January 16, 2014

Domestic Violence: Silent women and a Gummy Law

Some think that the conception of “violence in families” or the so-called “domestic violence” should not be used at all, because family is the ultimate good in itself.  This is one of the reasons why it took 6 years to pass the Law Against Violence in the Immediate Environment in Lithuania.

By Margarita Pūdžiuvienė, Gintarė Bakūnaitė and Agnė Pakėnaitė

violence-against-womenDanutė [real name is changed – authors] has been suffering from violence for 18 years. Tears, fear and the only question “why?” is her daily routine. But she doesn’t want to live like this anymore – the woman is getting a divorce.  However some questions remain unanswered: will the law enforcement support the victims of domestic violence; will decision-makers pay attention to the problem, or will the attitude ‘it is the fault of those mollies themselves’ remain.

Three attacks

During eighteen years of marriage Danutė has learned that it’s better not to be in a way of her husband, as one can never know what his mood will be when he comes back from work. ‘Every time when he’s about to come home, we jump right to the window to see what’s his mood. If he’s drunk and swings his fists, we lock up in the room and wait silently until he falls asleep,’ says Danutė. However, despite all precautions, it’s hard to avoid your own husband when the two live under the same roof. This is when the women’s body is usually marked with bruises.

Danutė has experienced three major attacks. She tells that sometimes her husband gets annoyed by the smallest details. Once Jurgis [real name is changed – authors] got upset when he found his wife having dinner with their kids, her brother and his mother-in-law who came to visit. Spouses got into an argument, Jurgis was ready to strike his wife, but she got away. He managed to catch her anyway. A neighbor called the police. ‘I’ll kill you. I will chop off your heads when I come back. I used corpses as dinner table in war, this means nothing to me, ‘ Danutė remembers as her husband screamed during the incident. The other incident was even worse – Danutė suffered three hits in the head.

Has to run

It is said in the public space that the new Law Against Violence in the Immediate Environment would allow victims to stay home as they won’t have to hide in crisis centers or look for a shelter at their parents’. But some experts doubt if two days at custody can make a change on the perpetrator. If the victim lives in her husband’s, or, in Danutė‘s case, his mother’s house, the perpetrator always comes back. And violence repeats.

Nijolė Dirsienė, the director at the Mother and Child Guesthouse in Vilnius says that after the new law was passed, numbers of those who want to stay at the crisis center has increased by one fifth. She thinks people have started to acknowledge violence as a big issue and women have gained more courage to look for help. However, Vilana Pilinskaitė Sotirovič, the Project manager at the Center for Equality Advancement and one of the authors of the new law, says people lack the understanding that violence is a crime in Lithuania. ‘When we were working on the law, police officers were telling us they don‘t have rights to intervene into private family matters. As long as we have such attitude, we‘ll continue to hit the wall,’ says the author of the law. She admits that passing of the law is a step forward, but  there are still gaps to be filled.

In the meantime crisis centers for women are accepting more and more victims of violence. And these centers are also fighting for survival. Since the centers are not budgetary institutions, but non-governmental organizations that get financed on project basis, they’re on their own if they can’t raise enough funds. Even if the project is approved and information about the budget is announced on January, the money reaches the organization only on June. ‘However, the services are needed here and now’, says Storovič.

The lost baby

The eighteen years of violence have not only left scars on Danutė’s body, but also in her soul. A mother of three tells she was meant to raise four. When Danutė was pregnant in her 7th month, she worked at a grocery store in her village. ‘We got new delivery that day, a lot of customers where coming in, so I decided not to come back home for lunch,’ Danutė remembers the crucial decision. When she got back home in the evening, her husband greeted her with anger. ‘I barely managed to cover my belly and head when he started beating me. My six-year-old son was nearby; I managed to scream to him to call for grandma. It was winter, he ran to the grandma barefoot,’ remembers Danutė.

Three months after, she gave birth to a paralyzed girl. ‘The newly born couldn’t move. And she’d cry with no voice, just tears’, says Danutė and adds that five months after the girl died. Danutė herself got depressed.

On whose side the law enforcement is?

Even though women who experience violence are still afraid to talk about it, there are more and more of those who speak up after the new law was enforced, says Ramūnas Matonis, the head of Communication Division at the Police Department. He says that after the law stared operating, the police received 14 076 notices about cases of violence in the immediate environment; 5154 pre-trial investigations were started. However, cases when perpetrator is released after 48 hours in custody [according to the law, it is the longest he can be kept in custody before trial– authors] and he beats up his victim for revenge once more are still very common. This might be one of the reasons why women are still afraid to talk to police after acts of violence repeat.

Laima Vaigė, a lawyer, says the police must guarantee the safety of victims. But neither the law enforcement, nor the police can do a thing if victims are silent and do not report about the repeated acts of violence. ‘Even perfect laws can’t protect from imperfect people – there are people who don’t respect one’s right to a physical integrity,’ says the lawyer. She claims that the biggest fault of the law is the lack of means of prevention against violence.

According to Vaigė, the society still denies that violence is related to differences of gender. The statistics, according to her, confirm it. 621 women and 66 men became victims of violence from their spouses in 2011, the data from the Statistics Lithuania show.

