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Witness: Beaten by her husband, let down by everyone

Andi’s story of domestic violence in Hungary

“Andi,” beaten and bruised, managed to escape her Budapest apartment with her five children when her husband dashed out for more methamphetamine.

He had beaten her several times a day for three days in early October, she told us, the attacks ending with him slumping into his chair, ranting nonsense – something Andi blamed on the drugs. He tore out her hair and beat her across the back, legs and arms with a heavy computer cable. He bashed her knees with a hammer and a large perfume bottle. He grabbed her with needle-nosed pliers, puncturing her skin. Andi had not tried to leave, believing her husband would become even more violent if she did. Her older three children were in school during the beatings. The two youngest preschoolers, were in the other room.

After Andi fled, she found her way to a shelter for women and children. “I’ve had enough!” she would tell people. “I don’t want to go back again!” A housewife, she planned on finding a job.

Two weeks later, she lost her courage and decided that after a few months recovering at the shelter, she would return to her husband. She couldn’t see any other options. There were no educational opportunities or job training at the shelter, and she no longer believed she could find work. And where could she go, with kids and no job?  But she did like the shelter – the psychologist there showed real concern for keeping her safe.

This past July, Hungary introduced a new law that should have helped protect Andi and other abused women. The law not only made domestic violence a criminal offense, it also called for the prosecutor – instead of the victim – to take legal action against abusers if there is enough evidence, a key point, as many battered women are too frightened of their spouses to press charges.

Previously, prosecutors could only file charges  if the woman’s wounds hadn’t healed within eight days.

But the early signs are that law has yet to be properly enforced, and to effectively protect women like Andi, Hungary needs to make further reforms. Under the new law, prosecutors can only take legal action after the women reports being assaulted by her partner on two separate occasions – once isn’t enough.

A new Human Rights Watch report, Unless Blood Flows, found that courts often require too much evidence to issue temporary preventative restraining orders. Police are often dismissive of, or even hostile to, victims, and even ask women if they’d like a restraining order in front of their partners. (Many decline out of fear.) Social workers sometimes blame the victim and focus on keeping families intact. There are no national guidelines to help doctors respond effectively to domestic violence cases, and there are only 122 shelter beds for domestic violence victims in all of Hungary, which has a population of roughly 10 million.

Many of the abused women we interviewed were financially dependent on their partners. With no income or anywhere to go, many told us, they had no choice but to return to the abusers.

During her three-day beating, Andi told her second-oldest son, not yet a teenager, to go to child welfare services on the way to school and ask them to send a social worker and a police officer to the apartment. Andi believed that the police officer’s presence was necessary to keep her, and the social worker, safe.

The social worker came alone to Andi’s apartment, in a neighborhood where centuries of neglect left once-elegant homes in decay. She talked to both Andi and her husband in the same room. Andi panicked, fearing her husband would hurt her if she reported him, so she lied, saying everything was fine. Andi wore a long-sleeve shirt and pants, covering her bruised body except for  a cut on her jaw where her husband had hit her. When the social asked about the cut, Andi, who stood feet away from her husband, lied, saying she slipped and fell.

The next day, she sent her son again ask them to send a social worker and police officer. Again, the social worker came alone, but Andi’s husband talked the woman into leaving. Andi, afraid of her husband’s anger, didn’t interfere.

Later that day, when her husband left to get more meth, Andi and her children escaped to the police station.

This was her third attempt to leave, but only the first time she went to the police. They didn’t expect them to help.

The officers took Andi seriously, a response that was unusual among the women Human Rights Watch interviewed. However, when Andi said she didn’t want to report her husband – afraid of his wrath – the police said they couldn’t help her. They should have at least issued a temporary preventative restraining order against him.

Then Andi asked the officers to call Hungary’s national hotline designed to find placement in shelters for domestic violence victims. None of the policemen knew about the hotline. Eventually, an officer found the number and they secured her a bed.

Now at a shelter for women and children, Andi has given up hope of finding real assistance in her struggle to leave her husband. She says she doesn’t have enough help to make it on her own. She feels the shelter staff isn’t providing the type of mental and emotional support she needs as a domestic violence victim. Her husband, who wants her back, is taking advantage of her doubts, promising to quit using drugs and to quit beating her. She expects to return to him within the next couple of months.

“What else could I do?” she said. 

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