(Budapest) – It’s a haunting picture. Rozsa, a young woman staying at a shelter for domestic violence survivors we visited in the Hungarian countryside, looks straight into the camera, her eyes completely drowning in deep purple and blue, those colors of abuse. Staff at the shelter gave us the pictures and her case file. It looks like she was beaten repeatedly with a fist and a whip, the imprints visible on her behind, legs and back. But she looks defiant.
Rozsa managed to survive and escape. But as my colleagues and I found researching a new report on domestic violence in Hungary, she is the exception. We found many obstacles that prevent women in Hungary from reporting and escaping violence by their intimate partners and finding the help they need.
Hungary is of course by no means alone in this. The World Health Organization recently concluded that domestic violence is a global problem of epidemic proportions. What sets countries apart is not whether domestic violence takes place, but how their governments react and how they protect women.
What struck us in Hungary was how often authorities told victims that extreme physical violence, including the abuse Rozsa endured, should be considered “light,” and not sufficiently serious to trigger an investigation. Women we interviewed said they were told by police that unless blood flows, there was nothing they could do. No wonder, then, that women do not run to the police for help when they are abused.
Even when blood does flow, the reaction is often weak. Elvira, a 28-year-old mother of four, told me her husband dragged her around the house, and threw her off the balcony. He ran down and kicked her body and face while she lay on the ground, bleeding and bruised. He later threatened to kill her with a knife. When her sister called the police, they came over and asked the husband what happened. “Nothing,” He told them. They left.
So how can we change this kind of response? The basics are relatively straightforward and similar around the world. Abusers have to be prosecuted. Women have to be physically protected, both at home through efficient use of protection orders, and away from home with sufficient, safe shelters. Survivors of violence should have access to health, social and legal services so they can have a life without violence. And finally, governments should take positive action to prevent violence, through education, awareness raising and an effective response when violence does occur, giving women the confidence to report.
To flesh out further how governments should respond, countries around Europe adopted the landmark Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention after the city where it was agreed. This practical convention functions as a checklist of measures that are effective in reducing and addressing domestic violence. It requires countries to establish hotlines, shelters, medical and forensic services, counselling and legal aid.
It addresses gaps in domestic violence legislation and implementation, documented in many countries by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. These include weak laws, bad implementation of protection laws, lack of coordination, lack of access to justice, low funding for domestic violence responses, lack of shelters, and lack of prevention measures. To date, 27 states have signed the convention and 5 have ratified, making its provisions legally binding.
Unfortunately, Hungary has yet to sign on. It should, promptly. In the meantime, Hungary has clear international obligations to protect women’s human right to live free from violence.
The government is showing a willingness to step up efforts to end domestic violence. In an important move, this year Hungary finally adopted a penal code provision that criminalizes domestic violence. Now, it needs to show the same resolve in filling other gaps in the law, making sure existing protections under the law are actually carried out, and making sure that no woman is belittled, ignored or sent back to her abuser when she calls the police to report violence.
When I interviewed Elvira, she asked what I would do with this information. I told her we use the facts from real cases to push for government reforms, and to prevent abuses in the first place. “Good,” Elvira responded. “I have three girls. I need them to survive their love.”