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"Giving birth in an abuse shelter is my happy memory". How the Netherlands fights domestic violence

12.11.2022

A note from the editors. This article touches on a very painful topic and presents the stories of Russian-speaking women who have moved to other countries. We are covering this, as media Loft is the media for Russian-speaking expats in Europe. But violence, alas, knows no borders. Abusers live in all countries of the world. The only difference is how one state or another protects potential and already existing victims (more on this below). We operate only with facts and are categorically against the use of these materials for any kind of propaganda.

Shadows behind the curtains

"He's so charismatic, funny, talks interestingly and looks at me with interest - so I thought, why not? And I wasn't wrong! The sex was great and he spoke so beautifully and convincingly. Before I knew it, I was working two jobs, cleaning, cooking, washing, even pounding nails and changing light bulbs - those were my duties too... Then came the threats. And he was always right! Even if I had my own opinion and tried to explain things calmly to him, I had to agree with him one way or another, or else I would be pushed, thrown down the stairs, pulled my hair, whatever was at hand would be thrown at me.

For two and a half years I lived in fear of being stabbed or shot (he had a gun) or having my life broken.

I knew it had to stop, but I had such a fear for myself and for the child, and I didn't know how to yet. I was explicitly told that he would never leave the house by himself, and if I called the police he would strangle me again, bash my head in, break my nose, in a word, "play" (as he said) with me again. If I was a 'naughty' girl, he would strangle me until I stopped breathing, well, or shoot me. At some point I realised that I was going to have a huge problem with him anyway, whether I was a 'naughty girl' or went to law enforcement. So I made up my mind and went to the police.

I can tell you one thing: you can't let yourself fall so low, even if you're scared. Fear is the worst thing that keeps us from taking a step.

I only understand one thing and hope that in this situation there is a possibility to stay alive, but living with him, it would have 100% not ended well, and even worse, that I would have dragged the child with me, who is almost 14 and who has seen something that no one should ever see or hear..." - Polina (name changed), a girl, who lives in a country in Western Europe messaged me. There are, in fact, many such stories. And they all begin the same way: a prince on a white horse turns a girl's head and gives her love and joy, but after a while it suddenly turns into the worst nightmare.

Domestic violence is violence perpetrated by someone in the victim's home or family circle. It can be physical, sexual or psychological in nature. There are many variations of domestic violence, from subtle forms of coercion to rape or battering. The problem of domestic violence exists in both heterosexual and homosexual families, regardless of the gender of the partners. Studies have found that there is a direct correlation between the level of gender equality in a country and the level of domestic violence. Nevertheless, even in the most civilised countries the problem is not going anywhere.

Childbirth in a shelter

"Five years ago, I moved to Europe with my 'lover' and my ten-year-old daughter. Almost immediately he started making his own rules, telling us what to do, restricting our spending. We tolerated it, because he kind of enfranchised us, taking us in to support him from far away Moscow, where we had a pretty tough life. I realised that there was no going back; I had to accept my husband in the realities of the situation. I quickly became pregnant - and then our more or less peaceful life was over. Suddenly my benefactor decided that he didn't need a child now, that he was in a hurry and couldn't live in a family, we were taking up too much space in his life. He was 45 at the time (I was 35), had no children, lived for himself, didn't want to change anything and demanded that I have an abortion. When I said firmly that I had changed my life for the sake of my family and children, all hell broke loose. He humiliated me, spat at me (literally), followed by physical abuse.

I went to the family doctor and he helped me and my daughter in that situation. Three weeks later we found ourselves in a shelter for women victims of domestic violence.

I had only good impressions of the place: I got to know many nationalities, traditions, cultures and cuisines of different countries. I learned a new language and dialect. From African women and children, I learned how to relieve stress by dancing. We lived as one big close-knit family. My son, Adam, was born there, in an orphanage. He was born into an international family, dancing during contractions. Every woman in the orphanage made something with their hands for Adam's birthday. I especially remember a heart made of straw from an Eritrean woman. Thus went our daily routine: socialising, children's school, yoga, learning languages, cooking national dishes and activities with children, and in the evenings having tea. Those were special evenings when tea was made according to recipes from our countries. I still remember our life in the orphanage with slight nostalgia.

