I had the great pleasure of meeting Hungary's foremost legal expert on the issue of domestic violence, Professor Krisztina Morvai, author of the groundbreaking study "Terror in the Family," in the office of the Women's and Children's Rights Foundation in the tranquil and opulent surroundings of the Buda hills. Her pioneering work has done much to dispel the clichés of the heavy-handed drunkard knocking about the wife and kids as a vent to relieve the frustrations of the daily grind to unearth the deeper and more subtle psychological mechanisms at play.
Professor Morvai's writings have offered new hope to thousands of abused women by offering them a framework for making sense of the hell on earth they lived through, liberating them from the vicious circle of self-loathing and self-recrimination in which they were trapped. For this, we owe her an inestimable debt of gratitude as a society.
In short, a criminologist
Central Europe Review: Could you please introduce yourself and say a few words about what led you to write the book and about your involvement in drafting the new law aimed at protecting women and children?
Krisztina Morvai: I am Professor Krisztina Morvai and I have been working at the Faculty of Law of the Loránd Eötvös University of Sciences [abbreviated in Hungarian as ELTE] almost ever since I graduated in 1986. I studied law before going to King's College in London where I obtained a master's degree in law. I acquired further experience abroad whilst teaching in America on a Fullbright scholarship, and I also worked as a lawyer for a year at the Human Rights Committee in Strasbourg. Alongside all of these activities, I have always taught at university in Hungary as my full-time job is here.
In my days as a law student, my original career plan was to work as a practising lawyer. This is why I spent a year in the provinces as an apprentice lawyer in a small community by the name of Dabas, here in Pest County. I passed my specialist court exam in 1989, following a stint at the Supreme Court.
In short, then, I am a criminologist, I teach at university, have a specialist court qualification, travel abroad frequently and there is one other very important fact of relevance to an introduction, which is that I have three children, all girls, as I need to do my bit to strengthen the Women's Movement.
As a criminologist, I have noticed that we teach the students something which is also reflected in the media, namely that violence exists as a nasty phenomenon. That violence is assuming ever more serious proportions, that the number of violent crimes perpetrated is constantly on the increase, that you can no longer go out on to the streets safely because you risk being beaten up and so on and so forth; and whenever we talk about violent crime, it would never occur to anyone that the most dangerous surroundings, the most dangerous place is not the open streets or a dark, unlit park or similar location, but the home.
It can also be demonstrated statistically that most violent crimes are committed between the walls of the home and that women and children are at greatest risk within their own homes. Grown women are most likely to be murdered at the hands of their own husbands or partners.
We always take the students along to attend a trial. It was then that it struck me: most murders dealt with at court occur within the family. Then I began pondering how it could be that all the publications, studies and the likes on the subject of where people lose their lives all focus on street violence, the mafia and goodness knows what else, organised crime, and so on—these are the really trendy topics of the moment.
Domestic violence shrugged off
When I began discussing domestic violence with my colleagues, they shrugged it off as sociology, psychology, as a not genuinely scientific issue, saying that a serious lawyer does not bother with the likes of that. This is both highly interesting and can be regarded as a symptom of a wider attitude, since it contains the same element of trivialisation, of minimalisation, as it immediately besets every area where women are involved. The same applies to any such theme whether it be prostitution, rape, trafficking in women: none are considered to be particularly important! It is possible to trivialise them.
The other standard response is to maintain that they are not legal issues. Women are not looked upon as equal citizens, as subjects enjoying rights, whose situation the law has to occupy its time with, whom the law has to protect by preventing them from being put at risk in the first place. Instead, they are regarded as somehow different.
What, in that case, are the really serious, weighty issues that a self-respecting lawyer or legal expert devotes his energy to? Anything involving men. Organised crime and the mafia are primarily dominated by men. If someone does deal with matters affecting women or children, it is not felt to be the real McCoy. The best technique employed to take the wind out of your sails is for colleagues to whisper behind your back that you are a feminist. If you are branded a feminist, then you are already written off, and what you do and say no longer has to be taken seriously.
