Battered Wives Shunned in the Balkans

Georgiana Ilie Târgu-Mureş, Belgrade, Vienna and Paris

Women who evict violent husbands from the family home often face disapproval, even outright hostility, from neighbours and relatives in the patriarchal societies in which they live.

When ‘Marta’ applied for a court order to evict her former husband from their home, she was not afraid of the reaction of friends and neighbours in the town of Târgu-Mureş, central Romania.

Whenever ‘Ion’ lost his temper and caused a drunken scandal, the neighbours would – woken by the noise - file into the corridor in their apartment block and ensure someone called the police.

However, when Marta decided to finally evict him from the family home in December 2005, her neighbours’ attitudes changed.

Although the couple had officially divorced eight months earlier, Marta had not actually kick Ion out of the family flat because he had promised to behave. He did not, however, keep his promise. One day Marta told her neighbours that she was going to change the locks while he was at work.

That evening, he came home drunk and, when he discovered he could not open the door, started yelling and pushing against the door. Marta and their two boys grew scared but assumed the police would be, as usual, on the way.  

“Someone must have called them,” Marta, who is in her late forties, recalls thinking.  

While she pushed back against the door, she wondered why the police were not on their way. In the absence of reassuring sirens, she told the boys to phone the police while she kept pushing against the door. Soon enough a police car arrived.

It was only when the police took Ion away that Marta realised none of her neighbours had come out into the hallway. Not only that, as the police escorted Ion out of the building, Marta’s best friend – with whom she had coffee every morning – burst out of her flat and started shouting.  

“Stop interfering,” she screamed at the police. “This poor man provided for his family for 20 years and this whore wants to throw him out. Let her have it.”  

Victims shunned

Marta’s story of dramatic rejection by friends and neighbours is common in patriarchal Romania.

Women who seek outside help against violent husbands enjoy sympathy as victims, but lose that sympathy if they throw off their victim status and have their men thrown out.

The 2004 Reproductive Health Survey is the most recent, national survey of attitudes to domestic violence and was conducted by the Ministry of Health (MoH). According to the study, 28 per cent of Romanian women aged 15 to 49 said they had experienced physical, sexual or verbal violence from their partners during the previous year.

But few of these attacks show up in police or other official statistics.

Of a population of 21.3 million, just between 8,700 and 11,500 incidents of domestic violence are reported each year to the police, the former National Agency for Family Protection (NAFP) says.  

The NAFP was dissolved in July 2010 for budgetary reasons.  

If the MoH survey is correct, only a small percentage of violent incidents are ever reported to police. According to the NAFP, of those reported cases just two per cent will end in a divorce. The rest of the women will return to their partners.  

Such statistics are no surprise to Elena Micheu, a psychologist working with victims of domestic violence at the East European Institute for Reproductive Health (EEIRH) in Marta’s hometown, Târgu-Mureş.  

Victims of domestic violence often fear the reactions of family and friends if they do leave their abusive husbands or have them thrown out of the house, says Micheu.The EEIRH’s Centre for Combating Domestic Violence has been taking care of abused women like Marta since 2003. More than a thousand women have benefited from the 10-bed shelter, which also provides psychological counselling, legal advice and couple therapy, should they request it.

The EEIRH works closely with the police, the accident and emergency services, doctors and with the county forensics department to ensure that victims get the help they need to leave abusive relationships.

This system of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with the police, lawyers and social services has been replicated in other parts of Romania - the idea being to create a broad network of support services.

Marta first went to the EEIRH in 2003, when she wanted out of her violent marriage. The legal counselling she received enabled her to begin divorce proceedings.  

In April 2005, she came back to the EEIRH refuge with the final court divorce order and her two boys. She had asked the court to inform her of the date her former husband would receive official notice of their divorce, and left home the day before he was due to receive the letter. She did not want to be there when he got it.

She and the boys stayed at the shelter for three months. Nobody knew where she was. The security gave her the peace of mind she needed to stay firm in her decision to divorce Ion.  