But Ramūnas Matonis argues that there are not only problems of attitudes. ‘No additional funding was allocated for the implementation of the new law. Today the police has a way bigger work-load then it used to, because we have to react to all calls and also carry out the pre-trial investigations,’ says Matonis. According to the officer, if perpetrators don’t follow court’s ruling and repeat crimes, victims can call the police one more time, but it is very likely the perpetrator will be locked up for only 48 hours once again. ‘According to the Criminal Procedure Code, the measures of remand don’t have the safety mechanism after it was breached: a more severe measure of remand – an arrest – is given only in extreme cases and not in cases of this category, therefore, in reality, victims remain undefended,’ acknowledges Matonis.

A glimpse of reality

There were many consultations with international experts from the U.S. that has a very similar law for 40 years already before passing the Lithuanian Law Against Violence in the Immediate Environment. However, the experts have not seen the last draft of the Lithuanian law. Cheryl Thomas, women rights activist and the head of the program for equal rights for women at the non-profit organization The Advocates for Human Rights, says it is important that victims get help in different forms, such as help of lawyers, health care, a place to live, as well as psychological and social help.

But the case of Danutė demonstrates that once one collides to the system head-to-head, it doesn’t work as effectively as planned. Danutė has a lawyer, who’s helping her with the divorce, but she’s concerned and afraid she won’t have a place to live  and the means to take care of her children. Danutė has been waiting for a project for two years already, but she’s worried the court will tell her to come back to the same house of her mother-in-law after divorce. She’s also concerned the court won’t be able to order her husband, who is unemployed, to pay the so-called ‘children money’.

Vaigė says that women who suffer domestic violence must seek help and sign a special paper that releases their personal data to the specific crisis centers at the police center.  ‘Some women may find it threatening, but I advice to definitely sign the paper. Your data won’t be given to wrong hands – this help mechanism is created for the comfort of victims,’ assures the lawyer. She also reminds that the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human rights have ruled that the property rights of the perpetrator can’t be defined as higher than those of the victim’s to her health and life, therefore, it’s likely that, in Danutė’s case, her husband might be the one who will need to move out. ‘It is also worth mentioning that parents must guarantee the right to housing to their children, so, if the divorced mother is going to rent or buy an apartment, not only she, but also the father will have to contribute financially, for example, with 25 percent of the price,’ explains the lawyer. She says that the so-called “children money” is ordered by the court no matter if the father has any income or not.

Psychological violence

Women experiencing domestic violence not only feel the physical pain, but also have a constant feeling of fear and worthlessness, as well as experience psychological violence. This happens in Danutė’s family as well. According to her, Jurgis is talking off her children against her – promising them wealth, like a house for their son; he also bought a cell phone for their daughter, which he took away when the girl told him she’d like to live with her mother. ‘He always says that their mother has been growing in orphanage, so she has nothing. He claims they’d have to live in woodsheds and sleep at bus stops,’ tells Danutė. She has also noticed that her 17 year-old son who witnesses the relationship at home, is closing down, in most cases he’s annoyed and sometimes even aggressive.

Aušra Kurienė, a psychologist-psychotherapist at Children’s Support Center explains that children, who witness violence in their families, usually choose the role of either the perpetrator or the victim, as it’s the only model they see. She says that there are many cases when boys from such families become violent against women and girls tend to marry aggressive men. ‘Such children need help,’ says the psychotherapist. The lawyer Vaigė adds that specialists from social or children services must be present when solving situations like this.

Are politicians hurting?

Vilana Pilinskaitė-Sotirovič, the project manager at the Center for Equality Advancement remembers the dawn of the new law. She says that even the possibility of such a law was ignored until 2010.

The European Parliament had started the advocacy campaign against violence against women in 2006 which served as an announcement to all parliament members across Europe. The parliament that was in power at that time had dedicated Marija-Aušrinė Pavilionienė to coordinate the campaign in Lithuania. This was the first time when questions of violence in families were officially raised from the stand of the Lithuanian Parliament. Later on, Mrs. Pavilionienė had initiated the project of the law that included such words as ‘domestic violence’ and that, in particular, was aimed against violence against women. On the other hand, this was also the time when the conception of family was discussed in Parliament and the notion of a family as of the good in itself was consolidated, so the idea of the law died.

But Lithuania chaired at the Organization for the Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and, together with partners from the U.S., also chaired at the Community of Democracies Forum, where democracy and human rights were the highest priorities. The Lithuanian parliament was cornered to vote on the Law Against Violence in the Immediate Environment. Sotirovič remembers the conversations at Parliament at the time: ‘Well, yes, maybe he beats his wife, but he’s a very good father.’

Today Remigijus Žemaitaitis, a parliament member and a lawyer says he has offered ways how to improve the law. The politician says it’s not enough to support the victim financially and give her a place to live or punish the perpetrator, but, for example, take away the gun and improve the work of police officers. ‘People call the police even for minor events; let’s say because of words used at conflicts. It would be better if police would react only when physical violence is used or when a person experiences psychological violence all the time, when the humiliation continues,’ says Žemaitaitis.

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