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Czech Republic: Violence Against Women -- Signs Of Progress (Part 4)

In the Czech Republic, women's and victim support groups have been raising awareness of domestic violence for years. It's all just culminated in a nationwide campaign, and now they're hoping for their first big legal victory -- that parliament will soon pass a special amendment dealing specifically with family violence.

Prague, 26 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Gabriela" had been divorced for four years when her ex-husband wanted her back. They were reconciled, but soon they were arguing again.

He didn't trust her being at work, and suspected she was having affairs. He became domineering, demanding she stay at home and limit family contacts. Nothing she did was right. The constant insults, criticism, and verbal abuse gradually wore her down.

When he threatened to kill her and himself, she finally moved out. But it didn't end there.

"Then in summer we met at some friend's [house]. Then when he saw me and spoke to me it was as if all the anger and hatred boiled up.... As we spoke I could see his eyes were getting meaner and meaner and the barbs got worse until he came up to me and said that we wouldn't be seeing each other any more, he was going away. I said, 'Why are you telling me this, it's your life.' He said 'You don't care?' Then he turned on me, caught me by the arm and twisted it, put his arm around my neck and whispered 'I'll kill you, you bitch. It's all your fault.' What else he said I don't know. You're afraid to move in a situation like that. All the time he made sure no one saw us. I ran off, he came after me and out of nowhere he gave me a head butt. It was totally unexpected. He said again 'I'll kill you, you bitch.'"

Gabriela is now in a women's shelter with her son, living in fear that one day her ex-husband might actually carry out his threat.

But she considers herself lucky. Some of the other women at the refuge, she says, "have gone through some real horrors."

A recent survey suggests around one in six Czechs -- mostly women -- suffer some sort of violence within the family home. But victim support groups say the figure could be much higher.

To be sure, no one is suggesting domestic violence is ingrained in Czech culture. The challenges here are similar to ones that Western European countries started to deal with only recently themselves.

That means tackling stereotypes -- "it's her fault," "it's just a marital tiff." It means bringing the subject into the open and raising public awareness. Or improving police response to domestic violence cases. Making sure women have shelters to go to, and that their attackers will be punished.

Women's groups like "Rosa" have worked for years to raise awareness and help victims like Gabriela. It's all just culminated in a nationwide campaign involving television advertisements, seminars and a theater reenactment of victims' stories.

Rosa's Zdena Prokopova hopes it will also spur changes in the law. At the moment, cases of domestic violence are dealt with under laws on violence in general -- and that's problematic.

"Just now a woman has to be off work for seven days [thanks to the attack] for it to qualify as a crime and only after that it's decided if it's going to be possible to prosecute. If she's not incapacitated for seven days, it's dealt with as a misdemeanor and mostly it ends up with the woman not proving anything and sometimes even having to pay administrative charges," Prokopova said.

Prokopova says that means all but the most severe cases go unprosecuted. And that the police lack the tools -- or the willingness -- to intervene.

"Women sometimes say they meet police who separate the partners, question them and maybe even take the man away for a while. But, unfortunately, I have to say that most often the police don't intervene. The policeman rings the bell, the man answers and says 'there's nothing going on, it's just an argument,' and the policeman goes away. It's the case most often, unfortunately, that the victim is not helped," Prokopova says.

But there are signs things are changing.

Some police have received special training on how to better help victims. And now it looks like there will be changes in the law specifically dealing for the first time with family-based violence.

MPs this week are due to discuss an amendment to the criminal code. It seeks to change the part of the code usually used to prosecute violence against children in care. The amendment would extend it to abuse or violence against individuals "in a shared residence," with punishments of up to eight years in prison.

But it's only a first step, says senator Jitka Seitlova, one of the amendment's authors.

"It's really just a first step to prevent the most serious crimes. In Prague alone this year several women died as a result of domestic violence. We want first to prevent these kinds of serious crimes. Then we have to follow that up with legal changes that would tackle first and foremost the prevention of domestic violence. That's still ahead," Seitlova says.

For groups like Rosa that means introducing restraining orders against violent partners. Or removal orders, where the violent partner -- not the victim -- is the one who has to leave the family home.

Gabriela says a restraining order may have helped in her case. For now, she's grateful for the safety and support of the refuge. Being able to sleep more soundly at night, she says, is a "wonderful feeling."