“…Until Death Do Us Part?”

In Europe 20% of Women Suffer Abuse

The last thing Mrs. C thought about as she took her husband’s arm on her wedding day in Vienna a decade ago was violence. This was to be “the happiest day of her life.” How could she know that her dream of a harmonious marriage could turn into her worst nightmare?

But beginning in February 2002, Mrs. C. began experiencing escalating violence, severe and emotionally crippling. Her husband had begun to drink heavily, and one day he exploded and struck her, first once, then repeatedly, then with objects; she was punched, kicked, and scratched, and burned with cigarettes. Her hair was pulled and she was held at knifepoint. Worse, she was financially dependent; and there was a child.

Though things like this may have taken place in your own community, they still seem remote, a world apart for most of us. These things only happen to others, right?

In fact, in Austria as elsewhere, these events are sickeningly common, says Maria Rösselhuber, director of the Austrian’s Women’s Shelter Network. In Europe as a whole, between one-fifth and one-tenth of all women living in intimate relationships suffer abuse.

Often these domestic tragedies pass unnoticed for decades, happening unobserved in the next house, as the recent tragedy in the family of Joseph Frizl family of Amstetten, Lower Austria, has reminded us.

Family violence is one of the most common forms of criminal behaviour and is prevalent in all societies regardless of race, religion and social status. In Austria, approximately half of the crimes of violence are within the family or with relatives or neighbours. The terms “family” and “domestic” violence are deceptive, however, according to Rosa Logar, director of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Centre Vienna (Wiener Interventionsstelle gegen Gewalt in der Familie) – a centre which takes a “pro-active” approach and contacts the victim after police intervention.

“Violence against women committed by male partners is not a ‘private affair’ but a public and political problem,” she says, a main point she stressed in a paper presented at the UN conference on “Violence against women” held in Vienna in May of 2005.

Domestic violence is defined by the UN as when a family member, spouse, partner or ex-partner uses physical or psychological abuse in order to exert power and control over another family member, spouse partner or ex-partner in order to gain control or power over them to gratify self interest.

I arrived at the Domestic Abuse Intervention Centre Vienna (Wiener Interventionsstelle gegen Gewalt in der Familie) on a beautiful early summer afternoon. I rang the bell and entered the building without a moment to spare. I would have to leave in exactly an hour and 15 minutes if I was to pick my daughter up from Kindergarten. But this was a world of women; perhaps they would understand.

A friendly receptionist showed me into the waiting room and offered me something to drink. I declined – though glad she had asked – and took a seat.

The sunny, high-ceilinged room decked out in IKEA chic, save for a play corner for children, with a large basket of donated toys free for the taking. I checked my watch, and was beginning to get uncomfortable when another woman greeted me.

“Ms. Vicas?” she smiled. It was Rosa Logar, director of the shelter, and a minute later, we were sitting across one another deep in conversation. Listening intently as I introduced myself, she nodded and tucked a strand of auburn hair behind her ear. She seemed very young, not much older than I am (37). But doing the math, I realised she must be at least in her early 50s, a co-founder in 1978 of the first women’s shelter in Vienna.

The largest hurdle was raising the profile of domestic violence as a public issue, she told me in impeccable English — besides coming up with the funding, of course. The second wave of the women’s movement in the 1970s had helped; “the cause” had received a great deal of support from Socialist women…

She interrupted herself with a laugh and shrug. “I have a talent for giving a long answer to a short question,” she admitted. She smiled and snuck a peek at the paper in front of me, filled with questions. But soon enough, we both forgot about lists and agendas and the interview passed like a conversation over coffee between friends. A few times, she stopped herself with the “long answer, short question” – but I was more than happy to listen. Logar made it easy.

“It is important to tackle the root of the problem,” she said. “It is better to talk about violence against women or violence against children. Violence against men occurs but this is very different – there is no historical aspect involved and the fear aspect is missing as well.”

