Note: This is the English translation of the article originally published in issue #37 of DoR magazine. You can read the Romanian version here.
This summer, I was interviewing a lawyer in a coffee shop in Brașov about her cases of family violence. She was telling me about the work she does toward getting the mom full custody of the children, after having settled the victim’s separation from the aggressor, most often through a restraining order and divorce. I told her that my Mom had also become my only legal parent after my folks’ divorce.
She asked me if it was a matter of domestic violence. I answered in one breath:
“Oh, no! My Dad gave me up.”
The lawyer continued the conversation and started explaining how the law for the custody of minors had changed in the past years. I couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying anymore, because my mind was stuck on the answer I had given. So I interrupted her with half a smile: “Actually, it was; not physical, but it was. Verbal, emotional…”
Indeed, my father had willingly given up the right to see me when I was 13 years old. But the answer I had given to lawyer Liliana Ștefănescu-Goangăwasn’t entirely true. Part of my brain had decided to erase my personal history: my father’s swearing, my mother’s crying, the slammed or locked doors, even the punch my mother only told me about decades later.
I have been researching, writing and speaking publicly about family violence for five years, and there are still moments, like in the conversation above, when my brain tricks me, telling me that domestic violence is not about me.
When we think about home, we imagine a place where we feel safe, where we receive warmth and, ideally, love. This is what makes family violence so hard to understand, to acknowledge, and to punish; it’s contradictory, uncertain, and hard to grasp. It’s not only about hitting and beatings, and it doesn’t happen only to those who are uneducated, suffer from poverty or are addicted to alcohol. It’s also about emotional abuse, about the control men often want over women, about how we learned to establish the roles within a couple – the woman, submissive, the man, in charge.
In Romania, 30% of women say they were affected by physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. In 2018, almost 18,000 women were hit. By family. 48 died. And these are just the numbers from the cases reported to the police.
Of course, the violence issue is not only typical of Romania. It also happens in Great Britain, Austria, Spain, Italy or Australia. The difference is that, in other countries, the victim protection systems work more efficiently, more abuses are reported, and the conversation about these topics ends up more often on the public and political agenda.
Recent events in the town of Caracal have opened a discussion about the way authorities treat victims how the latter aren’t listened to or believed, how they are judged or accused, and how that leads them to distrust the police or the justice system, and to not report the aggressions they endure. (This summer a man confessed he kidnapped, raped, murdered and then burned the bodies of two young girls in his house, even though one of them called the emergency number, without the police saving her.)
Most of the female victims who end up interacting with authorities are those who were hit by their partners. In the past 20 years, these women and the non-governmental organizations that represent them talked repeatedly about the serious issues of the public system – from the need for safer and faster restraining orders, to the need for mandatory courses for policemen, prosecutors, and judges –, but their voices weren’t really heard. Unfortunately, changes regarding women’s safety – and there have been some in the past years – happened mostly after several women were murdered. This is the only thing that brings violence to the forefront of the public agenda for a while.
Over the past year, I spoke with almost a hundred people about domestic violence: from women who went through abusive relationships, to families who’ve lost their loved ones, to professionals who work in the field – activists, lawyers, psychologists, sociologists, prosecutors and policemen –, and I realized that family violence is more than just a phenomenon. It’s about all of us. Abuse and aggressive behavior are so deeply rooted in our families, that they became part of the emotional baggage we carry everywhere; a baggage we will pass on if we don’t become aware of it. Everything affects us in countless ways, from the physical and mental health issues following abuse, to the trauma of the children who witness it, to the reduced work capacity caused either by the partner’s financial control, or by the victims’ emotional imbalance, which affects them long after they leave their aggressors.
Violence, especially violence against women, is a national health issue. It’s time we all talked about it.
It was also this summer, at a reunion for women who got out of abusive relationships, that I met Ana. During one of the event’s breaks, she walked up to me and told me she’d like to meet up for coffee one day, because, after everything that has happened to her, she sometimes thinks about writing a book.
