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World: Violence Against Women -- NGOs Highlight A Growing Problem (Part 1)

25 November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Designated by the United Nations, the day has been set aside to raise public awareness of the problem, which affects millions of women and girls in all countries of the world. In this first of four stories looking at the plight of battered women, RFE/RL examines the role of nongovernmental organizations in campaigning for the rights of those abused women and promoting changes in attitudes and laws.

Prague, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Violence against women takes many forms. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking this week in New York on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, drew particular attention to the growing international sex trade as well as the deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war.

What doesn't grab the headlines but remains by far the most common form of violence against women is domestic physical or psychological abuse inflicted by a boyfriend, husband, or father.

This form of abuse cuts across all geographical and income boundaries. Even in a rich and developed country like Canada, a recent poll found that over a quarter of married women surveyed had been beaten by their spouse at least once.

Abuse of women, unfortunately, can be found everywhere. But what does differ is how each country responds to the phenomenon. Here, there has been a marked shift in recent years -- mostly in Western Europe and North America -- in how laws are designed to assist abused women and try to limit its consequences. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have played a pivotal role in bringing about change.

The first step is to recognize there is a problem. Verena Kaselitz of the Austrian-based WAVE organization -- an umbrella association of European women's groups -- tells RFE/RL that an awareness of the need to tackle domestic violence began in the West about 30 years ago, thanks to campaigns by NGOs.

"I think for the specific culture to develop, this awareness that there might be something wrong in our society and also in the families, that takes time. The women's movement in countries like Austria, but also Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, France and so on, had about 30 years to work to raise and create awareness for the situation of abused women -- or [to draw attention to the fact that] we have abused women and also children who are also highly affected, even if they are not immediate victims of violence," Kaselitz said.

It wasn't until 1997 that Austria -- now regarded as a world leader in the field -- passed a comprehensive law to address family violence. The main and crucial point of the law is that it gives police -- when they are called to an incident of domestic abuse -- the power to remove the abuser, usually a man, from the household for a minimum of several days -- even if he is the property owner.

Previously, it was the abused woman, often with her children, who was taken away to a shelter. According to the new law, Austrian police immediately set in place a follow-up mechanism for the abuse victim, as Kaselitz explains.

"The woman is informed about the intervention centers, that they will be contacted by them and that's also a very crucial point, that the police will then inform the so-called intervention centers -- 'interventionstellen' they're called in German -- and these 'interventionstellen' are part of the law. And they will, the next day, or the same day -- depending on the time -- contact the victim to offer counseling, legal support, and also offer to go through her, if she wants, to do further procedures and that would be a temporary injunction [the restraining order against the abuser] -- [it] can be extended in case the victim considers divorce or separation," Kaselitz said.

Kaselitz says that without the work of NGOs, Austria would have hardly made the transition from 30 years ago, when domestic abuse was scarcely acknowledged to today, when women who report abuse are afforded maximum protection under the law. The breakthrough came, she says, when different women's groups -- some focused on legal reform, others on victim counseling, still others on health issues -- began to view the state authorities as partners, rather than opponents. Working with police, doctors, judges and legislators, they gradually made them aware of the need to protect abused women -- for the greater good of society.

Gyorgyi Toth, a staffer at NANE, a rights group in neighboring Hungary, agrees that NGOs can be a catalyst for improving conditions for women.

"It's always only worked effectively when NGOs were involved, for many reasons. One of them is their very special expertise about the victims' situations. Women's NGOs in this regard are really victims' advocates. They have heard, seen, experienced and gone through together many thousands of cases of women and therefore they can be very credibly called the representatives of the target group of this issue. So if you want to create effective legislation that really caters the needs of these women, which is in this case equals the protection of the human rights of these women, then you definitely have to involve NGOs," Toth said.

Toth says that in Hungary, which shares a close culture and history with Austria, NGOs such as NANE are struggling to institute similar reforms to protect abused women. When communism collapsed 14 years ago, domestic violence was considered a non-issue. Toth traces the developments since then.

"The evolution up to this point is that when we started as the first organization ever in this country talking thematically about violence against women and especially about domestic violence, there were really hostile reactions coming also from political circles, politicians going on the record and saying that our association is damaging families. This eventually ceased -- one of our major powers about the argument about the declarations and UN conventions that Hungary has signed. So eventually, these kinds of comments ceased because they were absolutely not politically correct," Toth said.

Several years of official silence followed from the authorities. Finally, says Toth, after a petition campaign last year, some politicians began to acknowledge the need for new legislation on domestic violence.

What NANE and other NGOs in Hungary are seeking is a recognition of domestic violence as a separate element in the criminal code, as Austria and other countries have done.

"It would be very important to recognize domestic violence as a separate issue in the criminal code because at this point, typically, the individual cases of abuse are viewed in an isolated form -- a slap or a kick is coming to the attention of the court or a shoving down the stairs -- whereas this is not what domestic violence is about. Domestic violence is about the fact that these smaller and bigger abuses are going on constantly and that there is a highly dependent situation of the abused. And this, the law needs to take into account," Toth said.

The sanctity of the family as an institution remains paramount in many societies and there remains prejudice against attempts by NGOs or the state to meddle in what many consider private affairs. But as Toth notes, all countries that have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have an obligation to guarantee the protection, equal rights, and dignity of each individual citizen -- women included. She hopes that Hungary, for one, won't have to wait another 15 years to catch up to its neighbors.