Karolína Křížová: People in Czechia are starting to take the problem of sexual violence seriously

When the #MeToo campaign resonated in the Western world many Czechs were openly sceptical and even ridiculed what they considered to be a typical excess of Western feminism. Then two cases of multiple rape made media headlines – one involving Dominik Feri, at the time the youngest MP in the lower house of Parliament, and the other Jan Cimický, a well-known and respected psychiatrist who is now charged with 28 cases of rape committed mostly on his patients over the years. These cases appear to have been an eye-opener for many in the country.

I spoke to Karolína Křížová from Konsent, an NGO which focuses on preventing sexual violence and creating a safer environment for women, to find out her take on these two cases and the public response to them.

“It says a lot about how things are shifting in the society. Because when the first affair happened – which was the case of the young politician – many of the victims who came forward were denigrated and there were doubts among the general public about whether they were not making false accusations, whether it was not a conspiracy to bring him down. That must have been very difficult for all the victims.

“In Czech law, rape is defined by the presence of violence or a threat of violence against the victim and if it is not present then the case does not get labelled as rape and there is no justice for the victims.”

“Also, the journalists who opened the case had a hard time. Because initially the victims spoke about it to journalists who reported on the case in the media, before they actually went to the police. And the journalists themselves faced threats and a lot of hate from the society for opening it up, so it was really difficult for them. But then, the second case and other cases that popped up in the university environment –but particularly the case with the psychiatrist – gave greater weight to it all. I think that the society has started taking it more seriously, because there’s more and more of these cases, unrelated cases, in different areas such as universities, hospitals and politics that made it obvious that these people are not making it up and it is a broader societal issue. That has led to a shift in the societal perspective on the problem.”

In the past it was common that people and even police officers would suggest that the victim had “asked for it” by the way they dressed or behaved and so on – it that still happening?

Karolína Křížová | Photo: HateFree Culture

“I think that is changing a lot, but I do not have data to confirm it. I know that a few years ago , 2015 – 2016 ,  there was research done by Amnesty International CR who mapped these stereotypes and myths that are based on blaming the victim – such as how they drank alcohol and the way they were dressed and so on. And it was widespread – the majority of the society held these views. Now I would say that this is shifting, but I do not know of any newer statistics, I am just saying it on the basis of the workshops we lead and the lectures and debates that we organize. A lot of people are speaking up against the stereotypical nature of these attitudes.”

Was this the main reason why women did not speak up in the past – why they were reticent to do so?

“Yes, I would say so. If they first confide in a member of their family or a friend and get asked –well, what were you wearing or did you provoke it in some way –then they are even less likely to go to the police, where the process is even more difficult. So I think that this is a big obstacle in reporting these cases. Even now it is a persisting issue that will not be resolved in a year or two, it will take a longer time, but I think we are moving in the right direction.”

When the #MeToo campaign resonated in the Western world, in this country a number of celebrities distanced themselves from it. Why was that –is it because feminism as such is unpopular in this country and they did not want to be associated with it?

“There are a lot of misconceptions in the Czech Republic about what feminism means. People distance themselves from the #MeToo movement because they do not want to be labelled as “a man-hating feminist”.

“I think you are definitely right. At first the #MeToo movement didn’t even make it here, or it wasn’t very big. Then it gained some traction, but mostly in the derogatory sense. Everything that resonated in the media around #MeToo was along the lines of “Oh, this stupid thing from the West has come here, it is all false accusations….We do not want #MeToo here.” It was ridiculed, almost.  And I think that it all started changing around these two cases that we spoke about –the politician and the psychiatrist. People started connecting   #MeToo to the real cases they were hearing about.  But I think that even now it is still frowned upon a bit by the society. And I think that the reasons are as you mentioned – the word “feminism” does not have positive connotations for a lot of people nowadays in the Czech Republic. A lot of people will say “ I am not a feminist, but I support women’s rights” or vice-versa. In other words “ I don’t hate men”. There are a lot of misconceptions about what feminism means and people do not want to be associated with it. I think that also has to do with why people want to distance themselves from the #MeToo movement –they do not want to be labelled as “a man-hating feminist”.

Are the laws in this country adequate to protect women- and men -from harassment and rape?

“I think the laws do not tackle the problem enough. There are not many laws that deal with harassment explicitly enough. The law on harassment mainly focusses on the work environment context, so there are some anti-discriminatory laws banning harassment in the work place but it does not take into account all the different forms that sexual harassment can have in everyday life, online and other places. So I think it needs to be updated to encompass all of these forms.”

Is there a will to address this?

“Currently young people learn about sex and relationships either from their peers - who know just as little as they do – or from pornography.”

