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(Budapest) – Police inaction, ineffective restraining orders, insufficient shelter spaces, and legal and policy gaps leave women survivors of domestic violence in Hungary at risk of further abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 58-page report, “Unless Blood Flows: Lack of Protection from Domestic Violence in Hungary,” documents chronic brutal violence against women by their intimate partners and the challenges women face in seeking state protection and services. It documents the gaps in Hungary’s legal and policy framework, despite a recent legal reform, in responding to domestic violence and the failure of the authorities toadequately protect women who experience such violence.

“Hungary’s system for addressing domestic violence simply isn’t working,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The very people who should help – police, doctors, prosecutors, and social workers – often leave victims with no choice but to go back to the abusers, exposing them to further violence.”

The report is based on interviews with 29 women from throughout Hungary who sought protection from abusive partners before mid-2013 reforms, and with lawyers, judges, women’s organizations, shelter workers, government officials, and other experts. Human Rights Watch also interviewed four women after the mid-2013 reforms whose testimonies are not reflected in the report.

Human Rights Watch interviewed women who described being stabbed and chopped at with knives, axes, and swords; kicked and punched in the abdomen while pregnant; raped; beaten with sticks, baby carriages, iron rods, and thick cables to the point of broken bones and skull fractures; locked in sheds without clothes in winter; thrown off balconies; dumped in remote areas in the middle of the night; and subjected to severe psychological violence.

Hungary has clear international obligations to act with due diligence to protect women’s human rights to live free from violence, to non-discrimination, and to effective judicial remedies. To meet these obligations, the Hungarian government should amend the 2009 act on temporary preventive restraining orders and the domestic violence provision in the criminal code so as not to exclude categories of women and rectify current shortcomings in policies and practices, Human Rights Watch said.

Hungary should improve training for police, prosecutors, judges, social workers, and doctors, and increase the capacity of shelters for victims of domestic violence. Hungary should also ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

Until July 1, 2013, domestic violence was not even a specific criminal offense in Hungary. Domestic violence was dealt with like other violence, categorized on the basis of the severity of the injuries, with attacks that resulted in wounds that healed within eight days deemed minor, and requiring the victim rather than police or prosecutors to initiate legal action.

The new domestic violence offense in the criminal code introduced in July provides stiffer penalties for assaults in domestic situations, and makes the prosecutor, not the victim, responsible for initiating criminal action against the abuser. But the new provision only offers this protection after two separate instances of domestic violence, and it doesn’t protect women who do not live with their abusive partner, unless they have children with the abuser. 

The standalone provision also does not address the systematic problems that Human Rights Watch uncovered. Interviews with four women who experienced violence after July 1 indicate that in practice little has changed. The women told us of police inaction and described victim-blaming attitudes among social workers and doctors when they sought protection.

Human Rights Watch found that police often discourage women from reporting domestic abuse and fail to use their authority effectively to issue temporary restraining orders under a 2009 law. Instead, police rely on victims to request the orders, in some cases even asking them in front of the abusive partner if they wish to do so, leading many to decline out of fear of reprisals.

Zsuzsa, a 37-year-old woman who endured 14 years of domestic abuse, told Human Rights Watch she called the police in August after her husband pushed and shoved her, then held a spiked weapon to her throat.

 “The police came out and my husband explained to them calmly that nothing had happened,” she said. “I didn’t dare to say anything but the police told me that unless blood flows, they can’t do anything. Why do they [police] exist if they can’t do anything?”

Human Rights Watch spoke to women who described negligent and even hostile responses by police. These included blaming the woman for staying in the abusive relationship, questioning the truthfulness of a woman’s account, and threatening to report the woman for child endangerment on the grounds that she “let” her partner abuse her.

The courts are also failing to sufficiently protect women, Human Rights Watch found. The courts often impose too high a standard on the evidence needed to issue a temporary restraining order, issue an order only for a short period, or refuse to issue an order in the absence of the abuser, even though the law permits them to do so. Negligent and dismissive police responses may contribute to the low number of prosecuted domestic violence cases, but the lack of guidelines for prosecutors and judges is also a factor, Human Rights Watch found.

Doctors and social workers often do not provide adequate advice and assistance to women. There are no national guidelines for doctors on how to respond to suspected domestic violence. In several cases, women and shelter staff said that doctors had not documented abuse adequately, hampering efforts in the courts to prosecute. In some cases, doctors were reluctant to provide referrals or information or to ask survivors if they wanted the abuse reported to authorities.

Instead of providing crucial support, child protection services may aggravate the situation. Although Human Rights Watch did not document any cases in which a woman lost custody of her child or children or they were placed under guardianship solely as a result of domestic violence, eight women said that based on previous experiences with the authorities, they did not report domestic violence for fear that child welfare services would remove their children. Three women said child welfare services had threatened to remove children due to domestic violence.

 “I was called down to the office of the child welfare services and they told me that unless my husband changes his behavior or I leave, they will take my children,” said Virág, a mother of three from a small village. “After that, my husband knew he could do anything to me because I wouldn’t call the police for fear of the authorities.”

Shelters are a vital part of protection for victims of domestic violence, but there are only 122 shelter beds in all of Hungary, and only 29 of them are in a specialized shelter for survivors of domestic violence. To comply with international standards, Hungary should have approximately 1,000 beds. Women are limited to 60 days in shelters, and only those with children are eligible to apply for a further stay in a longer-term shelter.

With no income or anywhere to go, many women told us that they had no choice but to return to the abusers.

Hungary lacks a national strategy to combat and prevent domestic violence. Guidelines for police are poorly implemented and there are no comparable guidelines for prosecutors, judges, medical professionals, or social workers. Little training is offered to relevant professional groups, and what training is offered is often not funded by the authorities. Traditional views of women and their roles in society, as well as a lack of understanding at all levels of society of the dynamics of domestic violence, are serious obstacles, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Hungarian government should make it a priority to protect victims of domestic violence,” Gall said. “It is unconscionable that women trying to escape an abusive relationship face hostility and indifference, rather than support.”

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