Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

ROMANIA: Media Spotlight on Domestic Violence

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Apr 11 2009 (IPS) - Campaigners in Romania have very effectively used the media to break the public silence around the issue of domestic violence against women, and lobby for changes in laws.

Broadcaster Iulia Vantu poses for a campaign against domestic violence poster Credit: Alex Galmeanu

Broadcaster Iulia Vantu poses for a campaign against domestic violence poster Credit: Alex Galmeanu

Over many weeks, public interest ads featuring celebrities, both male and female, from the world of music and the electronic media, with artificial bruises and scars, have been telecast on many TV channels and discussed in the press and on blogs.

The images, created to shock audiences into understanding that this aggression is not “normal”, were from a photo exhibition that opened in Bucharest on Mar. 25 and closed on Apr. 8. The main organiser was Foundation Sensiblu, a charity.

In another well-publicised effort, the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, with financial help from private companies and charities, organised public debates on domestic violence.

“The campaigns against domestic violence run by civil society and the public sector have been going on for longer but they only became visible to the public recently,” remarks Cristina Horia, executive director of the Sensiblu Foundation.

In an interview with IPS, she explains: “What is happening now is the media has started to pay attention to the campaigns, and this is partly because activist organisations have refined their techniques to attract coverage and raise awareness.”

“Unfortunately, the involvement of state institutions with these campaigns remains limited,” she adds. “They play the role of either supporters or partners, but do not really initiate campaigns.”

In many Romanian families, violence against women is still seen as “normal”.

A study conducted last year in spring by the Centre for Urban and Regional Sociology (CURS), in Bucharest, revealed that over 21 percent of women have faced assault, either in their current relationships or in the past.

A staggering 63 percent of women abused at home said the violence took place regularly and in multiple forms, from physical abuse and even sexual violence, to denigration and verbal humiliation.

The study showed that 55 percent of the women who are victims of domestic violence continue to live with their aggressive partners, and the main reason for this is that women consider domestic violence as “normal problems for a family” (the justification given by 26 percent of the women who continue in abusive relationships).

A law to counter domestic violence was passed by Romanian parliament in 2003, but the National Coalition of Non-Governmental Organisations Involved in Programmes Against Domestic Violence is now lobbying to have it amended in several areas.

“The law is there, but it does not help either victims or organisations active in the field too much,” says Horia. “The most serious problem is related to its implementation. Since 2003, we have seen only one case where the provisions of the law were applied fully against the aggressor.”

A serious legal loophole, according to activists, is the lack of a restraining order against abusers. The police, as a result, cannot intervene. They have no authority to enter a home without the approval of its owner, which in most cases in Romania is the abusive man.

According to information provided by Foundation Sensiblu, a proposal to provide for restraining orders was included in the 2003 law, but it was shot down by the legislative, which claimed, “Romanian society is not ready for this”.

Under the law, victims of domestic abuse and their children are entitled to reside in shelters between 7 and 60 days, and, during this time, receive counselling and legal help. Both state and private institutions have run several pilot projects for shelters.

NGOs have been campaigning for more shelters, and that these be located in both rural and urban areas.

Yet another stumbling block is the cumbersome process of obtaining a medical-legal certificate to prove the holder is a victim of domestic abuse. At present, the document costs close to 50 lei, almost 20 euros in a country where average incomes barely go over 300 euros per month.

A survey of 400 female victims of domestic violence, conducted in October 2008 by the National Institute for Legal Medicine Mina Minovici in Bucharest, revealed that only half were willing to admit to abuse; a mere 50 had persevered to complete the necessary formalities to claim shelter and counselling, and just one of the 400 cases had taken legal action against the aggressor.

“The procedure of getting the certificate is (just) the last hurdle …,” family therapist Crenguta Vlas, who works with abused women and their children in Brasov county, says. “The biggest obstacles are psychological … fear of the aggressor and the shame the victim feels,” she told IPS in an interview.

Vlas wants to see a simpler legal process that leaves the victim with more time and energy to deal with the trauma.

Still, activists are hopeful that 2009 may turn out to be a breakthrough year for their struggle. The planned amendments to the 2003 law are coming up for discussion in parliament this year.

In the southern municipality Olt, the local council started last fall to reimburse women for the costs of the medical-legal certificates. With local governments in charge of domestic violence cases under the 2003 law, other municipalities are being urged to replicate the Olt model.

The best news so far: Romanian media has assertively exposed the public to the taboo issue of domestic violence.

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