Matters only unravelled for Marta after she went back to the family home - and then allowed her now ex-husband to return under the same roof.  

Patriarchy rules the Balkans

One in every three women in the world will experience violence, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). But the phenomenon is worse in societies where women suffer low status and few rights in the eyes of the community.  

A woman’s chances of escaping domestic abuse, therefore, depend directly on her country’s degree of commitment to combating such violence.  

Western European countries with efficient systems in place to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators, such as France and Austria, have become progressively more successful in curbing domestic violence.

In the more patriarchal Balkans, the picture is mixed. Here, civil society has to take the lead, as the authorities appear indifferent to the fate of battered women.  

Balkan governments often fail to enforce their own national laws relating to domestic violence and allocate few resources to services helping women victims. They also neglect to train police officers and members of the judiciary on how best to deal with the problem.

Austrian historian Karl Kaser, in his book Patriarchy after Patriarchy, Gender Relations in Turkey and the Balkans, 1500 - 2000, says these patriarchal societies draw a clear distinction between the public and the private spheres of life, with men belonging to the public and women to the private sphere.

Men make decisions and run countries, while women take care of households and obey. When a victim of domestic violence makes her private situation known to the public, she disturbs that set-up and society blames her for disrespecting its unwritten rules.

In theory, the communist regimes that ruled the Balkan states - except Greece - for more than four decades erased most differences between men and women. They granted both sexes equal opportunities to jobs and promoted women to representative positions.  

But little attention was paid to gender equality inside the family. In Romania, as in the former Yugoslavia, domestic violence was not a crime. In Romania, divorce was actively discouraged.

Meanwhile, since the fall of communism in 1989, Balkan countries have seen renewed emphasis on national identity, religion and the benefits of family life – conservative values that reinforce existing patriarchal cultures.  

Outside of towns like Târgu-Mureş, few women in Romania benefit from legal or psychological counselling on how to overcome their domestic dilemmas.  

In many ways, the situation for abused women is worsening. Romania closed its national emergency helpline for distressed women two years ago for financial reasons.

The number of women’s shelters is also falling. Romania had 49 shelters with 400 places in 2007. NGOs ran around half of these in partnership with local authorities. Ten were run solely by NGOs, the rest by local authorities alone.

Only the ten run exclusively by NGOs were still open in July 2010. The rest were closed because they depended largely on local government funds, which have been slashed since the onset of the recession.  

The closure of shelters drastically reduces the options for women in violent relationships, especially in countries where other support networks are weak or inefficient.

While 98 per cent of Romanian women who report their spouses as violent return to their partners, the figures are very different if women obtain access to refuges and counselling.Teodora Bozdog, psychological counsellor with EEIRH, says more than half of the women who receive counselling after coming to the Târgu-Mureş shelter do not return to their partners.

Some manage to persuade their men to undergo aggression therapy which can, Bozdog says, bring about lasting changes in behaviour. But most of those who return to violent partners end up back in the shelter at some stage.  

Bozdog also notes that when women escape violent relationships for good, as did Marta, they still face rejection from family and community.  

‘A slap is not a beating’

The same patriarchal values that Marta encountered in Romania survive in neighbouring Balkan countries.

At the Autonomous Women’s Center (AWC) in Belgrade, an NGO dedicated to combating domestic violence, staff speak softly so as not to disturb the counsellors answering emergency phone calls.

Behind a closed door, psychologists and legal advisers counsel distressed victims on how to deal with their aggressive partners, where to go for help and how to make formal complaints.

Nataša Jovanović, a coordinator at the AWC, says that, as is the case in Romania, most initiatives actively fighting domestic violence come from civil society. Here, too, the state shows little interest in training public servants to enforce domestic abuse legislation.  

Domestic violence was criminalised in Serbia in 2002, but there is still no crime of rape within marriage. Jovanović says studies show around one in three women in Serbia have experienced physical abuse from their partners at some point.

