Central Europe Review Call forpolicy proposals...
Vol 3, No 18
21 May 2001
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Safe Haven?
Interview with Professor
Krisztina Morvai on domestic
violence in Hungary [Part 3]

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2

Central Europe Review: Has the change in women's roles since the collapse of Communism had a negative impact in terms of the spread of violence against women? How have depictions of women's roles changed since the changeover?

Krisztina Morvai: Once again, the media's role in depicting women's roles would make for a fascinating research project. If we switch on the television, regardless of whether we tune into public service or commercial channels, we will observe the same. After the prime time programmes, there are serious discussion forums about the major social problems of the day. The experts are gathered around the table. Most of them are men, sweating away in their suits and ties and pontificating on how to solve the big problems.

The most ridiculous debate I witnessed was the one on prostitution, when it was suddenly the centre of attention about a year or so ago. The men were sitting round the table and every one of them sank his teeth into a major issue. The representative of the Ministry lamented that the decrees on setting up tolerance zones for the prostitutes to ply their trade were not being implemented. The Mayor that he could not designate a tolerance zone and then a third that the poor clients could catch all sorts of nasty sexually transmitted diseases from the prostitutes.

It very quickly became apparent that prostitution represented a massive headache for these men, but nobody thought of consulting the prostitutes themselves as to whether they enjoyed hanging about street corners and selling their bodies as commodities.

Men discuss all the big political and social problems of the day. Then there are the broadcasts from Parliament. All men. The staff of the Ministries are men as well. Then there is an advert in which women play one of two possible roles. We either see them as sexy vamps in a state of permanent readiness to jump into bed, or as a mother who always has three adorable children, is made-up to perfection and is cleaning out the toilet bowl.

A poor show indeed

What we never get to see is the thinking, intelligent woman with deep feelings of her own, who is a citizen or even an individual. This has not changed one jot since the collapse of Communism; in fact, it has got worse—if that is possible—in the sense that in the old days, at least formally, you would see women in the Parliament. They might not have had any role to play, but at least there was a quota and they were visible. At least they were there on the benches. This really is a poor show.

It does obviously have an impact on violence against women in so far as it compounds the image of women as second-class citizens, as inferior beings within society. That they can more easily be regarded as objects of abuse than as valuable human beings. People do not think subconsciously of women as fully equal members of society with valuable input and thoughts to offer.

Is there a social debate on violence against women in Hungary?

An interesting ambivalence may be observed in this respect. That the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs has decided to begin drafting the legislation we discussed earlier is a very positive step forward. I am "evil" enough to plug it on every possible occasion on the radio and TV. The draft has neither been finalised, nor has a political consensus been reached. A handful of well-intentioned and committed individuals within the Ministry have launched this partisan action, hence the ambivalence.

They are happy to do it, but don't want to have it proclaimed from the rooftops, because they have to await the political consensus. I am not bound by loyalties in this respect, I am a maverick compared to them, so I can talk about it to my heart's content. If we take the bill as an example, we can say that the legislative machinery has been set in motion, that there will be a law, that the political situation is ripe for change—and this is all for the better.

At the same time, if I go back to the nine women's stories, to the Mother's Shelters—both of which indicate that the situation is quite desperate—I can extrapolate back from there and say that if we are still at a stage in Hungary where such seriously abused women and children have to live on the streets then no real change has occurred and the topic will not be given the treatment it deserves in terms of a society-wide debate either.

This causes me a great deal of personal distress. I visit a Mother's Shelter, go home emotionally drained and turn on the TV set. I sit back and watch how these politicians rip each other apart on the screen, how every last one of the political parties is beset with problems and in-fighting. It might sound a little arrogant, but many politicians, both male and female, have read my book which provides a diagnosis of what is going on in Hungary as regards domestic violence.

I wonder how they can sit on their backsides on the Parliament benches with peace of mind, knowing all the while exactly what is going on. Maybe I am being a dewy-eyed optimist too naive for my own good, but a lot of people in very influential political and social positions really have read my material. How can they sleep sound in their beds at night? How can they get up in the mornings and act as if nothing had ever happened, when they know exactly what horrific abuse is taking place?

Would you say that the victims of such abuse are stigmatised instead of the abusers?

Absolutely. That is what I have been driving at all along.

A safe haven?

Earlier on we talked about women's shelters for the victims of domestic violence. Do such shelters offer a safe haven? Are they secure? Does the present government devote enough attention to tackling the problem or does it prefer to bury its head in the sand and pretend the problem does not exist?

