Throughout the cities and villages of Hungary, a silent epidemic rages virtually uncontrolled. Our society holds traditional values in great esteem. The downside of this is that many of my fellow men regard women and children as mere appendages, commodities, property to be treated as the owner—the head of family—sees fit.
Thousands of women across the length and breadth of the country are forced to live in constant fear of their and their children's lives, because they are at the mercy of abusive husbands, but until recently no attention whatsoever has been paid to the problem.
Indeed we have a proverb, which reveals more about attitudes than we would perhaps care to admit, "az asszony verve jó" [literally: a woman needs to be beaten; it could be rendered in the sense of the man has to make sure he wears the trousers in the family, asserting his authority]. Police and neighbours have too long been indifferent to the problem, brushing it aside as a series of private tiffs for the couple to resolve between themselves, an unhelpful response, to say the least, exacerbated by the stigma of abuse being carried by the victim.
A modest public role
I had the pleasure of interviewing a courageous woman, whose unstinting efforts have contributed to improving the lot of the most vulnerable individuals in our society. What I find all the more scandalous is that the organisation for which she works is under threat of closure, in spite of the indispensable succour and aid it dispenses, due to lack of public funding. Never was there a clearer indication of the scandalous and shameful lack of serious attention accorded to this issue.
Dr Éva Subasicz: I am a lawyer and work at the Women and Children's Rights Legal Protection Programme's Office (Nő- és Gyermekjogi Jogvédő Program Iroda) [the Office]. The Office was set up in August 1997 by the Budapest Open Society Institute Foundation and a partner institution, the Constitutional and Legal Policy Institute. In the course of the last year and a half, the Soros Foundation has joined the ranks of the sponsors of the Office, helping maintain it as well.
The aim of establishing the Office was to assist people who turned to us, by providing legal advice and by representing them before the authorities within a closely defined sphere of activity in the interests of affording more effective protection of women's and children's rights. The Office is important because it is the first and only institution in Hungary, which provides legal advice and representation services entirely free of charge for anyone who approaches it for help, although, as I mentioned earlier, it can only offer assistance within the areas defined as its sphere of activity.
At the present juncture, the Office is dealing with approximately 140 to 142 cases. Not long ago, we had 200 on our books, but of course some cases have closed in the meantime. As a general rule, about 10 to 15 prospective clients visit the Office every week. Together with my colleague I meet clients in person three times a week. The clients are referred to us by the child welfare services, social workers, the Child Placement Authorities [these authorities are responsible for taking children into care or placing them with foster parents where maltreatment or neglect is proven] and the police, with whom we are in contact.
Apart from that, we also try to play a modest public role by means of our reports on the Office and its work. Clients are more frequently contacting us as a result of the articles that have appeared in the press concerning our work. The Office's telephone numbers are public. Anyone is entitled to get in touch with us and we agree on a suitable time for an individual appointment. It emerges during the conversation whether the case in question comes under the category we are empowered to get involved in. It is quite broad, and includes domestic violence, brutality, sexual harassment and threats against children, wives and mothers.
Complex reasons—complex solutions
The background to this abuse can be varied, such as child custody or divorce cases, or cases stipulating a partner's access to a child. There are also cases, which specifically come under criminal law and usually belong to the category of marital and youth crimes [including committing sexual acts with minors, for example] or rape. There are a few crimes classified as crimes against the individual, such as duress and restricting personal freedom [the latter includes women being kept at home as virtual prisoners, with their husbands removing the key whilst locking them on going out].
In criminal law cases we represent the injured party as a rule. Above and beyond these we also deal with cases involving the use of real estate and leased property, depending on how the couples lived together [and in case of separation, a decision has to be taken over who has a claim to what]. We also handle cases in the area of child custody.
The reason that I have only given a very rough outline of our activities is that the primary characteristic of these cases is precisely that they cannot be untangled or pigeonholed easily and that they usually require complex solutions. I already pointed out that we have three sessions a week during which we meet clients personally from three in the afternoon right through to seven in the evening.
The aim of running the Office is to prepare an expert report once a year about the cases we have intervened in. We pass on our professional experience to legislators, judges and lawyers in the field on both a formal and an informal basis. This is of utmost importance, because it allows the practical experience from real life to be fed back into the legislative circuit, which may in turn encourage the enforcement of the interests of battered women and children. I would add that in our work we are placing ever-greater emphasis on asserting children's rights.
Currently, our most pressing problem is that our Office only has a budget up to the end of April 2001. Following that, we may be forced to close down, although we are desperately trying to come up with a solution, since we still have many cases pending and many individuals continue to seek out the Office for help. We have created an independent foundation and are attempting to track down sources of income so that the Office can continue to pursue its activities in its present form.
Hope for the hopeless
Central Europe Review: In the past three years, have you succeeded in bringing about tangible improvements in the lives of the battered women who have approached you?
We do not normally speak of success in conjunction with cases of this nature, and I do not use the term success myself. What we endeavour to do is to utilise the instruments afforded to us by the law to adjust situations, which have come into being in real life, to solutions appropriate to each party. Arriving at an appropriate solution is what counts as success. In certain individual cases we have scored major successes, which outsiders also deem as successes, but by the same token we have had cases, which we ourselves would consider a success, but which an outsider would not be able to regard as such.