The press and the media, in general, sat up and took notice of my book, giving it a lot of coverage, but the specialist legal, academic press hardly gave it a second glance and only very few of my colleagues felt the need to react, because I had been labelled as a feminist. This meant that they are not obliged to respond to my contentions to the effect that, for example, at least one woman a week in Hungary dies as a result of domestic violence. Because this is just some sort of feminist nonsense.
These were the thoughts that inspired the book, because I felt that someone in Hungary has to start looking at these problems. The single most important new development in recent months has been that the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs has set the process of preparing a new law in motion. The Committee, of which I am also a member, has convened to begin drafting the new law on domestic violence. We have really revved up now as far as the working rhythm is concerned, meeting every week.
I have been charged with the task of drawing up the system that institutes restraining orders. I have been asked to write a comprehensive paper on it and come up with proposals. One of the biggest shortcomings of today's provisions in Hungary is that they do not contain the concept of a restraining order. In Hungary, it is always the battered woman who has to flee with her children from the abuser, whilst the abuser is free to stay undisturbed in the shared home or, in certain cases, in the woman's home.
This is the starting point and we would like to reverse it, thereby bringing it in line with the system in the countries of Western Europe, according to which the abuser has to vacate the home and the women and children—the victims, in other words—are to receive the relevant support. One of the fundamental legal preconditions for achieving this is for this system of restraining orders to be established. This would mean that whenever the police are called to the scene of such a crime and whenever it reaches the courts at a later stage, the main rule should be that the abuser is forced to leave the shared home and is thereby prevented from continuing to use violence in it.
The Committee itself is small, comprising four lawyers, but the work it does is of the utmost gravity and importance. Because we would like to progress by leaps and bounds in a very short space of time, we demand a lot by way of work from each other and a lot is expected of us collectively as a Committee.
The other project which calls for equally large amounts of work is our foundation, the Children's and Women's Rights Centre [Női és Gyermekjogi Központ] and, in particular, the domestic violence legal clinic that we launched this year. Student lawyers take part in the legal clinic programme and it represents an interesting, exciting new form of training for them.
What it boils down to is that student lawyers, students of the Police Academy, aspiring social workers, political scientists and students of other faculties receive training on the issues of violence against women and domestic violence and are also given the opportunity to work with the battered women and their children in so-called Mother's Shelters [anyaotthon].
On the one hand, this involves their offer of emotional and moral support to the victims by visiting them, chatting and listening to them on a regular basis and, on the other, they accompany the victims to court hearings or to the police or other authorities, to name but a couple of examples. Or they might fill in application forms for them. Under the guidance and supervision of qualified experts, they do a little legal and a little practical work.
It is quite an uplifting phenomenon to observe the transformation in a Police Academy student who was taught not to interfere in such matters, that it is up to the woman herself to sort out her problems herself, when the student is confronted by the appalling tragedies, by the massive burden placed on the woman's shoulders—often as a direct result of the attitude shown by the police—and realises that she is quite simply unable to free herself of the violence. Your average police officer in Hungary still says that it is a private affair and that he will not get involved.
I firmly believe that the type of training the Foundation provides is one of the most effective around. That, before they begin their careers as police officers, jurists, prosecutors, judges, defence lawyers, social workers in the child protection organisations or in the authorities, these students should witness with their own eyes and have first hand experience of what domestic violence really means and what its devastating consequences are.
We launched this training course at the Foundation a fortnight ago, and we have reached the stage now where we had, together with the students, listened to the stories of nine battered women. Now we are consulting the students about how we ought to be tackling these cases, how we should be proceeding. This is a very demanding period for everyone both emotionally and intellectually, including for our battered women clients themselves, because for them it is a new development to have people actually trying to help them.
There is a slight residue of suspicion in them, because they have been disappointed by so many different people before and they are afraid of being in for a disappointment again. The students are fretting about whether they will succeed, whether they are cut out for this kind of work. We are anxious about how things will turn out. The reason why the course is emotionally draining is that these women recount the most appalling stories to us and we try to help them, to work in a kind of partnership with them.