The huge problem here is that a fundamental misunderstanding has lead to the establishment of Mother's Shelters instead of women's shelters or refuges. Women suffering from a variety of social problems are given accommodation there and the Mother's Shelters are incapable of catering for the specialised needs of women and their children fleeing from domestic violence.

They are not suitable for that purpose, they are not secure and they were not devised to invigorate and provide affirmation to the women and children collapsing under the load of the dramatic and violent events preceding their arrival. They cannot assist and nurture these women to facilitate their rehabilitation into a normal way of life. The legal course of action followed is not to contribute to their return to homes they rightfully own, but to provide them temporary shelter as homeless persons.

The offices, the powers that be in Hungary cannot see beyond the wide range of social problems which follow in the wake of domestic violence. Even the majority of divorce lawyers seem to conceptualise it in terms of bad marriages and employ a scale in determining how bad the marriage is. According to this approach, domestic violence is but one cause of divorce amongst many. There is no public awareness about how domestic violence represents a highly specific phenomenon requiring a special, tailored response and this is precisely why there are no women's shelters.

Neither the present government nor its predecessor—and here I must stress that the previous government was a coalition between the Socialists and the Liberals—felt the slightest obligation to broach the issue, to deal with it, and so four years have elapsed without any action being taken. For the sake of fairness, I must point out that a child protection law has been adopted. Obviously, it covers children and not women and so it does not remedy the situation. There has been absolutely no progress on the issue of violence against women.

There is another dangerous development from the point of view of the shelters. An attempt has been made to modernise the system, which is laudable in itself, to the effect that fathers should not be excluded from looking after their children—interestingly enough, the question of responsibility is not given prominence here—the divorce lawyers always fight tooth and nail to guarantee fathers limited access to their offspring so that they can preserve and develop the relationship with them and so on. This is a pronounced trend.

At the same time, they are not aware that there are certain fathers who ought to be barred from access to their children altogether. If the relationship between the children and the father has to be maintained at all costs, and if instead of shelters proper the tendency is to set up so-called temporary family refuges, then the underlying aim pursued is that of keeping both parents together with their children. At the same time, it is blindingly obvious that if their relationship were so harmonious, they would still be living at home.

The other major problem with the Mother's Shelters is that their main aim is to restore the integrity of the family. Their definition of restoring the integrity of the family does not mean weaning the abuser off the habits of wife-beating but of encouraging the woman to return to her husband.

There are occasions when this undertaking descends into the realms of farce, such as when the heads of the Mother's Shelters make statements to the press about how they do have large numbers of battered women amongst their clients, but they try to help the women by uncovering the causes of the abuse, such as that the women are poor cooks. It very often emerges that they really can't cook to save their lives and so we organise cookery courses for them, they are reconciled with their husbands and the conflict within the family is thereby resolved.

We also often come across women who can't budget the family income, they can't divide it up properly, so we put on a course for them to teach them the necessary skills and feel justified in hoping that peace and harmony will reign once again within the family. This interpretation of the realities of domestic violence is prevalent in spite of being the stuff of tragicomedy, although all due respect has to be paid to the exceptions to this sorry rule, as there are well-trained staff employed at the Mother's Shelters as well. To summarise the root cause of the problem with the extant shelters is that they did not emerge from efforts on the part of the women's movement, but in the framework of the social welfare system.

Changing social attitudes

How can society's perception of the problem, including deterring would-be abusers, be changed? Can this be achieved by adopting legislation, by launching a campaign or by some other means?

I will have to start off with theory again. The question as to whether the law ought to follow social attitudes, in other words society matures into adopting a certain stance and the law follows suit later on, as to whether law ought to reflect the current realities of a society or whether it may even be permitted to be ahead of its time, moving ahead of society has always been a bone of contention.

In conjunction with violence against women, I plump for the latter option and there is no need for a referendum to sound out society's opinion as to whether women should be beaten or not or as to whether action has to be taken against wife-battering or not, for the simple reason that this is a question of fundamental human rights. The right to safety. The right to life. The right to physical integrity, the right to dignity. These are human rights issues and they possess the peculiar characteristic of being enjoyed by every individual regardless of what the majority view within society might be.

It is on a par with an issue such as whether Roma children should be permitted to go to school or Roma adults to restaurants. Even if 80 per cent of society were to say no, you simply cannot hold a referendum on such matters. This is simply not the type of question the majority can take a decision on. Legal provisions have to be enacted and the fundamental human rights guaranteed to the women. I am unyieldingly strict on this whole business, which is why I insist that the legal framework has to be put in place and the relevant laws made mandatory so that there is no way of wriggling out of responsibility.