Ana is 52, was trained as an engineer and lived in an abusive relationship for nearly 30 years. She and her husband fell in love when they were students. They lived in a town 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from Bucharest and loved to travel and go hiking in the mountains. Ana says her husband’s aggressivity began after they became parents. Sometimes, he was violent toward their little girl. Then, the swearing became a daily occurrence. He started having affairs with other women, and when she confronted him about this, he would hit her and sometimes choke her. Sexual abuses followed afterward. Most of the times, Ana couldn’t stop them, because “at night, so as to not frighten the children sleeping in another room, you fight him or you give in, to stop him from making a scene. This doesn’t mean you agree to the sexual act. And that is domestic rape, but you cannot prove it”.
They had a firm together, which they had opened in the late ‘90s and which had brought them the financial prosperity they had dreamed about when they were students. Ana says she didn’t get to work in the firm as much as she would have liked, because he kept her at a distance. Like many women who go through abusive relationships, she asked herself for many years: “Why am I staying?” However, when there are children involved, you always compare the damage you would do to them if you left or if you stayed. Sometimes we judge, saying “it’s stupid to stay for the kids”, but for the women who are controlled, insulted and hit, these decisions are never easy. Leaving is not a choice, it’s a process that takes time. Ana knew that being on her own, with two children, wouldn’t be easy; who would have hired her with minimal work experience, how was she to start over, after being told for years that she was “absolutely nothing” by the very man she had loved and with whom she had two children?
This year, in May, they fought again, then the man tried to rape her. She managed to stop him and scratched his arm. The woman then went in the yard of the house she shares with her mother and her sister’s family. She told the others what happened. Her mother asked the man if he had no shame; why would he do such a thing? The man told her to get out of his way. When Ana asked him why he spoke so rudely to her mother, he caught her by the neck and pushed her head backwards. He told her he had boxed in the past and that he could kill her in a second. “That’s it, I’m calling the police, just so you know”, Ana said. Her husband told her to make the call and walked away.
“I saw my life flashing before my eyes”, Ana told me, recalling the moment she first decided to call 112. She was scared and she was shaking. Over the phone, the policemen told her to come to the station. When she got there, a policeman asked her why she was reporting only just now, after 30 years, if this sort of situation had happened before. Her husband had also come to the station, summoned by the policemen, and, in another room, he declared he had also been assaulted and showed them the scratch on his arm. The woman told them she defended herself after the attempted rape. The policemen told her there is no such thing as rape in a family. She made a phone call to ask a lawyer, whose phone number she had for the possible divorce she was contemplating. He told her the same thing, that there is no such thing as rape in a family.
Meanwhile, the policemen insisted that it was best if they settled things amiably, didn’t ask for restraining orders, dropped the charges, and went home. Ana did not let it go, and if she didn’t, neither did the man. Both of them got temporary restraining orders. Ana recalls the policemen told her the order is in effect for five days and would have to be extended in court. One of them warned her there was no chance the judge would extend it, because they’ve seen victims beaten bloody who did not have any luck with that.
The next day, the policemen called her and told her to go to the Prosecutor’s Office, because the prosecutor wanted to make sure her request for the order still stood. There, a woman prosecutor suggested that she give up on the order, because they both have a certain age and it would be better if they got along for the children’s sake.
Ana was confused.
She had had two hard days and was at the end of her tether. Too many public officials had told her to let it go. Moreover, she was financially dependent on her husband, he was also paying for the children who were studying abroad, they had the firm together. She decided to give up on the order. She often feels guilty about this.
She has no reason to feel guilty.
First of all, the policemen misinformed her, telling her there is no such thing as conjugal rape, even though it’s a criminal offence and a form of family violence. Then, they didn’t believe her when she told them she scratched him to defend herself and sanctioned her with a restraining order. Then, they blamed her and revictimized her. The prosecutor should not have called her in for a hearing – calling a victim back for a hearing at the Prosecutor’s Office is not standard procedure for restraining orders –, nor should she have suggested that she let it go. “It’s just a family thing that can be solved amiably” and “Why did she wait 30 years to report it?” are two statements that can harm victims of domestic violence. A manual about preventing and fighting domestic violence against women, created for policemen and other professionals in the justice field through a European project of the General Inspectorate of Romanian Police, shows that blaming and revictimizing can lead women to stop reporting the abuses they endure, to think they deserve what is happening to them, and to completely lose faith in the public help system.