“As far as sexual harassment goes, I do not think it is a topic at the moment. There is however more debate on the redefinition of rape in the Czech legal system. That is something that has been resonating in Czech society for the past year, since our NGO Konsent in cooperation with Amnesty International opened up this debate and started a petition for the redefinition of rape, which we think is currently the most pressing issue in this area. Because rape is defined by the presence of violence or a threat of violence against the victim and if it is not present then the case does not get labelled as rape and there is no justice for the victims. We think this is a big issue because many victims “freeze”, they have a psychological response where they can’t even defend themselves which is a natural and well-mapped phenomenon. Such cases are not labelled as rape and we think they should be. Most European countries have consent-based laws where sex without consent is rape. That is not the case here and we think that needs to be changed.”

Do we know – from opinion polls and surveys – how many people this concerns?

“According to statistics about 600 people a year come forward to report rape, but in reality the number is estimated to be around 12,000 so only around five percent of cases get reported to the police. Ninety percent of the victims are women, so it is usually men who are perpetrators. But that does not mean that it does not affect men as well. Men can also be raped, by women or by other men. It is an issue that affects everyone in different ways. It is mostly women who are victims of rape but, on the other hand, men are less likely to report it for various reasons, such as stereotypes about men always wanting sex, or feeling shame at not having defended themselves enough. So when it happens to a man it is maybe even more difficult in some ways to come forward.”

Photo illustrative: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

Is there sufficient education in this area – at school for instance?

“I do not think so. Sex education in the Czech Republic is lacking in many ways. It is not a subject in itself, so the topic has to be integrated in other subjects like Czech language, biology, which doesn’t leave much space to cover the whole scope of sex education.  Another issue is that teachers do not have enough materials. We have conducted research among teachers of primary and secondary schools on how prepared they feel to teach sex education and what the obstacles are. Most of them reported that they do not have sufficient materials and are not taught at university how to teach these topics in a modern and comprehensive way. This is why we have published some manuals, we currently have six out on different topics from consent, through sexual harassment to pornography and respect in general and we think there need to be more materials to support teachers to deliver in an effective way. But we also think there needs to be more support from the state and from universities to place more emphasis on teaching these topics and support teachers for them to be able to do it.

“We also know that young people are interested in this –we know this from our own practice because students reach out to us often, ask that we do a workshop at their school and so on. They want to have access to good resources because currently young people learn about sex and relationships either from their peers - who know just as little as they do – or from pornography. According to the Czech union of high school students and their research, schools are the last source from which children learn about sex and relationships. We think this is insufficient.”

So there is nobody saying - this is where you draw the line, and you need not be ashamed to report this and you can report it to this or that person?

“Universities are realizing sexual harassment is something they needed to tackle.”

“I do not want to generalize, because many teachers are motivated and do their best, let us say it is not systematically covered as it should be. Some teachers are motivated and do try and we also cover the subject, we do workshops for students as well as for teachers, we lecture, I just held a whole day lecture and workshop for teachers from Prague yesterday and 17 people came. They were all very motivated, and said, yes, I do this and that at my school, so it is getting covered in some schools, but more needs to be done nationwide.”

What about universities – we have been hearing about sexual harassment at universities – are they addressing the issue adequately?

“It is quite a new topic for universities and they didn’t used to be that interested in addressing the issue in the past. But again, if we go back to the affair with the politician, a lot of the victims that came forward and spoke out against him referred to events that happened when he was a law student at the university in Prague. I think this also helped to open up the topic of harassment and sexual violence at universities and that kind of kick-started a debate and universities realizing this was something they needed to tackle. There are also many student movements nowadays that ask universities and put pressure on universities to have mechanisms in place and have clear strategy procedures for what happens if someone reports that they have been harassed. So now, we as an organization, have more universities reaching out to us asking for lectures, workshops but also more systematic solutions for them.”

Do you expect the young generation to be more assertive, given what you have said?

Illustrative photo: Jiří Matoušek,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 2.0

“Yes, yes, definitely young people are more interested and they themselves raise awareness of these issues nowadays.”

What do you consider to be most important at this point?

“I think raising awareness bottom-up is very important, doing workshops in schools and teachers teaching young people about all this, so that the future generation can be better off, is really vital. It is hard to fix what is already wrong with the society but we can instill positive values and respect in the younger generation to change the future society.

“But I also think we can’t do it ourselves bottom-up. It is not enough to just raise awareness and do workshops and all of the things that we do. We definitely think that the state and the government need to support it top-down, because they have a lot of power. And, as I mentioned, the redefinition of rape is necessary because we can teach people one thing but what the law says gives the tone to how the society perceives these issues. So the law needs to acknowledge things as being important and acknowledge rape and sexual violence as being pressing issues that this society does not tolerate, before the society can actually change.”