I know that the laws can only hope to work if those responsible for enforcing them are convinced that they offer the best solution and if society agrees. As I said before, the laws have to be accompanied with training courses on a massive scale covering not just the technical ins and outs of how to implement the various provisions, but also making the professionals understand the true nature of domestic violence. Why such resolute measures have to be adopted to combat it.

Any laws should also be flanked by a campaign, because an important aspect of drawing up any piece of legislation is for a debate to be held within society at large when Parliament puts forward proposals. It is of the utmost importance for the public to be informed at the preparatory phase and for the media to give coverage to the debate in Parliament so that citizens are aware of what is at stake. It should not be shrouded in secrecy or pushed through as if it were a highly technical issue not calling for a wide-ranging debate. On the contrary, it has to be debated fully. I recall the Parliamentary debate in 1997 on marital rape. It had more symbolic than actual significance.

To the best of my knowledge, not one single case of marital rape has ever been taken to court, precisely because it is inseparable from everything we have been discussing now. Although there have been no prosecutions, the problem has figured on the public landscape. Opinions were formed; there were clashes of views. Proceeding along similar lines is important for the issue of domestic violence as well.

Of course, I could repeat the old cliché about bringing children up with proper attitudes in school, that teaching of peaceful conflict resolution should begin in nursery school. That goes without saying, but we are not dealing with men who are unable to resolve conflicts by peaceful means. Instead, we come back to their belief in themselves as superior beings and keeping others, women, under their control.

At nursery school, children should be taught that human relationships are not based on power play and the lessons on peaceful resolution of conflicts should be taught in addition to that. Let's say, my toy gets taken away from me. I need to be taught that banging somebody else on the head is not the solution, not even if that somebody else is a little girl.

Equal dignity, innate human dignity and the right to a life free of violence derived from them and mastering the methods of non-violent conflict resolution are the fundamental lessons, which have to be incorporated into the educational system. It is also important for the media to portray the whole phenomenon more realistically and accurately. We are contributing our own widow's mite as a small civil organisation. We continually apply for funding for projects such as the course for 120 journalists. We see an immediate impact.

Today, for example, a journalist from Szabad Föld will be visiting Éva Gerőcs, a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence. She took part in the course and we were responsible for awakening her interest in the subject. Off her own bat she expressed an interest in visiting a battered woman to ask her what domestic violence is all about, what experiences she can impart to readers and so on. This kind of thing is extremely important.

Quite a stir

Has the book had any tangible effect?

I hope so. It caused quite a stir in the media. NANE [Nők a Nőkért az Erőszak Ellen, Women for Women Fighting against Violence] is an association set up by women for women, which runs a help line. Even before the book was published, they campaigned on the issue. The fact that I, as a university professor, a person who tries to work with scientific instruments and had an opportunity to carry out a serious piece of research, was able to make a greater impact than the handful of feminists who make up NANE is a manifestation of Central European snobbery.

It distorts the truth to an extent, since they are also highly qualified individuals, but, in the eyes of many, particularly in the eyes of the powers that be, they are activists, an extremist feminist group. Some highly amusing incidents have arisen due to this snobbery. For example, I was invited to a conference on marital rape once, in my capacity as a criminologist, where I was asked to present a paper. There was a judge who was very pleasant to me, saying to me professor this and professor that, before giving his lecture in which he fulminated disparagingly against the small group of suffragettes who believed that marital rape should be a punishable offence.

What kind of law was that? Afterwards, it was my turn to speak so I stood up and began my paper by introducing myself as one of the suffragettes who had initiated this piece of legislation.

The genesis of the law on marital rape can be found in a letter written by NANE to the Constitutional Court requesting that it put an end to the discrimination which existed between married and unmarried women as regards the protection they enjoyed against rape. I supplemented this with a 50-page memorandum detailing the reasons why marital rape should be put on the criminal statute.

This was just by way of illustrating the antecedents to the book. Being a lawyer and teaching at university proved invaluable. I also tried to stress the need for this research to be verifiable from the point of view of methodology, to make sure it would confirm to scientific and academic expectations, whilst being accessible to the general reader. This is why it was injected into the sphere of public debate in the way it was. Practically, as soon as it hit the bookshops, serious analyses of domestic violence began appearing in the media in conjunction with its publication.

Szilvia Varró wrote a major full-page article on it in Népszabadság [a Hungarian left-wing daily], one of the most widely-read broadsheets, which meant it was being taken seriously. It was given great attention on TV, radio and in articles in the widest variety of newspapers.