The problem doesn’t lie in laws we don’t have or in procedures that are not fleshed out yet. Those do exist; it’s just that, at the moment, the path from official papers to daily practice is rather long. Like Ana’s story demonstrates, there is still a lot of work to be done so that professionals in the system believe the victims and offer them protection.
On paper, we have one of the best restraining orders in Europe. Today, policemen can issue one as soon as the domestic aggression is reported. They can enter the premise where the victim says she is, even if it’s also the property of the aggressor, and they issue the order after they apply a questionnaire through which they figure out how dangerous the victim’s situation is. Then, this temporary restraining order, lasting five days, is confirmed or invalidated by a prosecutor. The court comes next, where a judge decides if they extend it for a longer period, up to six months, during which the aggressor is forbidden to come near the victim and the places she goes to (the specified distance is 100 or 200 meters), to call her or to contact her online.
But it wasn’t by any means easy to get here.
The first law dedicated to preventing and fighting family violence was adopted in 2003, under the pressure of both non-governmental organizations and the process of joining the European Union. Only it didn’t protect the victims in any way. The civil society had asked for emergency intervention when women were hit, but the leaders and politicians rejected the proposal that the aggressor get an order and therefore get evicted from the house, invoking the constitutional right to property, remembers Andreea Bragă, a member of the Filia Center, an organization she has lead for the past six years that is part of a network of NGOs focused on preventing and fighting violence against women. “There was a strong resistance towards the state intervening in private life, banking on the idea that the right to property comes first, and the 217 Law was concerned with mediating in its initial form, so domestic violence was being treated more like a private matter, in which the state should only intervene in order to reconcile the victim with the aggressor.”
Back then, lawyer Ștefănescu-Goangă, whom I talked to in Brașov, was in the early stages of her career and had started working for „Casa Speranței” (“House of Hope”), the Reformed Church’s shelter for domestic violence victims. She helped the women in this shelter file criminal complaints or get a divorce. She knew violence from home, where she grew up with a father who used to hit her mom, but also her and her siblings.
Women didn’t call the police back then, says Ștefănescu-Goangă, because “from the moment they set foot inside the police station, they underwent a treatment that rarely encouraged them to file criminal complaints. It was as if they were offenders who came to ask for their rights.” They were asked what they did to cause their partner’s aggressive behavior; they were ridiculed and often told “it’s passionate love and they should go home because they must have liked it; they were asked why did it just occur to them to press charges, if they endured so long”.
In 2011, Romania was the only country in the European Union without a restraining order. A few months later, after protests from NGOs, the law was adopted by Parliament. It was in the process of being promulgated by the presidency, when a hairdresser was shot by her husband in a beauty salon in Bucharest. (The aggressor also killed one of the woman’s colleagues and hurt six other people.) Three days after that crime, on the 8th of March, the International Women’s Day, the then president Traian Băsescu promulgated the law and declared, almost laughing: “I have promulgated the Law for the protection of women in the family. (…) So, you will no longer be beaten by men at home. If someone touches you with anything but a flower, let them go to jail”.
But the order, in its initial form, was useless. Policemen had no authority when neighbors or the victim called 112. They couldn’t enter the house unless they had both parties’ agreement. It was the women who had to gather evidence and take it to court.
It was unfair. The order did not remove the aggressors from the house immediately after the violent acts and it was women who often had to flee to relatives or in shelters or even to other cities. It was them who completely changed their lives – they relocated jobs and the children’s schools. It was as if a neighbor was being violent to us, and the only way out was for us to be the ones to leave the building.
It was dangerous. On average, the judges issued the order 30 days after the women asked for it. This, despite the fact that specialists say the most dangerous period in the life of a woman getting out of a violent relationship is the one after she reports the abuse. And back then, women had to keep living with the aggressor, under his pressure and threats. Bragă says this is why many of the requests for issuing a restraining order were dropped. (In 2016, through a legislative amendment initiated by the Necuvinte [Non-words] Association, the term by which the judges had to issue the order was shortened to 72 hours).