On the whole, we offer legal representation and are not bound by a duty to achieve results. We do not undertake to attain a specific aim of X or Y, but we do assume responsibility for representing our clients at a level commensurate with our legal knowledge and expertise. Naturally, it is extremely important for our clients to rest assured that they are being represented by a trained, skilled lawyer, who has experience in the type of case concerned. I would evaluate this as a success in itself.
I believe we are on the same wavelength in our definition of what constitutes success. It is not a matter of increasing the amount paid in damages several times over, but in providing these vulnerable people with somewhere to turn to at last in spite of their lack of funds and connections.
I would also like to add that, in practice, we have become the legal aid office of the poor, but we do not pick and choose clients by carrying out some form of selection. Anyone can turn to us, regardless of the state of their finances. The nature of the case itself is the criterion we apply in determining whether we can take a case on board or not, and the choice does not depend on the individual concerned.
What I was driving at was that the existence of such an office is of far greater importance to an unemployed person, who has to scrape by on social security benefits than a millionaire, who presumably would have recourse to other channels in defending their rights.
Yes. In practice, most of the clients who approach us have massive problems, they always turn up on our doorstep from shelters for homeless mothers or from children's homes. Once the relationship concerned has already been severed by the partners themselves or has been broken off by the intervention of the authorities in some shape or form. People turn to us during pretty much the worst phase of their lives or whilst they are enduring the worst possible circumstances.
From the oath—to trial
I realise that you are not a psychologist, but you do have the benefit of many years of experience of dealing with domestic violence. As a private individual what, in your opinion, is the cause of male aggression within the family?
This is an extremely complex issue, because even in specific cases it is often very difficult to peel away the layers to discover how the situation developed. First and foremost I would have to mention the degree of socialisation and who regards what as valuable. The extent to which a man respects a woman in life in general so that if a problem rears its ugly head then he does not resort to beating the woman as a solution.
Then there is the problem of alcohol-related aggressiveness, as a result of which the man loses control over his behaviour and begs forgiveness a couple of days later once he sobers up. He goes through this cycle on a regular basis. Perhaps aggression flares up on a regular basis because of an extra marital relationship.
There are also cases in which one spouse loses their job and the family is plunged into serious financial difficulties. Sadly, the man tries to relieve the inner tension caused by the feeling of powerlessness by resorting to violence. Then there are some men, who do not abuse their partners regularly, but only when a certain problem crops up. For the most part, these are the factors that have a part to play.
How far the woman in question lets him go, what she lets him get away with is also important. If a woman's self-image is none too good, she may well be subjected to greater aggression. This is particularly true if the woman is susceptible to her husband's influence through being over dependent on him. The picture is also more nuanced when the woman is financially dependent on the man in question as well.
In today's Hungary, it is very difficult indeed for a woman to stand on her own two feet and make a living independently. As a result, women are forced into living together with men and have no choice but to maintain relationships precisely because of financial considerations. Very often this merely serves to poison the situation further and abuse occurs frequently.
Does your Office also defend women who fall into the category of battered women and have killed their abusive husbands?
I have not yet dealt with a case of this kind. I have, however, defended a woman who, as a result of duress from her husband, ended up in a position where she also became an accused. Her husband abused her to the extent that she was not in a position to exercise her own free will, in other words to refuse to take part in the crime.
As a matter of fact, this case became quite famous, because the court's verdict was that the woman was under her husband's influence to such an extent that her own free will was paralysed and she was therefore found not guilty.
Western law recognises the category of battered women's syndrome, according to which a wife murders her husband after having been subjected to years of ongoing abuse and the threat of being killed herself. What is the state of play in Hungarian law in this respect?
There is no such category in Hungarian law. In the course of compiling evidence, the court and the authorities carrying out the investigation assess this circumstance. Hungarian law allows for acquittal provided that the deed took place under circumstances in which the woman was acting in self-defence and may even have overstepped the boundaries of necessary force. This set of circumstances is specifically mentioned in the criminal law statute.
In addition, when determining the penalty, the length of sentence and type of institution in which it is to be served in other words, the circumstances in which the perpetrator lived and the fact of the crime being preceded by long years of suffering caused by abuse are of some importance. Thus far, however, no legal category of the type to which you refer exists either in the criminal or the civil statute.
Do you not believe that this category should also be introduced into the Hungarian legal system in the framework of legal harmonisation?
It certainly ought to be introduced, but whilst taking all the relevant factors into full account. New rules have just been introduced on rape. Previously, rape was deemed to have been committed if the individuals concerned were not married. This exception has now ceased to exist and rape can occur within marriage as well. No supplementary rules have been drafted in terms of proving rape has taken place, however.
Now we have a progressive piece of legislation in line with European standards, but no provisions in place, which would allow its enforcement. This is an extremely difficult matter. All I can say, therefore, is that whereas it ought to be introduced into Hungarian law, this has to be done with the requisite flanking measures.
If the Office were to be forced to shut up shop, would there be anywhere else for the battered women to turn to?
I am not aware of any other possibility in Hungary for them to obtain legal representation free of charge. By this I mean legal representation before the courts and authorities. To the best of my knowledge, the Office is quite unique in this respect.