Authorities are systematically failing to provide protection for domestic abuse victims in Hungary, a leading human rights organization said Wednesday.
In a report called “Unless Blood Flows,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed dozens of cases of women who struggled to find support. The title came from their stories of being told by police that nothing could be done until there was blood.
On Monday, a MP confessed to punching his partner and hitting her head against a railing in April after initially claiming she tripped over their dog, the Associated Press reported. At the time, Jozsef Balogh was a member of the ruling Fidesz party but left the party after disapproval from peers and now sits as an independent.
Domestic abuse in Hungary only became a specific crime, separate from other forms of violence, in July. Meanwhile, one in four Hungarian women will likely experience physical or sexual abuse by a partner, according to a 1999 survey cited by HRW.
The report details how victims who had injuries that healed within eight days were responsible for handling their own cases instead of having access to a prosecutor - under the previous law. This meant the victims had to file a report and pay for their own X-rays to use as evidence.
HRW’s Eastern Europe researcher Lydia Gall said that while creating legislation targeting such violence is a good move, there still are many shortcomings, such as the exclusion of rape as a form of domestic abuse.
Even if they start to try to navigate the system, they are often met with quite hostile responses, quite dismissive responses
Also, for the law to apply, couples either have to be living together at some point or have a child from the relationship.
The Hungarian government did not grant Al Jazeera’s request for an interview or comment on this story.
HRW said police, prosecutors and doctors lack training on how to deal with victims, which makes the process of getting protection for victims incredibly difficult.
“Even if they start to try to navigate the system, they are often met with quite hostile responses, quite dismissive responses…when you’re already so severely traumatised, you know that’s the last [thing] you need,” said Gall, who wrote the report.
She added that police often end up interviewing victims in front of the abusers, making it intimidating to speak up.
This process is all too familiar to Andrea, 43, who did not want to use her last name. She told Al Jazeera her former husband repeatedly beat her and their children for years.
She said he first verbally abused her and would pour water over her, but the abuse eventually escalated to the point of having her fingers and nose broken.
After one incident she had to wear slippers to work because she could not get her broken toes into her shoes.
“That day was really humiliating because I was ashamed of what happened to me… during that day my face went purple, and still I had to stay at work.”
Andrea eventually separated from her husband but the struggles continued.
It took over four months for the hospital she visited to give her X-rays as proof of her injuries. Andrea said the police accused her of going after her husband for money, even though she was the breadwinner in the family.
She told the court her husband used a wooden spoon to beat her and their children. The female judge replied that using a wooden spoon is part of Hungarian culture, Andrea said.
“It was really horrible for me because they were laughing at us living in fear and terror for years.”
Normally, they are traumatised, not only from the abuser but from the system
Even getting a case to court is a struggle since it is often difficult to gather evidence.
Andrea’s lawyer, Julia Spronz, who specialises in domestic abuse, said that police are often not aware of the new legislation and do not know how to apply it. Spronz estimated that about half of her cases end up not going to trial. For those that do, she said about 80 percent result in guilty verdicts. But despite being convicted, the vast majority of defendants only pay a fine to cover court costs.
In order for the victim to receive compensation, she would have to sue, Spronz said, adding that it rarely happens.
“They are totally exhausted… and all they want is peace, so they don’t go for that money, they don’t want to see [a] court anymore. Normally, they are traumatised, not only from the abuser but from the system.”
Spronz said no safety precautions are taken to protect the victim during a trial. Many women are forced into mediation with their abusers or put into the same waiting room during a trial, making it difficult for the victims to keep their whereabouts a secret.
No place to go
When the women manage to flee their homes, they often end up in shelters, but even these can be problematic.
Human Rights Watch reported that there are 122 beds in Hungary specifically meant for people who have suffered from domestic violence but the report says there should be 1,000.
Women who cannot get to these sites often end up in shelters meant for the homeless or for families going through financial difficulties.
At one such shelter in Budapest run by the S.O.S. Crisis Organisation, victims are given access to a therapist and a lawyer once a week. However, they are expected to financially sustain themselves and to live in close communal quarters, forcing abused women to live side-by-side with male strangers.
Laszlo Hellenbart, deputy director of S.O.S., has seen an increase in the number of victims using shelters because more are aware of such services. Space for women, however, is decreasing because of a lack of funds, and there are no long-term institutions for housing single abused women who do not have children.
Signs of progress?
However, Hellenbart added that the situation has greatly improved since 2005 when shelters and a support network for domestic abuse victims were first introduced.
“This kind of development and achievement usually [takes] place during several decades in other countries and Hungary achieved this in only eight years which is a huge [deal].”
The HRW report said traditional views of women have also hindered the fight against domestic violence.
While Gall said this is not specific to Hungary, what makes the country stand out is how such values have been expressed from high levels in society.
Last year, a MP from the ruling Fidesz party suggested women could avoid abuse by having more children. Istvan Varga told parliament that mothers should return to raising their children and instead of having one or two, they should have three or more children, “so we could respect each other more, so domestic violence would not be a question.”
That comment emboldened activists to push for legislation, which ultimately led to the adoption of the domestic abuse amendment this year.
When the government said it would create such a law, Fidesz parliamentary leader Antal Rogan stated, “I bow to the will of the ladies,” according to the HRW report.
According to Gall, such comments send a message to the rest of society that domestic violence is not a major issue.
“It doesn’t really suggest to me that we really want to do something about this. It’s more like, ‘Alright let’s just shut the freaking women up.’”
Gall said that even some victims told her that a certain amount of violence was to be expected in relationships. Most women she talked to did not have a high education and lacked the resources to live independently. Often the victims wind up returning to their partners.
Andrea is an exception. With three degrees and work experience, she was able to find a new job to support her children. Her ex-husband, though, kept the house and got a job as a teacher, she said.
“I find this infuriating that my husband didn’t really suffer that much from what he did.”