For five years, NGOs asked for the temporary restraining order to be issued on the spot by policemen. The idea, and later on the bill that activists also worked on, passed through five governments before it became a reality, at the end of 2018. Bragă says the goal was to transfer the responsibility from the victim to the aggressor (he was to be the one to leave the house) and for the action to come from the state – policemen issue an urgent order if the lives of the victim and her children are endangered.
This spring, I met Lidia, who is 44, a primary school teacher, and the mother of two kindergarten-aged children. She had just received a restraining order after, one night, in the apartment where their children were sleeping, her partner had punched her in the neck, face, and head, and had dragged her by the hair. Their daughter’s cries stopped him. She called the police and he left home.
The next day, because the apartment in which they lived was her partner’s, with whom she wasn’t married, Lidia decided to take the children and move to her mother’s house. She wanted something bigger than a two-room apartment, so, in March, when she heard about a rent subsidy of 1,500 RON (around $340 or 300 Euro) offered by Bucharest City Hall to victims of domestic violence, she wanted to find out more. (Shortly after it announced this subsidy, the City Hall stopped subsidizing an emergency center for victims, which was managed by the Anais Association. The building in which the center had its headquarters belongs to the National Agency on Equal Opportunities and was bought within a European project through which 38 million Euro were questionably spent. Today, the center no longer exists.)
I first went with Lidia to the City Hall, from where we were sent to the Directorate for Social Assistance and Child Protection. The employees there didn’t know anything about it and sent us to a City Hall shelter. Lidia was not told the address, just the general area, which was across the city. “You’ll find it, ask around”, they told her. We quickly caught on that nobody knew the procedure through which that rent subsidy was offered. (The program was launched in March, and by the end of July just one person had received this subsidy.)
After that, social workers tried for an hour and a half to convince her to move to a shelter with the children, because that way she would have more chances to get the rent subsidy. The place was across the city from her children’s kindergarten, and the school where she worked was in another part of town. The thought of such a housing change was confusing even to me, and I wasn’t the one with two children, a violent relationship I had gotten out of, and a restraining order. Lidia thanked and apologized to nearly every person she spoke with that day, even though the road we took to find this information was gruesome.
She didn’t move to the shelter. She prepared the file for the rent and went to a few psychological counseling sessions for her and her children, that the social workers had offered her afterward. For a month, she tried to find an apartment in the neighborhood where her children’s kindergartens were, but most landlords told her they didn’t want a formal rent contract – a condition for the 1,500 RON –, so she gave up. She still lives with her mother and she deals with the trial for the children’s custody, which began this fall. The fees for the attorney (who also represented her in court for the order) reached 6,000 RON (around $1,300 or 1,200 Euro) so far, which she paid through a personal needs loan.
On another day, I accompanied her to the police station to find out what happened with the criminal complaint she had filed in February. The policeman told her he was working on hundreds of files and she would have to be patient. After that conversation, he gave her a tip. He told her that, after seeing many cases of domestic violence, he realized that sometimes the men were provoked, which could have also been her case, and it would be better if she were more careful.
Daniela is also afraid – of the judge who will decide her children’s custody. After several physical, emotional and sexual abuses, she relocated 500 kilometers (310 miles) away from Bucharest. I met her two years ago, after a reader, who was a friend of hers, but lived in another country, asked me to meet up with her. Her husband followed her around the house, chased her away from the children, had made a schedule for when she was allowed to use the bathroom, and photographed and filmed her. Over the last two years, she went through several trials, from the divorce – which isn’t finalized yet – to complaints that she changed the children’s school during the school year. This month, the custody trial will begin, where she hopes she will get full custody of the children, which the lawyer Ștefănescu-Goangă says should be the rule in cases where there was violence. However, Daniela is very nervous, especially after she listened to an audio recording in the media. During a trial, judge Veronica Munteanu from the District 6 Court, to which Daniela’s file is assigned, tells a victim to stop smiling – “any smile of a victim of family violence bothers me” – and accuses her she doesn’t know how to defend herself from her aggressor’s threats and insults.