Quite often, violence against women is expressed as sexual abuse, the most common being rape and incest, but also including molestation, harassment, threats or intimidation into performing sexual acts or pornography. Susan Brownmiller, author of the pioneering book Men, Women, and Rape, published in the 1970s and credited with demystifying rape as a crime of passion. “Rape has nothing to do with love,” Brownmiller wrote, introducing the theory that men used their genitalia as a weapon, and that rape was “nothing more nor less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

However, in Austria as elsewhere, much family violence is hidden. Particularly when the abuse is psychological or emotional, many do not know that they are able to seek protection. Thus, they submit to shouting, insults, ridicule, name-calling, mockery or humiliation, the withholding of information, controlling what they can or cannot do as well as threatening to do harm or even kill children, other family members or pets or destroy valued possessions.

Unfortunately, many women find it extremely difficult to leave because of financial dependency; abusers often have complete control of the victim’s money or resources, withholding them at will and forcing the victim to beg. Stalking is also seen as a form of domestic violence. This is a form of intimate partner violence and includes behaviour which makes the victim feel fear such as seeking and obtaining their personal information in order to contact them, slander or defame their victims in order to isolate their victims.

Since the 1970s, there has been substantial agreement, at least in the West, about what constitutes domestic violence, ideas that have been articulated as a violation of women’s human rights, set down in UN Declaration No. 75, passed in 1996.

“Violence against women is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of women’s full advancement.”

Another reason why domestic violence is often referred to as violence against women is also because in almost all cases, the perpetrators of domestic violence are male.

In Vienna in 2007, for example, 92% of all perpetrators were male and 90% of all victims were female according to the statistics from the Domestic Abuse Intervention Centre Vienna (Wiener Interventionsstelle gegen Gewalt in der Familie). Out of the 3190 of people in Austrian shelters, 1641 are women and 1549 are children, according to the Austrian’s Women’s Shelter Network.

These numbers have remained intractably static, according to Logar.  Over the 20 years that statistics have been kept in this form, there has been neither an increase nor decrease in the episodes of domestic violence. There has, however, been a change as to who is affected and how much violence is made public – prejudices are fewer and the shame of revelation less.

“I am concerned that there is no noticeable decrease,” Logar said. “There are not enough sanctions for this behaviour and not enough work is being done with the children involved. They need a great deal of support, because otherwise they learn the pattern.

“A goal of the intervention centre is to have a counsellor working primarily with the children.”

Co-founder of the first Viennese women’s shelter in 1978, Logar recalls another hurdles as being the lack of public awareness. The second wave of the women’s movement, in the 1970s, helped shed light on the problem.

Even so, it took almost 20 years to enact the Protection from Violence Act, which came into force in Austria on May 1, 1997, calling for more protection for victims and assigning greater responsibility to the perpetrators. The most important provision was that the police were required to remove a person posing a threat to others living in the same home and to prevent that person from re-entering it. This kind of protection is offered for anyone living in the dwelling: a spouse, partner, children and relatives, but also roommates, lodgers and neighbors.

The program works, as Alison Parker-Schmidt discovered to her relief one spring evening in 2005. Separated from her Austrian husband, she became increasingly uneasy when he showed up at the family apartment, exhausted from travelling, and demanded entry. She tried to reason with him; he became angry and aggressive and refused to leave. A call to the police in Vienna’s 2nd District brought two officers to the door within a few minutes.

“The police were wonderful,” Parker-Schmidt remembers. “They were calm but very much in control of the situation. They explained to Karl, my husband, that he had no legal right to be in the flat anymore, and taking him by the arm, suggested they could give him a ride home. He didn’t even think about refusing. It all happened so smoothly, the children were completely okay with it.”

