Domestic violence remains a big problem

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Although it rarely makes news headlines, domestic violence is the most widespread form of violence in the Czech Republic, according to a report released on Wednesday. In 94 percent of cases the victims are women. As many as ten a year die as a result of physical abuse. Thousands suffer in silence - often before the eyes of their children who are powerless to help. Despite hot-lines and support groups it often takes victims years to acknowledge the problem and seek help. Experts and support groups are hoping that a new law which is due to take effect next year will help to prevent many family tragedies.

Kamila Veliskova has been sentenced to eight years in jail for manslaughter. She shot her husband dead in a fight that ended years of abuse and psychological terror directed against herself and her two children. Kamila has appealed the verdict and she says that if the new law had come into effect sooner her life might have been different. Dana Pokorna of the battered womens' support group ROSA explains how the new law may help.

"The new law should enable the police to expel the abuser from the victim's home for a certain period of time -ten days for a start. At present it is almost always the woman who flees and takes her children with her. Many can't make up their mind to take such a big step. But this law will turn around the situation and improve the victim's circumstances - she will get time alone, in the safety of her own home, in which to make up her mind what to do about the problem or seek advice. A court may extend the period of expulsion to a year - and it makes no difference whether the abuser owns the property or not."

A recent poll conducted by the STEM agency suggests that 23 percent of Czechs have experienced physical or psychological abuse at some point in their lives. Experts and support groups fear that the number could actually be much higher. Dana Pokorna from the support group ROSA says it could be twice as high.

"Our own work with abuse victims leads us to believe that the number is much higher than these statistics suggest. A sociological survey conducted by the Czech Academy of Sciences and Charles University indicates that 38% of women have at some point in their lives been physically abused by their partners. And we are not talking about isolated incidents here - we are talking about repeated abuse. Of course, many walked away from the abuser or divorced him so that one man could have abused a number of women. But those are the results of the survey. We are approached by about 200 new victims every year so we know that the number of victims must be higher than the STEM statistics suggest."

Many people are shocked by the high figure but psychologists and support groups say it is unlikely that the number of abused women has increased sharply. They believe that more are coming out into the open with the problem, more of them are willing to talk about it and they also know where to turn for help - there are now more hotlines and help groups available, which was not the case in the past. Society's attitude to the problem has also changed. While in the past many people considered domestic abuse to be a marginal, private problem that should be resolved in the family - now 84 percent of Czechs say it is a grave problem that needs to be addressed. Some 68 percent of those polled said they welcomed the new law which will afford the victim better protection.

So is the high incidence of domestic violence a Czech or east European phenomenon? Dana Pokorna says not.

"We can compare the situation in Europe on the basis of the sociological study I mentioned. It was part of an all European survey and the results in Austria, Germany and Hungary were pretty similar - 38 to 40 percent of respondents said they had at some point in their lives been repeatedly physically abused by their partner. "