Domestic violence in the Czech Republic
Domestic violence does not get much attention in the media yet, as in most countries around the world, it does go on. 16% of Czechs, mostly women, are victims and it takes, on average, six years of abuse before they decide to seek professional help. The attitude of the public is to turn a blind eye and deaf ear, since domestic violence is still seen as something that should be resolved within the family. Now the authorities have decided to take radical action to change this, setting up an alliance against domestic violence and acting to raise public awareness of the problem. Find out more in Magazine with Daniela Lazarova.
A sound that is disturbingly familiar to people for whom violence has become a way of life. According to statistics at least 16% of Czechs are victims of domestic violence - and in 91% of cases they are women. This involves both physical and psychological abuse and it generally takes years before the victim makes up her mind to seek help. The establishment of a 24 hour hot line for the victims of domestic violence a year ago brought a significant improvement. Instead of waiting an average 6 years before seeking help women are now calling much sooner -finding it easier to tell their story to a stranger over the phone. I asked the head of this hotline Mrs. Zuzana Zejdova why the decision to seek help is so difficult to make.
"It is very hard because you live in it. You live in a relationship where violence is the usual way of solving problems and you think that it is a common way of solving problems. You think it is normal. Also, even if the violence is severe in the eyes of the victim the aggressor is still her husband and, more often than not, she loves him. These women don't want the culprit punished they just want the violence to stop."
Imagine a woman who is verbally abused, then she may be slapped on one occasion, then she may be slapped a second time, her husband says he was drunk and he's very sorry. Where should she draw the line? Where do you think domestic violence begins and where should she start being concerned and seek professional guidance?
"She should seek help after the first incident. After the first physical attack. You see the problem with domestic violence is that it creeps up on you. It grows and it gets more brutal and more dangerous. So you must stop it before it is too late. Ideally you should seek help after the first incident. You know that you are a victim of domestic violence if these attacks are repeated, frequent and increasingly brutal."
Among the disturbing facts which have come to light is that domestic violence frequently takes place in the presence of young children. Children play an important role in the whole scenario - the aggressor frequently uses them as a means of psychological blackmail, telling the victim that she would lose her children in a court battle. Although in 90% of cases Czech courts leave children with the mother, the victim's self confidence is usually undermined to such an extent that these threats prove effective. On the other hand it is the children who -in the end- give the victim the strength to act. Mr. Zejdova again:
"My experience is that when the offender turns against the children that's the moment when the woman decides to take action. When she decides that something needs to be done. Until that point they think that it is just a problem between their husband and themselves but once the children are threatened they usually take some kind of action. That's one point. Another thing is that many adults think that if a child does not actually witness these incidents then everything is fine, but that is not true. Children are very perceptive and such an environment could affect them very badly. When they grow up they may behave like the aggressor or the victim because that's what they were exposed to in their childhood."
So who are the aggressors in our midst? Mrs Zejdova says there are many misconceptions about both the aggressors and the victims :
"There are still myths about this in Czech society. People think that the offender must be a terrible man with indecent behavior at first sight. They expect to be able to recognize whether a man is capable of this or not. But nothing could be further from the truth. It could be anyone. They come from all social spheres. There is no typical offender. And the same goes for the victim. People usually think that the victims are weak, dependent women but that's not true. It may, and does, happen to women with a university degree. It touches us all."
For many years the attitude in this country has been to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the problem - due to a widespread belief that domestic violence is something that should be resolved in the family - but now the authorities and NGOs have joined forces to fight the problem together. Last week the interior ministry, a number of parliament deputies and NGO representatives formed an alliance against domestic violence. In practice this means that they will be working closely together to train police officers, produce a new legislation to protect victims and provide an effective support network.
Mrs Zejdova says that Czech law makers and the police need not look far for good ideas. Neighbouring Austria is said to have an excellent safety mechanism which it would not be difficult - or expensive - to emulate.
" The situation in Austria is such that it is the offender, not the victim, who is forced to move out. When the police arrives they decide whether the matter is serious and if they find it so then the offender is told that he must leave the flat and he is not allowed to return for a fortnight. This gives the victim time to decide what she wants to do. "
That is what you would like to see in the Czech Republic. What is the situation now?
"There doesn't exist anything similar. If - IF - the police comes to investigate the incident then the officers usually say "calm down and solve your problems -we don't want to interfere " and they leave. That is the most common response."
When these victims actually decide to file charges how are they treated at the police station?
"The problem is that frequently the officers don't believe them. They think that they are just hysterical women who are over-reacting. Another thing is that these are very unpopular cases at the police station. Domestic violence is committed in the family and it is usually just one person's word against the another's. So there's a problem with evidence, and assembling that is hard work. So the police don't want to have to deal with these cases and they usually don't treat the victims with much respect. They want to put them off filing charges."
Well, police officers are allegedly already being given instruction on how to approach the problem - and one thing they are being asked to do straight away is to discreetly hand the victim a matchbox-size booklet containing emergency advice, the 24 hour hotline number and the address of the White Circle of Safety, an NGO that specializes in helping victims of domestic violence. Here's what they offer those who finally make that all-important call for help.
"We provide them with legal advice which means giving them information about what filing charges actually entails, informing them about their rights and obligations. And we provide counseling - we talk to them about their problem, assess their situation and discuss what is best for them and their children. We also have what we call "safety-planning" which is intended to protect them and their children as best as possible."
Do you provide shelter? There are shelters in the country- are there not- for victims of domestic violence?
"Our organization does not actually operate any shelters but we do provide the respective contacts. There are shelters in the country which specialize in helping victims of domestic violence. They offer therapeutic programs and we recommend them. "
If you are listening to us here in the Czech Republic and need help or advice the hotline number for victims of domestic violence is 2 5151 1313.