Camelia Proca, a civil activist from Sibiu, has held courses about gender violence for policemen, for a few years now. These are optional programs and they don’t belong to a mandatory curriculum or specialization. Fifteen years ago, Proca founded the ALEG organization in Sibiu; her team often speaks about gender equality in schools and high schools and offers psychological counseling to victims. She says that a real and lasting change should involve mandatory training for policemen, prosecutors, and judges. During such courses, it would be useful for policemen to listen to women who went through violent experiences, in order for them to understand how a victim feels and acts. Ideally, says Proca, three months after these trainings, assessment interviews should be conducted, during which students should recall how they applied what they learned to their cases.
One of Proca’s students is Felicia Hrihorișan, a prevention officer at the County Police Inspectorate in Satu Mare. Hrihorișan is trained as a psychologist, and her daily work means she talks in schools, high schools or orphanages about how to protect oneself from crimes; sometimes it’s about road safety education, other times it’s about sexual violence. She believes the course was a milestone in her career, because it made her aware of “how necessary it is to educate young people, in order for them to not become victims”. It was then that she made a mission out of speaking about violence, because you have to admit that you are abused in order to ask for help. In 2018, with the support of other people from the community, she created a weekly emotional support group for abused women, which she manages in her spare time.
There are other prevention officers in the country who do similar good things in the community. But neither they, nor Hrihorișan work directly with victims on a daily basis. This year, Hrihorișan organized courses on violence against women for policemen across the country, so, after the events in Caracal, I asked her what could be improved so that field officers would do their jobs better. She thinks things will not change on their own, as long as policemen are part of the same society in which gender discrimination exists. “No matter how well prepared they might be, it’s not easy to abandon stereotypes”, says Hrihorișan. “We can only get there through a lot of work, repeated exposure to various situations, including discussions with violence victims who can share their own experiences and the expectations they had from the police.”
Something I haven’t heard of in other cities is happening in Brașov. For 16 years, at the end of every month, professionals from the public system and NGOs meet up for two hours in order to talk about how they could better help the victims they work with, about what’s new in the field or just to get things off their chests, because working daily with people going through trauma isn’t easy. There are family doctors, social workers, police officers, psychologists, lawyers, activists. Ștefănescu-Goangă, who was involved from the start in the “Professional network in the field of domestic violence and related social services”, says the project does what the public system doesn’t manage to do. She thinks the Network has the power to specialize professionals in domestic violence and has helped some cases to be solved more easily. For example, victims she represented navigate the public help system more easily, because she referred them to professionals she knew and trusted.
I attended the Network’s meeting in May, where a social worker expressed her disappointment that some of the policewomen she teams up with for cases of domestic violence speak condescendingly to victims. Another social worker said he is disappointed with the women he helps, who then return to the abusive relationships they had left. He reached a point, he told his colleagues, where he doesn’t understand them anymore, and has lost hope that he can help them. A psychologist told him the help professionals give to a victim is similar to when someone teaches you to ride a bike. There will be many falls along the road, but the person helping is the hand that pushes you on, no matter what happens. And once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget.
I’ve also noticed this kind of talk in conversations between prosecutors, policemen, psychologists and social workers whom I invited to the newsroom this year, to brainstorm solutions against domestic violence. A young prosecutor, one of the most open-minded in her generation, told me that neither her, nor others in the justice system understand why victims of domestic violence often drop their charges. A reason could be the financial dependency on the partner. The social worker then explained that the cycle of violence is more complicated than that: emotional control, which shatters any form of self-confidence, is so strong that it can put down even women who are financially independent. I noticed how some of the people at the meeting listened closely, and it was clear to me that this sort of conversation between specialists doesn’t exist yet in the environments they’re working in.