Then social services helped us to get an independent residence permit, social housing and we entered a new stage in our life, already without violence!" - Another story from Larisa (name changed), with a happy ending.

Victimblaming

It is not only women who suffer from domestic violence. It can also be the aggressor's parents and children. Also, the use of the pronoun "he/him/his" is not entirely correct. Women can also be the aggressors in the family, but they usually prioritise psychological violence.  We all remember the recent story of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, who first accused her ex-spouse of domestic violence and then found audio and video recordings confirming the fact that Heard was, in fact, the aggressor and provocateur herself.

Another problem of domestic violence is the highly publicised victimisation. Both men and women suffer from it. Men suffer because society is simply not prepared to view them as victims of violence. And women, because despite all the bold statements, society still believes that women are "to blame" for all their misfortunes. What is even sadder, this misconception is shared by the women victims themselves.

"We all moved in together: my mother, me and my sister. I was 19 at the time and my sister was 13. The home environment was very tense right away. He lived by his own rules and we had to follow them.

There was constant moral pressure. My mother was the maid and cleaner, but even getting money once a month for personal needs was a big problem.

I was relieved, I was away at the weekend with my boyfriend, but my mother and sister were in this nightmare all the time. I'd arrive to an atmosphere that could be cut with a knife, and I was terribly ashamed that I had at least two days a week when I could relax. When we had learnt the language, we found printed emails from his ex-wife (a Dutch woman) to her lover, whom she had run away to after living with our Dutch man for many years in constant dependence on him. In these emails, she wrote that her husband treated her like a dog" - a message from Niki (name changed). That story also ended well: Nicky's mother managed to find happiness with another man, but for two more years after this unhealthy relationship, the woman suffered from burnout and memory lapses.

How does Europe deal with domestic violence?

Maria (Netherlands) tells us: "I went straight to the central office to write a report.  Why? In small towns they schedule an appointee after 2-3 weeks. My partner shouted at me, threatened to kill me, to shoot me, I calmly listened to him, waited for him to leave, grabbed my child, documents, toothpaste and a toothbrush. When I got to the police station, I told him right away that I wasn't leaving and that I was going to stay here overnight until I got help. I was immediately found an officer who listened to me and wrote a statement with me, then contacted the police in my town. I was offered an overnight stay at a shelter, but luckily my friend took me and my baby back to hers."

What happened in the next 24 hours:

  •     The abuser was apprehended within two hours
  •     The house was searched immediately with Maria's permission and some illegal items and ammunition were found
  •     Maria was informed of the arrest
  •     At 1 a.m. Maria was contacted by a social worker, who made sure she was ok.
  •     The next morning, the family was contacted by child welfare and victim support
  •     A child welfare representative was sent to talk to the child.
  •     The police put the address on their radar.

"Services are working expeditiously. BUT! Until they really understand that the situation is serious, they will look at it as an ordinary quarrel with their partner. It is important to prove that the situation is critical.  Then the mechanism will kick in."

In Germany, for example, the police accept any form of report of domestic violence - verbal, written, from neighbours or relatives. According to official statistics, every fourth German woman has experienced some form of domestic violence. In 80 % of the cases, the suspects were men. The victim has the right to refuse to testify at any time. The case will then be suspended, but if the victim contacts the police again, the process will be restarted. There is also the concept of a "no-contact". The alleged aggressor can be temporarily evicted from the flat and prohibited from all contact with the victim, not only direct contact, but also texts, letters and allegedly chance encounters in the street. However, if the woman calls or meets the alleged perpetrator within the first 10 days, the ban is lifted automatically.

