Letter from Prague

Czechs have just been made to face a number of unpleasant home truths. This nation which is known to abhor aggression , the makers of the Velvet Revolution, are a lot more aggressive behind closed doors. Hitherto, domestic violence has rarely been discussed openly, either in public or in the press. But the outcome of the broadest public opinion survey ever conducted on this matter speaks for itself. 26% of Czechs have been involved in domestic violence -either being subjected to it or inflicting it. 13% of the population face, or have in the past lived with, constant physical and psychological abuse. In 97% of cases the victims are women. 70% of families where domestic violence takes place are families with children. The questions were allegedly the most personal ever asked and in the questionnaire "domestic violence" was not the occasional fight or slap. It was defined as "persistent physical or psychological abuse that took place over a long period - a matter of months or years". Czechs are suddenly being made to see the bruised and scarred bodies of victims on television and are being questioned as to whether they would interfere if they heard the sound of screams and fighting coming from a neighbouring flat. 47% said they would be hesitant about getting involved. 29% said they thought that the public should ignore the signs, because these things should be resolved by the family, in private. While the vast majority of Czechs say they'd take action if they saw someone being hurt by an individual not related to them, they prefer to turn the other way if they happen to witness violence among family members. Shocking as that sounds statistics that journalists are now providing suggest that despite the civilized exterior and high living standard of the industrialized Western world, domestic violence is a problem common to all -regardless of nationality, class or education. In the Netherlands and Finland a fifth of the female population claim they are victims of domestic violence. In Portugal every second woman says she's beaten by her husband. In Ireland every second murder is reportedly committed by the victim's partner. In Austria 50% of divorces take place on the grounds of physical and psychological abuse. And according to a Euro-barometer survey from 1999, two thirds of Europeans say they believe domestic violence is common though unacceptable. One of the main reasons why people don't like to get involved in family violence is that frequently the victim sides with the assailant, lying to police who are called to the scene and maintaining that nothing was wrong. In the Czech Republic, the vast majority of women subjected to physical abuse resolved their problems through divorce -only a handful agreed to file charges. One can argue that no one can help the victims unless they want to help themselves. However, what society needs to offer is professional guidance and shelter. In the Czech Republic, victims of domestic violence are still waiting to get a telephone help-line. Hopefully the publicity this survey has generated will now set the wheels in motion. As they say, acknowledging a problem is the first step to resolving it.