Silent Witnesses bring awareness of domestic violence

In the course of the last year ten Czech women have been killed in their homes by violent husbands or partners. Hundreds of others suffer psychological and physical abuse on a daily basis - often before the eyes of their children who are powerless to help. Now a new exhibition entitled "Silent Witnesses" is aiming to jolt society and Parliament into awareness of a growing problem.

"Silent Witnesses" are red paper silhouettes of women who were killed by their husbands. They stand in a semi-circle and each bears a name, age and how they were killed. Red candles flicker in the wind and behind the silent witnesses stand members of the non-governmental association Rosa in a silent vigil.

First launched in Minnesota in 1990, the Silent Witnesses campaign is a way of letting the public know what goes on behind many closed doors - and that physical abuse sometimes ends in death. Brona Vargova of Rosa says that the Czech Republic badly needs a law that would give abused women space and time to consider their situation and get out of an abusive relationship.

"We still do not have the possibility to expel an abuser from his house for a certain period of time. During this time the victim should be offered assistance and advice as to how she can deal with the problem. And she would feel safe making her decision. The way things are now it is usually the victim who flees the house in the middle of the night with her children, while the perpetrator stays at home."

What ROSA would like to see is an amendment to the law that would give the police the right to order an abuser out of the family home for a certain period of time. Police in neighbouring states such as Austria and Slovakia make use of this possibility and experts in the field claim that ten days beyond the reach of her abuser is enough for a woman to consider her situation objectively, seek help and come to a decision that could save her life. Unfortunately, many Czech MPs are still wavering - fearful that a change of the law could be abused in messy divorce cases.

What keeps women in abusive relationships for years is not just the feeling that they have no place to go. It is a persistent belief that the violence is temporary and that their partner will change. On average it takes women an incredible ten to 15 years to recognize that they have a serious problem and need to get out of the relationship. By that time the abuse is so bad that many of them don't make it out alive.

"It is not easy to press charges against someone who was your lover, who is the father of your children, with whom you spent some happy times. It is a very difficult situation, psychologically."

In addition to a telephone helpline Rosa operates three shelters for abused women in different parts of the Czech Republic. Brona Vargova says that many more are needed. She claims the difference between the Czech Republic and other European states is not in the extent of abuse women suffer but rather in the safety network provided for them. Also, there is a need to increase awareness of the fact that psychological abuse is also a serious problem and one that usually leads to physical abuse at a later stage.

"The media is usually only interested in murders, brutal beatings and violence. But there are other forms of abuse. For instance psychological abuse is very traumatic for the victim and sometimes these women come to us and say -we are probably not victims of abuse because we don't have broken legs and arms and bruises to show for it. I think we need to make people realize there are all kinds of abuse and they are fully entitled to seek help."

ROSA's helpline in the Czech Republic is: 602 246 102