In Italy and Spain, the situation is worse: up to 90% of victims do not contact the police and do not tell anyone about what has happened. The police sometimes do not accept reports if there is no documented evidence of violence. The divorce process can take a long time because of the nepotism that flourishes, and the victim is often not given a separate place to live.

The measures against domestic violence in France are quite effective: immediate police response, heavy fines, restrictive measures of up to 20 years imprisonment (here we are talking not just about violence, but marital rape). There is a court protection order which prohibits the aggressor from having any contact with their victim for 6 months. In 2010, the country established a National Day against Violence against Women, celebrated on November 25, the same day as the UN's International Day against Violence against Women.

In the Netherlands, there are many shelters for women experiencing domestic violence. Moreover, there are similar shelters for men. Here, as in Germany, a report of domestic violence starts with the police. Checkers come to the home, assess the danger of the situation for the woman and, if necessary, refer her to a shelter. From there, all contact with the aggressor takes place only through professionals.

In Belgium, one in five women have experienced domestic violence. Moreover, each year about 25,000 Belgians (mostly women) report being stalked by their aggressor. The police and the domestic violence centres work together to tackle the problem of bullying of women. This applies not only to domestic violence per se, but also to forced and sham marriages. Last November, an action against domestic violence and femicide took place in Brussels. The protesters displayed pairs of women's shoes painted red on the pavement as a symbol of domestic violence against women.

When the pandemic began, many families were confined within four walls, including those where domestic violence was rampant.

Because of security measures against the coronavirus, victims could not escape to the streets or go to friends' houses. The problem of domestic violence was particularly acute at the time.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said outbreaks of domestic violence were reported in all countries where quarantine measures were in place. Both adults and children were affected.

Still, in European countries, crisis centres and police were ready to help victims of domestic violence if they had the courage to ask for help. What happened during these two years in countries with traditionally high levels of domestic violence and a lack of social support for victims one can only guess.

So what to do about domestic violence?

Oddly enough, the same rules that apply to bullying at school help. You have to understand that the aggressor, unless of course we are talking about a mental disorder, is simply a person who was not given enough boundaries in childhood. The victim themselves will not be able to set these boundaries anymore. The victim is broken, humiliated and no longer an authority figure for the aggressor; furthermore, the victims often develop Stockholm syndrome, which only exacerbates the problem. They need help from the outside.

  1. Do not keep silent. Talk to people around you about what is going on. The more people who know about your problem, the better. This is, by the way, the most difficult point. A woman is often afraid of being judged (and not without reason, see above), afraid of destroying the ideal picture of her marriage in the eyes of relatives and acquaintances, afraid of ridicule and humiliation. But silence is not an option; silence only helps the aggressor. If you are not sure if you are experiencing domestic violence or if you only think you are, all the more reason to talk to other people about it. It is very difficult to assess the real situation when you are inside the situation. A fresh perspective from an outsider can help resolve your doubts.
  2. Consider your escape route. Keep your phone and car keys handy. Have a separate bank account or, if that is not possible, save money at home. Keep this money and documents for yourself and your children handy.
  3. If the situation becomes critical, contact the police immediately.
  4. Document the beatings and injuries.
  5. Do not neglect working with a psychologist. Domestic violence destroys the victim from the inside, paralyses them, and prevents them from moving. Research proves that there is very little difference between psychological and physical violence on the psyche of children, for example. It is logical to assume that the adult psyche suffers from psychological violence not much less than the physical one. If all you feel is pain and devastation after a conversation with your partner, it may be time for you to seek psychological help to find out what is going on in the family after all.

If someone talks about domestic violence to you:

  1. Refrain from accusations and just listen to the person.
  2. Offer as much help as you can and give the phone numbers of support services, but don't push.
  3. Try to help raise the victim's self-esteem and remind them that it is every person's right on earth to live a safe and humble life without being beaten or humiliated.

By Irina Iakovleva

YANA - You Are Not Alone project. Helping victims of domestic violence in emigration
Human rights

YANA - You Are Not Alone project. Helping victims of domestic violence in emigration

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