Authorities in Hungary leave victims of domestic violence on their own

An elderly woman holds a banner that reads 'My father is the strongest man ... but only we know, and only at home' during a demonstration against domestic violence in front of the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest on Sept. 16, 2012.

BUDAPEST — It's a haunting photograph. Rozsa, a young woman staying at a shelter for domestic violence survivors in the Hungarian countryside, looks straight into the camera, her eyes completely drowning in deep purple and blue, the colors of abuse.

Staff at the shelter we visited gave us the pictures and her case file. The imprints visible on Rozsa’s legs, back and buttocks suggest she was beaten repeatedly by fist and whip.

Rozsa managed to escape. But she is the exception, as my colleagues and I found in our research for a new report on domestic violence in Hungary. We uncovered many obstacles that prevent women in Hungary from escaping violence by their intimate partners, reporting the attacks or finding help.

Hungary is by no means alone. The World Health Organization recently concluded that domestic violence is a global problem of epidemic proportions. What sets countries apart is not whether there is domestic violence, but how governments react to the problem, and particularly how they protect women.

What struck us in Hungary was how often authorities told victims that extreme physical violence, including the abuse Rozsa suffered, was “light,” and not sufficiently serious to trigger an investigation. Women we interviewed said they were told by police that "unless blood flows," there was nothing they could do. This explains why women typically do not run to the police for help when they are abused.

Even when blood does flow, police decline to act. Elvira, a 28-year-old mother of four, told me her husband dragged her around the house and threw her off the balcony. He then ran to where she had fallen, bleeding and bruised, and kicked her body and face. Later, he threatened to kill her with a knife. Her sister called the police, who arrived and asked the husband what happened. “Nothing,” he told them. They left.

The basics of changing this kind of police response are relatively straightforward wherever such violence occurs. Abusers have to be prosecuted. Women have to be physically protected through efficient use of protection orders. Shelters must be sufficient and safe. Survivors of violence should have access to health, social and legal services as a bridge to a life without violence. Finally, governments should take positive action. They should commit to preventing violence through education, raising awareness and assuring effective police response when violence does occur. These steps would give women the confidence to report.

European countries have adopted the landmark Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It is known as the Istanbul Convention after the city where it was established. This is a practical convention that functions as a checklist of measures proven to be effective in reducing and addressing domestic violence.

The convention requires countries to establish hotlines, shelters, medical and forensic services, counseling and legal aid.

It also addresses gaps in domestic violence laws, documented in many countries by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. These include weak laws, ineffective implementation of protection laws, poor coordination, lack of access to justice, inadequate funding for responses to domestic violence, absence of shelters, and a lack of prevention measures. To date, 27 countries have signed the convention and 5 have ratified it, making its provisions legally binding.

Unfortunately, Hungary has not signed on. It should, promptly. In the meantime, the country has clear international obligations to protect a woman’s human right to live free from violence.

The Hungarian government is showing a willingness to step up efforts to end domestic violence. In an important move this year, Hungary finally adopted a provision in its penal code that criminalizes domestic violence.

Now, it needs to show the same resolve in filling other gaps in the law. Hungary must make sure that existing protections are actually enforced to ensure that no woman is belittled, ignored or sent back to her abuser when she calls the police to report violence.

When I interviewed Elvira, she asked what I would do with this information. I told her we use the facts from real cases to push for government reforms, and to prevent abuses in the first place. “Good,” Elvira responded. “I have three girls. I need them to survive their love.”

Gauri Van Gulik, based in Berlin, is the global women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch.