When men lose control

Every half hour, a woman in Berlin is physically assaulted – not by a stranger but by someone she trusts most: her husband, a lover or family member. Anne Lena Mösken investigates.

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Photo by Alexander McBride

Every half hour, a woman in Berlin is physically assaulted – not by a stranger but by someone she trusts most: her husband, a lover or family member. Anne Lena Mösken investigates the domestic violence epidemic and finds out why it is so persistent.

They call in quiet moments, when he’s out of the house or asleep, not in the moment when he’s losing it. “I just have a question” or “A friend of mine has this problem…” And sometimes they just say it: “My husband hit me yesterday.”

In the past 10 years, BIG (Berliner Interventionszentrale bei häuslicher Gewalt), a local abuse hotline, has fielded some 60,000 calls like these. Every day as many as 45 women in Berlin fall victim to domestic violence, according to the most recent statistics. And those are only the reported cases.

For many, an anonymous telephone counselor is the only person they dare to talk to; others tell no one at all. There is still a stigma attached to domestic violence. There is fear, there is guilt, there is shame.

A dire reality

The Berlin Police Department has 16,285 cases of domestic violence on record for 2009. That is 97 cases less than in 2008, but there had been an increase of almost 25 percent from 2007 to 2008. Even assuming that the number of recorded calls corresponds to levels of violence, it’s hard to make out a clear trend from these statistics.

But what is clear is that in Germany, one out of every four women says she has experienced domestic violence. That’s higher than England and Portugal, and nearly twice as high as Switzerland. And in Berlin that number is even higher. Levels of violence here are over twice that of smaller cities like Bremen.

What’s more, it seems to happen across the socioeconomic ladder: apparently politicians and lawyers make just as good wife-beaters as mechanics and cab drivers. Statistics show that one third of women abused by their partners have successfully passed their Abitur (university-prep high-school diploma; only 25 percent of Germans get it), while among those with a less advanced Hauptschulabschluss, it is only 19 percent. Even among the bottom of the social ladder (no high-school education) it is less: 25 percent. “Women with higher education and average to higher income are more often victims of domestic violence,” confirms Jennifer Rotter, spokesperson of BIG.

Up the social ladder

What’s more, stigmatization seems to be especially high among the upper classes, where the fear of scandal and a fall in social standing may be more dreaded. Experts conclude that the figures could be higher as these women don’t necessarily show up in stats of Frauenhäusern or the police. Well-bred, well-off Frauen report less.

That’s the conclusion of “Symposium für Häusliche Gewalt in bildungsnahen Schichten” (Symposium for dosmetic violence in the educated classes), which addresses the issue amongst the upper strata of society. Kerstin Lefherz, 52, is the initiator of the Symposium. A music teacher and cultural manager, she was victimized by a violent husband and founded the Symposium when she realized there were no support groups for women like her. “It is still a taboo,” she says.

A study conducted for the Bundesministerium für Frauen about the background of the perpetrators supports that conclusion: high and low income-earners are more likely to become perpetrators than men with average income. But what seems to be the decisive factor is the resource gap between men and women.

Interestingly enough, domestic violence often occurs when the woman finds herself in a higher position than her husband. “There is a tendency on the side of the perpetrators to have a lower education or at least a lower standard of education than their partner,” says Rotter, who adds that the situation is intensified when the educational standard of the woman lies above the average. Violence seems to be a way for the man to regain part of the power that he feels he is supposed to have. Violence, first and foremost, means control.

Out of control

Domestic violence can be triggered by something as petty as a dinner that wasn’t hot enough. Alcohol, drugs and other external, often economic, pressures tend to play a role, but the actual causes lie deeper.

On a psychological level, experts agree that domestic violence is often tied to psychopathology – it is a way of solving conflict that is inherited, learnt from a familial history of domestic violence and physical abuse. On the sociological level, there is also what is referred to as ‘structural violence’. Germany still is a country where men hold the most powerful positions. The current discussion about a Frauenquote has shed light on structural sexism when it comes to wages and job opportunities. Despite a Women’s Movement that has been active for decades, seemingly retrograde gender roles still dominate. And for many German women a divorce often means Hartz IV or worse.

