Europe: Domestic violence - an all to common reality
It is a
plague which spares no country, no circumstances, no social class :
One might tend to think that it is found mostly in underprivileged circumstances, and therefore also, essentially, in the least developed countries. However, the reality of the situation is completely different : if one examines the situation in Europe, one is forced to observe that the richest countries and the most privileged population groups experience the problem just as severely. All that varies between countries are the remedies which are attempted, whether by legislative means or by material and psychologiecal assistance for the victims.
Certain European countries, such as Iceland, which in other ways is rather advanced from the point of view of women’s rights, the Netherlands and Greece have no specific legislation on domestic violence. It is treated as all other violence, althought it requires a specific follow-up and the specific protection of victims, since recidivism very frequently occurs, as there are close bonds between the victim and the torturer. In Greece marital rape does not expressly constitute an offence ; whereas in Italy it is considered a crime. Unfortunately, the Italian judges have not changed their attitude and rarely apply these laws. In France, rape is recognised by the law and therefore punished.
The question of the implementation of the law is significant. In Portugal, for example, there has been a law protecting women from conjugal violence since 1991. However, it was adopted under international pressure and not following a new awareness of the issue. It is therefore not applied, the means for implementing it being non-existent. The problem is serious as a woman’s life is sometimes at stake : in Northern Ireland, 40( of the murders of women are committed by their husbands. It is therefore important for a woman to be able to leave home at once and to find shelter (often with the children). That is, she must be taken in by a reception foyer if she has nowhere else to go ; She must also be able to live in a safe area, as it has been established that the danger of violence is most severe in the period which follows the woman’s departure. This last observation gives the lie to the assertion that a woman who does not leave her violent husband is more or less responsible for her own suffering ; it is usually fear which stops her from leaving. Reacting as soon as possible avoids reaching this extremity. In Sweden, the reception centres for battered women advise leaving after being hit for the first time, as the situation can only get worse.
Moreover, it is when a man is himself affected by the consequences of his actions that he is genuinely motivated to change his behavior. From this point of view it may sometimes be of help to lodge a complaint against him. A man may then perhaps realise the gravity of the situation. In some countries, there are effective arrangements for the reception and treatment of violent men. They do not see violence as being of their own responsibility. They think they are the victims of various circumstances. It is therefore necessary to teach them to take responsibility for their acts, through group therapy or through individual consultations, which allow them to understand better what it is that leads them to be violent, and how to contain themselves in ‘at risk’ situations. The procedure which consists in directing men towards this sort of reception centre must be facilitated by a better informed public.
On this subject, it is interesting to note also that the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in Finland has remarked  that treatment programmes for violent men cost much less than the consequences of violence. In fact, it has been established that one act of violence in a family may easily cost society 185,000 Finnish marks (more than £20,000) . In comparison, treatment of a violent man costs less than £700 (corresponding to individual evaluation sessions for three months and 15 group therapy sessions).
These figures provide food for thought, when it is known that in Finland 22( of women questioned in 1997 who were living with a man said that they had been victims of physical or sexual violence or of threats of violence by their partner at the time. In Greece, a study carried out in Athens showed that one man in four between the ages of 25 and 35 had beaten his partner at least once, and the National School of Public Health has estimated that one woman in four who arrives at the Accident and Emergency Services has been hit by her partner. In Austria, one woman in five is the victim at least once in her life of physical violence from a partner.
Legislation on conjugal violence is often very recent. Laws which punish rape between spouses are rare, or recent. In Switzerland, the legislation was modified in 1993 but only the victim may lodge a complaint, while in other rape cases a public prosecution may be brought. Conjugal violence is a phenomenon which is often taboo. States generally point to the fact that it occurs in the ‘private sphere’ as a justification for their inertia. Respect for private life in this instance means the protection of the interests of violent men, and not of those of battered women. Faced with this observation, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has asserted in its General Recommendation 19 that States may be held responsible for ‘private acts if they do not act with due diligence to prevent the violation of rights or to investigate acts of violence in order to punish them and to provide a remedy for them’.
More than a year ago, Spain acquired a spectacular, legislative arsenal to fight domestic violence, a plague of very worrying proportions in that country. Nearly 19,000 complaints of mistreatment were lodged in 1997. The plan, which has a total budget of 60 million dollars, envisages measures to distance by force a violent spouse from his victim, the systematic follow-up of cases of mistreatment, the creation of ‘women’s care units’ in police stations and the launch of an awareness raising campaign. It is, alas, too early to evaluate the results of a purview of thes nature, but this initiative by the Spanish government deserves to be highlighted.
In addition to putting in place appropriate legislation, it is essential to create or strengthen arrangements to deal with the victims and the violent men. It is also important to train the professionals involved, such as medical staff and police officers, so that violent situations may be rapidly identified and that the people involved may be appropriately dealt with. In some countries, specialists in the reception of battered women have been invited to develop and deliver training for police officers. This has been the case, for example, in Austria since the mid 1980s. But if one wishes to fight the roots of the evil, work must be done at the level of gender relations, aiming at the implementation of equality between the sexes in all domains. It is often said that conjugal violence is a result of the illusion that men have superior ability to women. States and individuals must work to remove this illusion.