As in Romania, traditional views regarding the role of women and the sanctity of marriage shape society’s perception of wives who seek outside help in dealing with violent husbands.

This is evident, Jovanović claims, from the attitudes of prosecutors and judges who refuse to attend training sessions on women’s rights and domestic violence legislation.

The AWC trains relevant Belgrade authorities - police, prosecutors and social workers - to recognize the symptoms of domestic violence and prevent what they call ‘secondary victimization’.

But they have a long way to go in a country where, according to Jovanović, the general view is “one slap is not a beating”.

French deterrent

In France, where the state is committed both to outlawing domestic violence and to implementing the law, the picture is different.

France’s success in combating abuse has also relied on education and on making domestic violence a topic of public debate.

Statistics bear out France’s relative success in combating domestic violence. Unlike Romania and Serbia, where around one in three women experience domestic violence, in France the figure is about one in ten, says Anita Tostivint, of the National Centre of Information on the Rights of Women and Families (CNIDFF).

“Domestic violence has become unacceptable in the public eye. Nobody looks away anymore,” she says.

As the largest NGO in the field, the CNIDFF coordinates 114 organisations across France and assists over 440,000 people every year.

Few resources need to be allocated to shelters because the law makes sure that police immediately evict allegedly violent spouses.

Draconian penalties act as an additional deterrent to abusers. Men found guilty of even threatening violence against partners are liable to fines of up to 75,000 euro and five years in prison.

Meanwhile, the support of the local CNDIFF information and counselling offices and of the wider community helps victims recover and resume their place in society, Tostivint says.  

Austria is mid-way between France and the Balkans - both geographically and in terms of tackling violence against women.

Daniela Almer, of Österreichische Frauenhäuser in Vienna, a network of information centres and shelters, believes about one in five women in Austria has suffered domestic violence. If accurate, this is a better statistic than Romania but worse than France.

The network started opening shelters in the 1970s, but then shifted its focus to rapid intervention in the home as it became clear that women’s refuges were only a temporary solution.

Legislation passed in 1997 ensures that Austrian perpetrators of violence are promptly evicted from the family home for a period of two weeks following a report to the police.

As in Balkan countries, society initially tended to condemn women for evicting men in this way. But Österreichische Frauenhäuser says this is changing. Almer says women in Austria no longer feel judged by society when they seek outside help.

A slow change

There is little sign of such a revolution in the Balkans, where the scant resources allocated to protecting abused women are being cut, refuges are closing, and people still refuse to treat domestic violence as a public affair.  

But even in the Balkans, attitudes are starting to shift, however slowly. The taboo about breaking up the family is losing its grip.

Sorana, who is now in her late twenties, was almost killed by her partner last December, after he stabbed her in the street in Târgu-Mureş in front of their three children.

The attitudes of her friends and relatives changed. For the first time, they understood the extent of violence and abuse she had been subjected to, she says.

She had been separated from her partner for two years and was raising the children by herself when he attacked her in public.  

“When I left him, they kept saying ‘You should stay with him for the kids’, ‘You won’t be able to make it by yourself with three children’ and ‘Every couple have fights’,” Sorana recalls.

“They didn’t know what was happening at home,” she says. “I was too ashamed to tell them about the beatings and the fear I was living with.”

Since her attempted murder, Sorana’s friends and family have stopped telling her she should have stayed with her man, whatever the cost.

Today, though she is struggling to make ends meet, she says she is better off alone. “If I survived that, I will survive anything,” she says.

*Some names have been changed in this article to protect individuals’ identities.

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.

Fellow Bio


Georgiana Ilie

Georgiana Ilie, from Romania, writes in-depth features for numerous magazines on subjects including culture, human rights, environment and inspirational people.

The Project

Can women that have escaped domestic violence ever regain a normal life?

The roots of violence are socially accepted in religion, tradition and culture of the Balkan countries.


Topic 2010: Taboo

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