The dynamics of the relationship between victim and aggressor are often misunderstood because of the personal experiences that people who work with victims of domestic violence have had during their lives: victim, witness, aggressor. We cannot understand family violence until we each understand our own relationship with it, explained Adela Setet, who trains hundreds of social workers every year, and even oversees some of them. “It often happens that specialists assume the role of saviors. This strengthens and supports the development of helplessness. (…) In the relationship with a savior, the victim can only be a victim, and when she doesn’t want the help she is offered anymore or when she doesn’t get it (for various reasons: it doesn’t suit her, she is not ready for a certain stage), the support can turn into pressure and sometimes into threats and even aggression.”
All over the world, most murdered women die because of domestic violence, according to a United Nations study from last year. For a woman, the most dangerous place is at home. From the 87,000 women who were murdered in 2017, more than half were killed by their partners or other family members. The rate of murdered women in Romania is above the recorded average in the EU member states: 0.92 per a hundred thousand people, compared to the average of 0.42. The last Eurostat about femicide (2016) shows that only Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia and Serbia have it worse than us. Poland, a country with which we might compare ourselves, has a rate that is twice lower than ours.
At the age of 39, Nicoleta Botan was managing a private kindergarten in Bucharest, when her marriage to her high school sweetheart started to radically change. Her husband was criticizing her for working too much, for no longer taking care of the house and the children. Neither of them had the traditional relationship roles that their parents have had. They had wanted this change, but he was imposing some limits that Nicoleta couldn’t get over, so she wanted a divorce. One night, while the children were waiting for him in the car, the man hit her with a baseball bat. The forensic report showed her injuries required 12-14 days of medical care. The husband admitted to the act in front of the police, and Nicoleta asked for a restraining order and filed a criminal complaint against him. However, Marius Botan was not detained during the investigation.
The man insisted that she let him near the children, asked for forgiveness, told her the depression had made him violent. Nicoleta wanted the separation, but she sometimes wondered if it was fair for the father of her children to have a restraining order. She wondered if maybe those in her family that told her to give him another chance were right. One day, she let him come home to pick up one of the children, so that all of them could drive to the kindergarten that morning. Like they used to. A few hours later, Marius Botan stabbed her in her office upstairs, while downstairs their children and another 20 kids were having fun at a birthday party.
Last year, when Nicoleta Botan was murdered, 1,424 restraining orders were violated, amounting to 30-40% from those issued, a percentage that has been steady for three years. These are just the numbers collected by the police, not taking into account the cases of violation that the victims don’t report, like it happened with the Botan couple. In theory, policemen must check whether the aggressors follow or not the territorial limits. In practice, this seldom happens, because there aren’t enough human resources (a policeman handles even hundreds of files, not to mention the field cases), but also because these cases still aren’t an alarm sign for the authorities. Violating the restraining order is a criminal offence and is punishable by jail from a month to a year.
In judicial practice, there are few executed condemnations for violating it. Most offences that fall under family violence and gender violence have sentences of under five years in jail. Because of this, they are considered offences with a low level of social danger and, therefore, few aggressors are detained or arrested, either for hitting someone or for violating the order.
Civil society has been asking for electronic bracelets for aggressors, a solution that would make the monitoring easier for policemen. (This summer, the Ministry of Internal Affairs put the bill for introducing electronic bracelets in public debate.)
In March, I attended a course on gender violence for policemen, emergency doctors, and social workers from Satu Mare, held by Proca and her team at ALEG. I told the participants about Nicoleta’s case, about which I had recently written, and I asked them for solutions that could have prevented the crime. Some of them said the kindergarten’s employees should have known about the restraining order and could have reported that it was violated. Some said Marius Botan should have been preemptively detained the first time he hit his wife. Most of them, including women, who were social workers, said it was Nicoleta who should have defended herself and not allowed the aggressor in her proximity.
After decades of learning that women are the ones who should leave, those who provoke, those who are to blame, it is difficult for us to find strategies through which the system could better protect the victims.
Ecaterina Balica is a sociologist who works at the The Institute of Sociology of the Romanian Academy and collaborates with the European Observatory on Femicide, a research group on femicides. The term “femicide” is used for the murder of a woman by their current or ex intimate partner (husband/lover/boyfriend). In the past years, researchers have talked about expanding the definition, some of them believing it refers to the murder of a woman, regardless of the relationship between the aggressor and the victim.