As to what kind of accounts we have heard from the women this year, the last one we listened to—which is why it sticks in my mind most clearly—told of how she was regularly beaten, raped and kept in a state of psychological terror by her husband over the years, that he also turned the children into nervous wrecks and that she was eight months pregnant with her third child when they fled. Her other children were aged two and three.
They fled from their home and turned to various organisations, such as the police and family welfare services, to ask where they could go, where they would be safe—only to be brusquely informed that the organisations in question did not know the answer, that they should sort it out for themselves and that their safety was their own responsibility. Just imagine that this woman, who was eight months pregnant and had two small children, was forced to live on the streets for three weeks!
The Red Cross helped them by providing a pram with big wheels, as they thought it might be easier to carry the children about the streets that way. To give a complete picture of the truth, I am compelled to point out that every single organisation they turned to started off by expressing their disbelief that someone like her can become homeless and have nowhere to go.
In Hungary, the victim is always blamed that it must be her fault; that she must have misbehaved in the eyes of her husband. The authorities and organisations came up with all sorts of convenient explanations to suit themselves, and gave rise to a situation in which the woman had to live on the streets for almost a month, sneaking furtively through entrance doors to hide under the stairs where one child would shudder with cold through the night in the pram, whilst the others huddled up in cardboard boxes before slipping out early the next morning so that nobody would notice that they had been there, as this could have caused a major uproar.
She did not have a single penny to her name. She did have an acquaintance she could have gone to stay with, but whose daughter smuggled out the dried bread from the shop along with everything else that would otherwise have been thrown out so that the children would have something to eat.
This was just one of the stories we and the students heard from the nine women. Another woman went through exactly the same experience, only with five children (ranging in age from two to five), and she put them in cardboard boxes to sleep at night as well. Nobody lifted a finger to help them. The local authorities such as the police and the child welfare workers told her to leave the village, because they knew her husband and how aggressive he was and they did not want to have to deal with the problem.
As you can see, two of the nine women were forced to get by on the streets for the best part of a month, and this is the year 2001. If you include the child the woman was carrying, a total of eight children were affected in just these two cases. Eight children, two women and goodness knows how many authorities, because in such cases it is not possible to keep an exact tally on them. It really was a mere matter of chance that they survived at all and that they were, eventually, able to get into a Mother's Shelter.
It is interesting to note that, in Hungary, we do not have shelters or refuges pure and simple, but there have to be Mother's Shelters, which is a problem for two reasons. First of all, because in the very name it is apparent that only mothers with children are entitled to places there. Although there have been slight improvements here and there, I do not think that there is a general social awareness of what domestic violence really entails, people do not really grasp what it means and the debate has not really gotten underway. It is against this backdrop that these women and children are treated simply as homeless people. They are inserted into the care system for the homeless and put up in homes designed for down-and-outs, for up to two or three years in some cases.
These homes are not safe for one. These women and their children have different safety requirements to people who are not able to pay their bills, who are evicted from their flats and who might have various social problems. In the case of the latter, good relations may prevail between the mother and the father. The mother might live in the home with the children and the father visits them regularly.
A battered woman's situation is in stark contrast to this: she lives in perpetual fear of death and both her and her children's lives are at genuine risk. If the need for such shelters exist, what should be done is to make sure they are places of absolute safety, that they are guarded and their locations are secret. There is only one such refuge in Hungary at the moment, run by the Salvation Army, and it has five places. It can accommodate five women, in other words.
This is the grand total for the entire country; it is the only premises that fulfils all the criteria for a shelter, providing a safe home where the battered women can somehow get by. All sorts of red tape applies and, with permission, the maximum period a woman and her children can live there stretches to nine months. Then she has to go to another Mother's Shelter. By contrast, divorce cases or criminal proceedings brought against the father, which are extremely rare, take a minimum of two to three years.
Pack up and leave
Once again, let me go back to the basic premise at play here, according to which the state expects the abused woman to pack up her things and leave her own home, her furniture, her goods and chattels, her job and her children to leave their school to escape. It does not care about what befalls them further to that. If she is lucky, she will find a Mother's Shelter, if not, then she is left to sleep in the streets, whilst the abuser goes about his daily life as if nothing ever happened.
