Domestic violence is still a huge taboo in Germany – despite alarming statistics. What do women need to know about this subject? What can they do? Nine questions and answers.
By Lucia Schmidt, Katrin Hummel und Julia Schaaf
What do the statistics say?
A woman dies every two to three days in Germany because her current or former partner has stabbed, shot or beaten her to death; the police counted 141 victims in 2017. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Almost 114 000 women were affected by violence within a relationship in a spectrum of crimes that includes stalking, sexual coercion and physical injury. Almost half of victims lived with the perpetrator in a shared household. So much for crimes that are known to police. According to studies of unreported cases, one in four women aged between 18 and 85 has been involved with a violent partner at least once in her life. This means that the most dangerous place for women in Germany is in their own home. We have known this for years. But while every sexually-motivated murder or “honour killing” causes a wave of social outrage, no one makes a fuss about this violence behind closed doors – until now. However this week’s publication of the crime statistics for violence in partnerships has elicited widespread public shock. “This could finally be the starting point for violence in relationships to be seen as an important social issue,” says Patricia Kielinger, co-founder of the Berliner Initiative gegen Gewalt an Frauen (Berlin Initiative against Violence towards Women – BIG e.V.).
Where does domestic violence start?
To begin with, maybe a man just doesn’t want his wife to go out to work. Or he’s extremely jealous, allegedly. And she plays down this low-level abuse, which is often under the guise of love. But maybe next he starts to control her. To take her money away. To isolate her socially. Or he threatens her. “Domestic violence is a system of incidents,” says Patricia Kielinger. “Sometimes the noose tightens very slowly.” There is often a mixture of psychological, sexual and physical forms of violence. And “once physical violence has happened,” explains Kielinger, “you don’t need a constant stream of new offences – maybe by then a mere look or a raised hand is enough.” The line is crossed by the time things become physical, at the latest. Even if there are complex dynamics between the couple – the one who struck the blow bears the responsibility.
Could that affect me too?
Violence in partnerships extends through the whole of society. “We’ve found that women who are better educated and earn more are no less likely to be affected by serious violence from a partner,” says Monika Schröttle, who presented the only representative national study of unreported cases relating to this subject in 2004. The only difference is that in better circumstances: “The violence is less visible to outsiders. The shame is even greater.” Schröttle knows of couples where not a single other person is aware of the misery at home. According to her, there are women who don’t even tell their psychotherapists what they are suffering. A couple where both partners are professors might realise for themselves that they have an alcohol problem, but not a violence problem. And if someone is being beaten up in a detached house, there aren’t even any neighbours to overhear and call the police.
What can I do if I’m affected?
Even if the shame is tremendous and self-esteem is at rock-bottom after years of humiliation, it’s never too late to get help. Seeking outside support can be an important part of remedying the situation. You see, the usual strategy of perpetrators is to make women feel responsible. “They think the situation’s their own fault, for instance because they don’t make their husbands happy. They often feel like a failure and so they daren’t accept help,” says sociologist Barbara Kavemann, who researches the subject of violence within sexual relationships. Of course the ideal scenario would be to go to the police immediately after the first act of violence. In practice that isn’t easy. So it’s important that women realise that the relationship damages them and their children. In most cases, separation is the only effective means of protection. Admittedly this in itself incorporates a particularly high risk of falling victim to serious violence. “Women need to consider carefully where to go after splitting up, because for some this separation can pose a fatal risk,” says Kavemann.
Where can I find help?
In the event of danger, anyone who is directly affected, as well as friends and neighbours, should phone the emergency police number: in Germany it’s 110. Police officers will then find a way of protecting the woman in an acute situation. For example they can evict the perpetrator from the house against his will. People who want to start by clarifying their own circumstances, their legal situation or a possible means of escape, can find specialist advice centres for victims of domestic violence in larger towns. The national helpline offers free and confidential advice in 18 languages and is manned around the clock. The telephone number is 08 00 11 60 16.
How can I keep safe in the long term?
Most women who leave their violent partners are free after that: thanks to the Protection against Violence Act there are injunctions under family law, such as restraining orders and stalking bans, which will protect women reliably in many cases. If that isn’t enough, there’s the option of seeking refuge in a women’s shelter, which can be necessary at that moment of separation. “Many women can remove themselves from violent situations in this way,” says Monika Schröttle. At the moment, the sociologist is involved in a European research project, investigating homicide to women from a perspective of what kind of protective intervention measures could have been implemented in advance. Over the past four years 150 women were accepted onto a special safety programme offered by the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Berlin. None of them came to any harm.
Who are the perpetrators?
From labourers, actors and policemen to decision-makers in finance and politics – violent men can be found in all social circles. According to crime statistics, more than two-thirds of suspects are Germans – followed by Turks, Poles and Syrians. Many of the perpetrators experienced violence in their own childhoods. Even more typically, they have never learned to express feeling such as frustration, disappointment, fear of loss and anger in any way other than through violence. Because of this there are perpetrator programmes, such as the ones offered at the Münchner Informationszentrum für Männer (Munich Information Centre for Men). Once a week for nine months, participants not only have to realise that they have committed violence; they are also supposed to question how they themselves feel and learn to talk about it. Andreas Schmiedel, the centre manager, is certain: “Working with perpetrators is protecting victims.” The fact is that violent men are repeat offenders. “They produce new victims.”
How do I spot that a woman close to me needs help?
Many women don’t talk about acts of violence in their relationship. However, sociologist Kavemann mentions some things that ought to make us suspicious: “If we get the feeling that our friend is living in a bad relationship, in which for instance the husband cuts her short every time she speaks, dominates her, puts her down in front of others or intimidates her.” In a situation like that we shouldn’t say: “What an arsehole! Leave him as fast as possible!” Instead we should ask: “How are you?” Women in violent relationships don’t automatically turn against their partners just because they treat them badly. For instance they might think: he’s not always this brutal, we’ve had good times as well – and what’s meant to happen to the children? “Most women see their partner’s problems as well, for instance stemming from their childhood or job, and use these as an excuse.” On top of that there’s the shame. That’s why these women need sympathetic support first and foremost, and no pressure.
What needs to change socially?
Despite all the progress in the field of equality; Germany has a problem if it continues to be possible for men to play God with people’s lives – and that’s then trivialised as a “family or relationship drama”. Violence against women isn’t a private matter. Even court rulings show: while perpetrators from a Muslim background are often punished severely, there’s still plenty of sympathy for German men and their injured feelings and needs. That’s why Schröttle, a researcher, warns: “Violence should not be individualised and blamed on other cultures. Patriarchal patterns originating in culture play a major role even in today’s society.” When couples split up, there are gender-specific reactions, especially with regard to handling anger and ideas about ownership entitlement. Such patterns, she claims, are associated with deeper-rooted issues concerning sexual relationships: when is a man a man? Who makes the compromises if there are children? Who earns the money? “The truly autonomous emancipated woman,” says Schröttle, “is still a provocation for many men, whose fragile self-confidence is based on the subordination of women in private as well as in the workplace.”