The other tangible result was that a couple of battered women, who were astonished to find out that their tragedies were not isolated incidents but expressions of a more widespread social phenomenon, sought me out.

Domestic violence is a catastrophe affecting a lot of women and, for the first time, it was put plainly on view for all society to see that it does assume major proportions and it is a question of significance. It pointed the finger of blame at everyone who had previously trivialised and minimised domestic violence, and this was a great revelation for many women. I often receive phone calls and letters about the book. It proved to be a kind of diagnosis. The therapy is still to come. If everything proceeds smoothly, we will soon have the law in place and can compliment it with the training courses.

Discrimination comes in many forms

What forms does discrimination against women assume? For example, are women given the sack for becoming pregnant?

Discrimination against women assumes countless forms. My particular obsession is portrayal of women in the media, a topic we broached earlier. It represents a very serious form of discrimination against women. Another is an issue which, interestingly enough, divides opinion in the countries of Western Europe, that of advertising. There are certain of those countries where the situation is every bit as serious as it is here.

What image adverts project of women. All you have to do is walk about the streets with your eyes open to be bombarded with the most incredible sights. For example, an ad showing a female bottom. Ads which depict women as nothing more than sex objects, as commodities for sexual consumption, are all expressions of discrimination. This tendency has become far more blatant with the establishment of the market economy.

The Hungarian version of Cosmopolitan kicked off with an advertising campaign plastering enormous posters all over the city billboards. They displayed a half-naked woman whose face you could not see, and someone was holding her naked breasts from behind in his hands. The slogan was Cosmo readers' favourite bra. The question is whether such an ad involves discrimination. My stock response is to say that you can make up your mind whether it is discriminative or not by trying to imagine whether the same image could be used with male models and transplanted into a male environment.

Let's take the example of a popular Hungarian weekly, 168 óra. Could you imagine an advertisement sporting a naked man with someone clasping his sexual organs from behind and a slogan reading 168 óra readers' favourite pair of braces?

If an ad is as likely to fit into the context of a medium targeted at women as one targeted at men, then it is not discriminative. If, however, it would be unimaginable, then clearly discrimination is taking place, such as is the case with the first example, as it looks upon women as sex objects. This cannot happen with men. I feel that these are severe forms of discrimination.

As far as discrimination at the workplace is concerned, research is about to be carried out and it is vitally important for such research to comprise examples drawn from practical experience.

Only research that is borne out by dry facts and figures can be truly convincing. Let us take the example of pregnant women mentioned in the question. None of the incidences of a woman losing her job due to pregnancy will be covered by the statistics, because what happens is that she is called in to the boss and he tells her:

"Look here, Marika [the diminutive form of Mária], let's reach an agreement. I am sure that you can appreciate it when I say that your staying at home, breastfeeding and the like for six months will put a considerable strain on the company, so let's try to arrive at a compromise that benefits both you and the company. We will give so and so many month's severance pay. If you refuse to accept this offer, things will look pretty bad for you. We'll find some excuse, such as you not doing your work properly and we will kick you out come what may."

The statistics will record this as a free decision made by the woman, a cessation of the working relationship based on a mutual accord. She could hardly wait to stay at home with the baby and bask in the glow of her family becoming complete. We are given a completely false picture of reality, in other words. This is why qualitative research has to be done, women have to be asked about what fate befell them at the workplace, what happened when they became pregnant and how they experienced the whole situation whilst they were breastfeeding.

Painful memories

I can tell my own story. I was not thrown out of my job for having three children, but I have painful memories of the time after my eldest daughter was born—it is quite a personal anecdote, but I will include it nevertheless. My boss continually made rude remarks about my figure and he actually asked me specifically about when I was going to stop breastfeeding, because he could see that I would never lose weight until then and was an eyesore for him to have to watch a colleague, who had been so attractive before, to lumber around the workplace so overweight.

At that stage, I could have hit rock bottom psychologically and preferred to tender my resignation rather than endure this form of oppressive, insulting behaviour, which really falls into the category of harassment at work, as no man would ever be forced to tolerate such comments now, would he?

If, let's say for the sake of argument, he had overindulged in the beer and sprouted a belly, nobody would have the temerity to badger him about it, telling him they didn't want to be forced to behold his sprawling gut so he should go easy on the pints. Statistics will not reveal these tales of woe, how I had to choke back my tears and how, when I was breastfeeding my eldest girl for a year, the thought occurred to me that maybe I really ought to stop and that my heart bled for my poor colleagues having to put up with the sight of me. With hindsight, I am ashamed I thought that way then. Research has to be done into how women are treated at the workplace in Hungary.