It is very rare for criminal proceedings to be launched before someone dies. Very often the scenario is that a man beats up his wife year after year and then he turns round and beats her to death.
It is normal, at that stage, for criminal proceedings to be brought against him. He will get two or three years for having beaten his wife to death. The other scenario is for him to beat his wife for years on end and then she grabs a knife by way of self-defence and stabs him to death. The fact that many long years of brutality and abuse lurk in the background of these cases, that intervention ought to have occurred, that the contributory processes ought to have been interrupted is something people are simply not aware of. Neither the police, lawyers nor social workers are given training in this respect.
In Hungary, it is still as good as uncharted territory. At the risk of sounding immodest, my book perhaps wrought a slight change, because we were able to prompt action being taken at ministerial level in the shape of the drafting of this piece of legislation through skilful lobbying and shrewdness. Having said that, we still need to proceed with caution: we are expected to codify the law in such a way that it should not be blindingly obvious that our primary intention is to protect women and children and so that it is not immediately apparent that we are getting to grips with domestic violence.
It is a sensitive issue all over the world, because it centres on the family and its sanctity. Legislators are often reproached for driving families apart. I beseech you; it is not the legislator or the law that drives families apart, it is the abuser. This is why everyone approaches the subject with a great deal of trepidation. One of the peculiar features of political life in Hungary is that neither the liberals nor the conservatives touch this topic. Not even the liberals have made it into one of their big campaign issues. The reason why the situation in Hungary has evolved along these lines is that the liberals maintain they favour as little state intervention in everything as possible.
It is a matter of extreme delicacy in post-Communist countries, since, under Communism, the police were entitled to stroll into people's private dwellings and meddle in citizens' lives. Alarm bells start ringing in people's minds when they hear that there might be a prospect of the police being permitted to enter someone's private flat. It is very difficult indeed to get the message across that you cannot have recourse to the argument about the inviolable sanctity of private life when you are confronted with violence. In such instances, privacy and the private sphere mean nothing other than that the woman and her children are completely at the mercy of their abuser.
People don't bleat about protection of privacy when stolen goods from a burglary are stashed in a flat. If a crime has been committed or is in the process of being committed in a private flat, it can forcibly be entered in any country of the world. This is why I think that the liberals are shying away from the subject, whereas the conservatives obviously do not want to get their fingers burnt, because they propound the sanctity of the family. Above and beyond that, both sides are afraid of female-related issues. Of women's rights and so on.
Another peculiar feature of post-Communist societies is that feminism, equality of opportunity for women and women's rights are all linked to the days of Communist rule. Under Communism, equality was imposed and equal rights dispensed from above, they did not emanate from grass roots initiatives taken by the women's movement, but were rammed down women's throats from on high and meant in practice that women were compelled to work outside the family, whilst nothing whatsoever changed in their private lives.
The male-female roles, the division of labour within the family and the problem of violence were not even issues under Communism. They were not talked about openly, they did not form part of equality, yet ever since anything to do with equal rights has been shrugged off as a remnant from Communism. Everyone is afraid of it.
This also explains why it is so difficult to organise a women's movement or, for that matter, anything connected with women's rights in Hungary. Or, to state right out, how violence against women is related to certain questions of power. The whole battered women's syndrome is not a matter of a poor, stressed out man not knowing what to do with himself and taking it out on his wife by giving her a thorough drubbing. Its real root cause is that the man believes he can get away with it, because society tells him so.
Protection under the law
So what kind of protection does Hungarian law actually offer to the victims of abuse within a family? Do the current provisions afford adequate protection?
I believe it is very important—in spite of the fact that I come from a more theoretical background, and I am busy writing my PhD on precisely this subject and, as you know, any doctoral thesis requires a pronounced theoretical component—that everything should always be based on practice and experience. On a theoretical level, you can agree or disagree on the question as to whether the protection afforded is adequate or not, but experience and practice tell a different story. I do not believe that the protection provided by the law is sufficient, because it does not look upon the victims of domestic violence as legal entities.