Domestic violence is defined as a punishable act of violence within a relationship, regardless of whether that relationship is intact, in the process of separation or already dissolved. Child abuse is not included. But BIG’s definition of violence is much broader than the legal definition. Violence as they see it doesn’t start with a fist in the face; it can be far subtler – psychic terror, control, stalking, locking someone in.

“In the public perception the term is still pretty much attached to more severe forms of violence,” says BIG’s Rotter. Cases only seem to make it into newspaper’s headlines when they are dramatic, like last summer in Steglitz when 27-year-old Stephan B. tried to stab his ex-girlfriend. There was a lot of blood, a screaming woman on the street, and a two-year-old daughter witnessing everything.

Campaigns like “Hinter Deutschen Wänden 2010” (initiated by BIG and the Senatsverwaltung für Frauen) might raise temporary awareness with TV spots and posters. A well-publicized legal case, like the lawsuit agains weatherman Jörg Kachelmann who was accused of having raped his girlfriend, might have some influence, either encouraging more women to step out into the open or deterring potential perpetrators.

Immigrant women under pressure

Nonetheless, most abused women live in silence, especially those of foreign origin. The Bundestag recently passed a draft bill that made forced marriage punishable in Germany, but it also changed another paragraph within the immigration laws for the worse. Previously, §31 of the residency statute stripped women of their residency status if they haven’t been married here for longer than two years; this timeframe has been increased to three years. It’s supposed to prevent bogus marriages but has a dramatic side effect on immigrant women who live in violent relationships.

“The pressure on them is so much higher due to the right of residency they might lose,” says Luise Baghramian, who worked at the first Berliner Frauenhaus in the 1990s, where Ausländer made up 60 percent of the women seeking shelter. It was then that she realized that there is a special set of problems that abused immigrant women bring with them when they seek help.

In 2001, Baghramian and two colleagues opened the Interkulturelle Frauenhaus, which caters especially to immigrants. They have room for 25 women, and an additional 10 refuge apartments. They also opened an advice center where women can come after they leave the shelter and where men are also allowed: brothers who want to save their sister from a forced marriage, male friends or co-workers who see a befriended woman being abused.

Shelter from the storm

Today the Interkulturelles Frauenhaus is one of seven official women’s shelters in Berlin. BIG helps to coordinate occupancy throughout the shelters, which are often filled to capacity. When necessary, BIG looks for spots outside the city. The holidays are high season for shelters, as are the big football tournaments; up to a fifth of the calls BIG gets come in on Mondays, after the weekend.

The shelters are crisis facilities, a first step. They are mostly frequented by women who are not well off (the rich have other means of getting out: hotels, lawyers, therapists). When a woman calls Interkulturelles Frauenhaus’ hotline and says she has been subjected to violence by her partner, they take her in. Staff members meet the women at a spot close to the consulting office, keeping the address secret, to make sure it is not a trap (a sister sent by the family, a woman being followed by her man).

Most women who seek help have been living with violence for quite some time. And the longer women endure the situation, confirms Rotter, the more they begin to think they are powerless to stop the abuse, that they in fact deserve it, are causing it.

Many women in long-term violent relationships suffer from some kind of substance abuse, from depression. Suicide rates are high. Where will I go? What happens to the kids? How will I make a living? “And don’t underestimate love,” says Rotter. Women look for excuses and often want to ‘help’ their abusers or at least try to ‘work things out’. The psychological mechanisms, she says, are similar to the infamous Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim identifies with the aggressor.

Since 2002 the legal situation for victims has slightly improved. That year, the Gewaltschutzgesetz (Protection against Violence Act) lowered the threshold for police intervention in cases of violence, but most importantly it guarantees the victim’s right to stay in the apartment and allows police to force the perpetrator to leave. Still, for the thousands of people who deal with domestic violence on a daily basis, it’s just a drop in the ocean.