Women's rights in light of EU Enlargement

I am genuinely concerned in conjunction with EU Enlargement that if the EU were really to expect us to show that we had done something to promote female dignity and equal rights, we would have to shrug our shoulders in embarrassment. I cannot see any pressure being brought to bear by the EU in the realm of equal rights for women or combating discrimination against women, although the importance of such gentle nudging can hardly be overestimated.

These issues simply do not come under the same category as, say, the Roma question, which, thank God, the EU does take seriously. I am afraid that if we really did have to come up with statistics, figures, then the results would be shocking. If we were to compile statistics on how many men have been prosecuted for beating their wives. Very few. The reasons why such a wife not daring to press charges against her husband, or the police refusing to respond to her call are a different question altogether.

Unfortunately, I have no accurate figures at my disposal about how many women are dismissed because of
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becoming pregnant or breastfeeding or whatever, but it is probably quite small.

Sexual harassment is another scourge afflicting women at work. I meet ever-increasing numbers of women who have undergone personal tragedies as a result of it. Most of the women concerned are single or divorced. I can quote one example of a mother with a young child, whose sad tale unfolds as follows:

"We had just started to be a bit better off and exchanged the old flat for a more roomy one. I enrolled my child for piano lessons and even bought an exorbitantly expensive piano, which I paid off in instalments." This is a true story. Then she burst into tears. I asked her what was wrong, had there been an accident in the family? "No," came the reply. "My boss asked me straight off if I would sleep with him. If I did, I could keep the job; if I didn't, I could kiss the job goodbye."

In Hungary, women generally back out of such situations, because they know they are completely devoid of protection, that they will be accused of coming on to the poor boss, of making improper advances. The example I gave you of the woman who bought the piano is typical. The situation deteriorated to the point that she was forced to hand in her notice and go back on a lot of things she had promised to the child. She had said they would have this and that, yet they had to go back to their former, more modest, lifestyle.

Yet the prevailing attitude is why does such a fuss have to be made if a couple of women have their bottoms pinched. Then we are faced with the unanswered question of how widespread a phenomenon this actually is and how we can best measure its extent.

Once again, I am convinced that only qualitative research will pass muster. The kind of questionnaire I receive from various civil society organisations in conjunction with enlargement are worded very cautiously indeed.

For example: Has a sexual harassment case ever been tried at court? The answer is, in practice, no; but the reality is slightly more complex, as there have been a couple of criminal cases. Supposing five cases of this type had been tried. Does that imply that only five women in Hungary have been faced with the problem? Obviously not. The same applies to all sorts of discrimination-related problems.

Uncharted territory

The territory is uncharted and so qualitative research projects respecting the highest academic and methodological standards and taking full account of women's real life experiences, which will be both authentic and credible as a result of their stringency, have to be funded. Pressure has to come from the outside as well. I read a marvellous statement from a European leader, who happened to be a woman, in some EU publication or other to the effect that there would be no accession without equality between the sexes.

It sounds wonderful, but how are the male politicians of Hungary dressed up to the nines in their suits and ties going to discover that this is a topic relevant to Enlargement?

No matter how often I read articles, listen to the radio or watch TV when EU accession is being examined, I have never heard one single mention made of the situation of women being taken into consideration in any area whatsoever.

What about the acquis communautaire, to turn to a very specific question? How do they relate to women? It is impossible to know with any accuracy. What exactly does the EU expect of the candidate countries? Is it that we are supposed to incorporate the nine directives about equality at the workplace into our legal system and if we have done that then we have complied with all that is expected of us? Or is there some kind of "soft law" of the type that exists within the EU, which we are also expected to respect?

There is no demand that a country not be allowed to join if it tolerates situations in which women with children in tow are forced to flee from wretched circumstances at home and physical abuse and are then left to rot on the streets for three weeks. It is precisely here that gentle pressure could be put on the government. I am not an expert in EU law and I believe that political rather than legal pressure would be the most appropriate instrument in this context, because there is no European law on domestic violence, sadly.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 21 May 2001

Read Part 1 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Professor Krisztiva Morvai

Read Part 2 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Professor Krisztiva Morvai

Moving on:



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Tobacco Fields

Sam Vaknin
Bulgaria's Economy

The Roma

Nidhi Trehan
Solidarity in Macedonia

Kristína Magdolenová
Slovak Justice

Eva Sobotka
Czech Roma

Savelina Danova
Empty Promises

Dragan Ristić
Fighting Tradition

Peter Hames
Finále in Plzeň

Rob Stout
The Sword and
the Shield

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Czech Republic

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