As I alluded to earlier, domestic violence is not even considered to be a question of relevance to the law, but is consigned to the realm of psychology or sociology. This is why it is so vitally important that students of law, budding social workers and future police officers possess first-hand knowledge of these problems and the events behind them, which unfold day in day out. That domestic violence be more than just a dry category, a hollow concept, that it takes place within a certain context, that they learn more than just the laws applying to it by seeing the everyday reality behind the terminology.
To sum up: I, unfortunately, have a wealth of hands on experience, because I have devoted myself to the subject for six years now, during which I have had the opportunity to get to know several hundred women and children who have fled from abuse, and I have sifted my way through several thousand court files where, for the most part, the heartbreaking saga of abuse ended either with the woman's death or her becoming a so-called criminal herself because she took the life of her abuser.
Against the backdrop of all this experience, I can declare with a clear conscience that Hungarian law is wretched and I shall explain why in a moment, but also that its enforcement leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps, I would also be justified in contending that the current provisions of the law could allow for domestic violence to be dealt with more severely, if only the will and intention to do so were present.
The criminal law statute punishes physical injury, stipulating that a person who inflicts physical injury on someone else's person is committing a crime and does not add a clause that this applies unless the injured party happens to be the perpetrator's wife. This is added in the minds of, say, the policemen who are supposed to take action in such cases. Violation of personal freedom is also a criminal act. So, if a woman is locked up in her flat, if she is not allowed to leave it, if she is locked up in one of the rooms of the flat or tied up—we hear a lot of accounts of this type of abuse—such deeds are classified as crimes, according to Hungarian law currently in force.
Since 1997, marital rape has also been on the statute books as a crime, which is also important. We were able to achieve this result, because it was in the main an initiative emanating from activists in the women's movement. We managed to get it through in the face of massive opposition.
Child abuse, too, is outlawed, although it is also a form of child abuse when the father does not lay
a finger on the child to inflict physical harm but forces the child to watch its mother being beaten, issued with threats and kept in a state of constant terror. This has the kind of effect on the child's development which cannot be permitted and represents a criminal act.
At the end of the day, the legal framework is in place and it is possible, in theory, to bring these men to justice. The law governing the police and the police's own internal rules of conduct state unequivocally that it is not just possible but mandatory to intervene in the events taking place within the family if someone's life or physical integrity is at stake. We also have a law similar to that, which exists in Western countries, whereby the police may take someone into custody for 72 hours if there are reasonable grounds for suspicion that the individual in question might commit a crime, so there are no obstacles to such a course of action either.
The problem is that these laws are not applied in the least; in other words, the police officer or the child protection agency the desperate mother turns to takes an entirely arbitrary decision when she informs them of her plight, that she cannot take it any more, that she has been subjected to horrific abuse, that the children are also on the verge of a complete breakdown—only to be greeted with the response that these matters have no legal remedy. Whereas, in reality, she is the victim of crimes. Perhaps my broad general opening gambit was not entirely accurate, because I claimed that the laws were wretched.
It is not the laws that are wretched, because they at least exist and they can be enforced in practice. The perpetrator can be called to account, and our giving moral support to the injured parties; the victims, in other words, cannot be construed as an obstacle to justice being done.
An important element missing
To repeat what I pointed out earlier, the one element sorely lacking in Hungarian law is the restraining order, which would remove the abuser from the family home, reversing the current reality whereby the woman and her children have no choice but to escape from the abuser, to become homeless drifters, suffer for year after year, whilst the abuser lives on in the home in comfort.
The Western model, which originated in America before gaining currency throughout Western Europe, operates as follows: the abuser is removed from the family on the basis of a police order not only from the family home but from the woman's workplace and its immediate vicinity. Society at large and the state thereby declare that they will not tolerate his disruptive presence. The abuser is suddenly confronted with the knowledge that he can no longer continue beating up his wife. The woman is given breathing space and can make up her mind about what she wants to do. The Western legal system also furnishes her with effective assistance in order to do so, and the state takes the lead in this respect as it is bound by laws to supply information, help and support.