In the future, Balica wants to create a statistical database about crimes inside the family, so as to better understand the phenomenon. By doing a media analysis, she noticed that, in Romania, “cases of femicide are not correlated to the domestic violence acts that preceded them, they don’t talk about the history of the relationship between the victim and the aggressor, or about the death threats. Each femicide is presented as being unique, not put in the context of the femicide cases committed during that year”.
Balica also noticed that “the victim is described in negative terms: she was known to have had multiple partners, she was a model for adult magazines, she refused to get back together with the aggressor who loved her, the victim dropped the charges she had pressed at the police. As opposed to the aggressor, about whom we learn that he has a good professional/educational status, comes from a good family, is a victim of the women in his life, was jealous or was ill and that is the reason why he couldn’t control his actions”. This year, in collaboration with the Homicide Department of the General Directorate of Bucharest Police, Balica will launch the Romanian Observatory for the Analysis and Prevention of Homicide, a laboratory of interdisciplinary research.
Why does such a research initiative help? In other countries, there is much debate and research about femicide between partners. The cases are analyzed by multidisciplinary teams of sociologists, policemen, psychologists, in order to find solutions for avoiding future crimes. In America, for example, after a number of crimes between partners were analyzed, specialists discovered a few risk factors that occur before the aggressors murder their partners: forced sex, death threats, choking.
American journalist Rachel Louise Snyder writes in her book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us that 50% of the victims of domestic violence are choked by the men at some point during the relationship. Such events can lead to brain damage, sometimes superficial, sometimes severe, so the victims of violence who have been strangled should implicitly be tested for this, which is now happening in the US.
“It’s like I’m in an ice cube I cannot escape”, is how Ana defines her every day captive status, because it is hard for her to make decisions, small or big. She wants to divorce – especially since her husband has been asking for it for a long while, because he is seeing someone else –, but she fears the way the family money will be split will not be in her favor. She’d like to find a job, but she doesn’t know where to start and she doesn’t think anyone will hire her at the age of 52. She feels insecure and, at times, she is too humble in her interactions with others. Other times, she fears she speaks too loudly and bothers other people. She knows she is going through trauma; she reads about this and she goes to an emotional support group for women who went through violent relationships. She knows it is hard for her to escape the victim profile and she feels guilty for this as well.
The ice cube is made up from the moments she felt she was good for nothing – so many moments when she was told she was “an absolute nothing”, that she “talks a lot of senseless nonsense”, so many moments when there wasn’t sexual consent between her and her husband, so many moments when she decided to stay a while longer.
Her daughter told her not to agree to a divorce without an equal settlement. “She told me she wants to have a winning mother as a role model, not a defeated one, that if I get out of the relationship humiliated, this is exactly the stigma both of us will carry, defeated because aggressivity defeats me.” Because she often encounters women with similar experiences, she keeps contemplating the solutions for her and others to be braver, to be heard by the authorities, to be able to build healthy relationships going forward.
So, she dreams about an ideal solution: to begin every day of the week with a session of therapy counseling where “someone could guide you to implement another software, because we become even more frustrated and it’s even harder to do it. One of my friends changed her job; she wound up with an abusive boss, because this is what we attract if we don’t have a grip on ourselves. You attract aggression until you heal and become the master of your subconscious.”
Today, Ana is part of the Survivors Network, an informal group of women who got out of abusive relationships or are trying to do so. The ALEG Association created this project in 2018, after a Spanish model, where an ex-victim of domestic violence managed, over multiple years, to offer emotional support to abused women, jobs which would bring them financial independence, and the courage to report the abuses.
Proca and her team want to help communities in as many cities as possible build such emotional support groups; they already exist in Sibiu, Bucharest, Brașov and Satu Mare, created by non-governmental organizations or by other people, like the policewoman Hrihorișan. Belonging to a network in which they can easily find one another, the women offer advice, including legal ones, they find jobs for one another, they babysit or they publicly speak about how they managed to escape violence, in order to inspire others. The change theory behind the network is that if more women would speak up, others would acknowledge the abuse they live with and would try to punish it. This would mean less victims, less children living in families full of tension, and less murdered women.
