster their confidence in law enforcement. According to the National Police Headquarters, this latter point is a priority for them as well. The European Commission proposed EU-wide regulations to combat violence against women and domestic violence on Women's Day this year. The directive "also criminalizes sexual coercion, female genital mutilation, and online violence. (...) The new regulations will also make it easier for victims to seek justice and encourage the Member States to introduce a one-stop-shop system so that all assistance and protection services are available in a single place."
In recent years, progress has been made all across Europe in addressing violence against women and domestic violence. For example, in June 2021, Slovenia amended the sections of its criminal code on rape and sexual violence and now uses the affirmative consent model (i.e. "only yes means yes"). In Italy, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, and Serbia, the WeToo program provides training to help professionals to better recognize abusive situations and to manage the mental stress resulting from the procedures themselves. The PATTERN project, which has been implemented in Greece, Bulgaria, and Portugal, addresses current issues of violence against the Roma and Roma women.
This article is the first in a series of Telex articles on the situation facing women today. Look for the next 4 topics relating to women in Hungary we will explore in the coming weeks, on Thursdays!
What data tells us about violence against Women, FRA Population and Crime Statistics (2015); Judit Wirth, Zsuzsanna Winkler
Partner abuse is a form of violence against women; Gábor Kuszing
Institutional betrayal in practice; Judit Wirth
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The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.