The restraining order is indispensable towards ensuring that the police officer who is called out to the scene does not labour under the misapprehension that he may take action should he see fit, but that he realises he has a duty to act. Of course, proper training is required if this change of attitude is to take root amongst the police force, because we might have the most marvellous laws in the whole world, but nobody will protect women and children against domestic violence unless the attitudes of police officers, prosecuting and defence lawyers and the staff of the child protection authorities towards the phenomenon change. This is why the introduction of a restraining order has to go hand in hand with training, a change of attitude and media coverage designed to disseminate information.
We have just completed a media-training course at the Foundation, for example. We provided instruction for 120 journalists in what domestic violence means, so that they would understand the factors involved and, subsequently, depict the whole issue in a different light.
Need for change
Now let's turn to the matter of what important changes to the legislation I feel need to be brought about, from a professional point of view. I have already covered the first, but the other proposal is fiercely contested even in the West, so it is not a foregone conclusion that there is a patent remedy available to cure all woes. I did mention a list of punishable crimes that a man commits when he abuses his wife, however. If he breaks one of her bones, for example, he is guilty of grievous bodily harm, but this act is merely one event plucked out of the series of interrelated deeds which together make up domestic violence.
The peculiar feature of domestic violence is that it is a process characterised by the regularity of its occurrence, escalation; that its episodes become ever more severe in other words, by the woman gradually sinking into a state of perpetual anxiety, of terror and of being humiliated. It can stretch over months, years, even decades, and so it would make sense to put a halt to the entire process, punishing it under a name like domestic violence offence.
Then there would be no need to concentrate on proof, on how the husband broke his spouse's arm at 17.00 on the 13 May, where the husband produces three witnesses who testify that it was not the husband who broke her arm but the neighbour, or that the woman fell down or that she broke it herself—this is the kind of difficult situation which arises as a result of the current state of play of Hungarian law—but instead his behaviour would count as a separate crime, where guilt is far easier to prove than when dealing with one isolated episode or another.
Here, what would have to be proven is the man's continuous violence, whether it be violence directed against a particular individual, such as beatings, or whether it involve his breaking into a flat, issuing threats, terrorising, keeping his wife or other dependents in a state of fear and insecurity. Quite apart from the purely technical aspect of proof, this approach is far more satisfactory to my sense of justice for the man sitting in the dock to be told that he is being called to account because he has treated his wife this way over five years. That this is the reason he is being punished and not for the specific incident whereby he broke his wife's arm at 17.00 on 13 May.
A major debate on precisely this issue is underway in the specialist journals, but, as time goes by, I become more and more convinced of the need to establish domestic violence as a separate crime. Of course, that is not to say that its more serious manifestations, such as rape, grievous bodily harm and so on cannot be tried or listed separately on the charge sheet, but having domestic violence on the statute books as a crime in itself is very important because of the symbolic value it would have.
Apart from this, I have to go back to the subject of the restraining order for a moment. It is essential to include it at the level of primary, source legislation, as this is a means of pronouncing that preventing and curing domestic violence is the responsibility of the state. Its introduction should be linked to training courses for the professionals who would be expected to carry out the preventive and palliative work, such as the police, judges, prosecuting lawyers, child care authorities and so on. The training courses should allow for participation of women's organisations which encounter the problems on a day-to-day basis.
I am convinced that if regular training were to be provided for those charged with the task of enforcing and implementing the law, that if they were to be familiarised with the "natural history" of domestic violence, its background and the way it evolves, then the situation would gradually change. A raft of further adjustments to less significant laws would have to be carried out, although it is, perhaps, unfair to label them as less important. For example, how can it be that in a case where information about how the husband severely abuses his wife and children is available the divorce proceedings are allowed to drag on for two to three years?
The relevant law should stipulate that cases of this nature have to be given accelerated treatment. It ought to be made mandatory for the children to be placed with the parent who may be safely presumed not to be the abuser, as the abuser represents a danger to the children both mentally and in terms of the state of their nerves. There are thousands of minute legal details that need to be painstakingly trawled through to determine how they might best serve the interests of the new principle. That was a thumbnail sketch of the most important elements from my vantage point.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 7 May 2001