Abuse, combined with a permanent fear, fills your brain with cortisol. This affects your memory, your focus, it brings emotional stress, anxiety and depression, sleep issues. These are the symptoms the women I’ve interviewed over the last years struggle with. If they are also mothers – and most of them are – the pressure is huge. Most times, they become single mothers and have to also take care of the children’s trauma.
When he came to Romania for a conference, trauma doctor and researcher Gabor Maté told me the trauma we inflict on one another, in an environment in which we should feel safe, is the most complicated one. “Men have many frustrations; they can be economical, political, historical, because of their own childhood. Men who are frustrated don’t know what to do with their frustration; they will project their anger onto other close people, and usually these are women and children. This doesn’t happen because they are mean, it happens because this is how human beings work. And this means that a new generation of children is traumatized and, in their turn, will traumatize their children. It’s transgenerational. How do we end this? The first thing we have to do is acknowledge this effect’s impact, so that, at some point, the society or as many people as possible can make a decision that they do not want this to go further and ask themselves: ‘How should we behave toward the new generation so that we do not pass this along? Politicians, professors, doctors, therapists, justice people, anyone who has influence over people, should decide what sort of society we want and how we want to act with one another.’”
Another answer to this question is to establish a feminist education. It’s the solution everyone I spoke with talks about when it comes to gender equality and violence against women. Maria Bucur, historian and university teacher in Indiana, US, has been studying gender inequality for decades and says misogyny is a form of learned perception, which means it can be unlearned. Women and men alike could rethink the misogynistic attitude we were raised with, without being aware of it; we could censor and sanction it. We should listen to victims not once, but many times, because they are the only ones who can explain their feelings. We should be more careful when we encourage boys in school to express themselves critically and then we criticize girls who do the same. We should call attention to every instance where only men speak on TV talk shows about violence against women.
As families and educators, it’s necessary to teach our children about gender equality, that we shouldn’t tolerate any form of violence, that abuse is not only physical, and how to build healthy couple relationships. We should teach them from a young age to acknowledge and to talk about their emotions, be it frustration or sadness, and, in turn, us adults should accept them. We need to teach them to criticize and take to the streets both at big and small protests, how the manifestations for violence victims are at the moment. My three-year-old daughter finds it funny to sometimes shout around the house “We want safety, at home and on the streets!”, a chant she remembers from the latest protest we attended. It brings me joy, but I know it’s not enough and that we have a lot of work to do to help her report in due time the injustice she will probably go through.
In Spain, every year on the 8th of March, millions of Spanish people take to the streets during the “feminist strike” to protest against gender discrimination and violence. They also had – and still have – similar problems to our own: a misogynistic society and hit, raped, and murdered women. After a famous case in the late ‘90s, when a 60-year-old woman was hit, thrown from the balcony, then burned by her ex-husband, Spain introduced a real reformation. They trained policemen and magistrates, they introduced the restraining order, and they created courts specialized in violence against women. All of this with great pressure from feminist organizations and from citizens, who still have demands for the state.
No matter how much we do as citizens, we also need the political will for a strong reformation. Bigger budgets for mandatory courses for policemen and justice people, specialized civil courts or electronic bracelets will only happen if politicians decide so. I asked a woman who retired from politics after decades of growing in this field why none of the woman politicians took this cause on. She told me Romanian politics is still a man’s world, so you cannot find allies for a topic like domestic violence.
In order to show that violence against women is priority zero for the state, this statement has to come from the president, the government, and the public officials. What each of us can do now is to no longer keep quiet and to demand that they listen and make a contribution as well.
You can always write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me your thoughts about this topic, to share your ideas or if you want me to put you in touch with non-governmental organizations in Romania that work in the domestic violence field, those mentioned in the text or others, depending on where you live and the contribution you want to make.
The reporter’s note: The names of the women who went through violent relationships have been changed at their request, because they are not ready to publicly speak about their experiences yet.