Under the law, victims and their children have the right to stay in their familiar surroundings, independent of who owns the dwelling.  In addition, the police must issue a restraining order valid for 10 days, to cover the perpetrator’s possible release at any time, an order applying not only to the dwelling itself but also to the immediate vicinity. Once the order has been issued, the nearest Intervention Center is notified and a case worker contacts the victim. The Center provides free counselling on victim’s rights and free support during court proceedings.

Within the ten days of the barring order, the victim is able to apply for a temporary injunction, which normally lasts 3 months. The term may be extended if a divorce petition or, in the case of common-law partners, a petition for eviction or sole usage has been filed. In this case, the temporary injunction remains in force until the law suit is closed.

At present, there is a pending draft for amendments to the Protection from Violence Act. Negotiations had stopped after the “fall” of the Austrian government. Logar hopes that the amendments are passed soon since, in the draft, an important revision would be the injunction being extended from 3 to 6 months and should no property be involved, to 1 year.

The draft also foresees taking it out of the family aspect – the relationship to the perpetrator is not mentioned. The victim does not need to prove their relationship to the perpetrator.

Another important point is that there is a higher sentence for repeated acts of violence.

Further measures for victims of domestic violence include being able to contact the Frauenhelpline  (Women’s Help Line) anonymously 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Here they are able to receive immediate counselling and support over the telephone. The Women’s Help Line can inform the victims which possibilities she has to escape the abusive situation and will also give her the address and telephone number of the nearest women’s shelter.

Shelters provide women with more than just a roof over their heads. They serve as refuge for women and their children in emergencies. And they give women the chance to consider their next steps in peace and without pressure. “They make up their own minds whether or not to leave the perpetrator,” so Rösselhuber, (www.aoef.at) There are approximately 28 women’s shelters throughout Austria which afford protection and support for abused women and their children.

Although there are no studies of the Anti-Violence-Programme, the few statistics available show success in preventing further violence, or at least the escalation of violence. Mrs. C.’s husband participated in this programme and she reported that during his training, he was able to refrain from violence during all of their interactions. She eventually filed for divorce and Mr. C was able to accept this in a non-violent manner.

This programme includes an anti- violence program with anger management training for men through the Viennese Counselling Centre for Men (“Männerberatung Wien”), aimed at showing men how to interact in non-violent ways, improve the quality of life for the victim and her children.  Support and protection of the woman is handled by the Intervention Centres, as is the coordination with other institutions and monitoring by both the Intervention Centre and the Counselling Centre for Men.

Although the laws and preventative measures in Austria at present are quite good, they need to be applied more effectively, Logar says. Once the police have removed the perpetrator from the dwelling, as provided by the act, they need to restabilize the situation, playing a calming role on both sides. And although there has been great improvement over the years as to the  way in which police are handling these sensitive issues, about 1/3 of interventions have been described as “not so good,” according to a case worker at the Intervention Centre.

“This is not only the fault of the force,” she said, “they receive only two days of training for this kind of work. Even if we are happy that they get this much mandatory training, it is too little, and there is too little emphasis on soft skills such as preventing a situation from escalating.”

Still, we managed to finish the interview in exactly 1 hour and ten minutes, and stuffing my things back into my bag, I explained that I had to pick up my daughter from Kindergarten. Her face lit up.

“I don’t have children, but I do love them,” she beamed and escorted me to the waiting room. A young woman wearing a Khimar sat very straight on one of the couches, averting her eyes watching her children, who were busy discovering the play area, while the voices of case workers on the telephone floated out of the offices alongside. I counted at least five different languages as Logar handed me a selection of pamphlets.  The woman in the waiting room cast her a furtive glance.

But she was already smiling at the children, who smiled back, and then turned her warmth toward the woman. I wondered what her story was, and wanted to tell her she had done the right thing to come. But she’d soon find out on her own.


From the UN Division for the Advancement of Women Expert Group Meeting “Violence against women: Good practice in combating and eliminating violence against women” 17 – 20 May 2005, Vienna, Austria 

Rosa Logar “The Austrian model of intervention in cases of domestic violence” 

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