9 things we learned when investigating partner violence and feminicide in Slovakia

Investigating gender-based violence and femicide, we have found that one third of all murdered women are killed by their partners - among other worrying data. Also, due to an inaccurate way of counting victims of domestic violence, many victims may be uncounted.

Published On: April 10th, 2024

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A woman is stabbed to death in a police car. Another woman is kidnapped and dissolved in acid. A third is suffocated with a towel. In all three press reports, the main suspect was a man with whom the woman was close.

The media usually reports such cases as isolated family tragedies, as terrible bad luck, or as crimes of passion.

But they are not anomalies at all. In Slovakia, statistics show that femicide is a fairly stable phenomenon. An average of eight women a year die at the hands of their husbands or partners (current or former). During the 2020-2021 Covid pandemic, 22 women were killed, i.e. almost one a month.

The term femicide was coined to refer to murders of women that are preceded by violence and intimidation. The phenomenon is seen in diverse cultures around the world.

Dennik N took part in an international project that mapped femicide and domestic violence across Europe. Using the data gathered, we bring you nine interesting observations.

1. A third of all murdered women are killed by their partners

In the last 5 years, the Slovak police recorded 125 cases of murder and manslaughter of women. Of these murders, 43 were committed by the partner or ex-partner, i.e. more than a third.

In the European Union, more than 4,300 women have died at the hands of a current or ex-partner in the last decade, which is about a third of all murdered women.

There are almost three times as many female victims of fatal partner violence as male victims. Up to 9 times more women than men have faced serious threats and stalking.

2. There may be many uncounted victims

Police statistics do not faithfully capture how many people die each year as a result of domestic violence. The figures show cases where a man has been prosecuted for killing his partner, but other victims may go unrecorded. For instance, perpetrators often kill the children too.

Other victims may be relatives or friends who have helped the woman. And even the offender themself, who may commit suicide after the murder. This is not to mention cases that were never investigated as murders, even though the act was intentional. One example: when both partners died in a car hitting a tree.

Femicide is the most brutal form of partner violence. There are many times as many cases where women do not die but end up injured. And there are even more where a woman does not require medical treatment but suffers ongoing fear and trauma.

More than 100,000 women in Slovakia experience such abuse from a current or former partner each year, according to various estimates.

3. Czech police are 3 times more likely to prosecute rapists

In 2018, 552 prosecutions were initiated for physical partner violence in Czechia. In Slovakia, there were only 82. That is 3.5 times more prosecutions per capita. The ratio is similar in other years.

The data show that in Czechia, the number of prosecutions has almost tripled in the last ten years. This may be because institutions have become more successful in detecting perpetrators, or that Czech women trust the institutions more and therefore turn to them more often.

Only 15 percent of women who have experienced violence turn to the police, according to an analysis by Slovakia’s Coordination and Methodology Centre for Gender-Based and Domestic Violence (KMC).

The police initiate prosecutions in about 600 cases of domestic violence each year. However, men usually get off with a relatively small sentence. According to researchers Barbara Burajová and Zuzana Očenášová, who examined court sentences, only four percent of those convicted received more than three years’ imprisonment, the baseline penalty for assault.

More than half of those convicted were given suspended sentences. The courts rarely used measures to protect the victim, such as an injunction not to approach or contact her. Evidence produced by expert witnesses included plenty of myths about violence – for example, women were blamed for not being sufficiently devastated or anxious. Courts rely on such assessments when handing down sentences.

So only a fraction of domestic violence cases end up in court, and we do not punish perpetrators as severely as the law allows. But neither do we try to reform them. In Slovakia, with one exception, there are no institutions that work with violent men to try to prevent them from abusing their partners.

In neighbouring Austria, by contrast, there are dozens of such organisations. Training in relationship non-violence is a standard preventive measure included in sentencing. The importance of working with perpetrators in this way is enshrined in the Istanbul Convention, which the Slovak parliament refused to ratify in February 2020.

4. A significant drop in prosecutions

Over the past seven years, prosecutions of violent partners have dropped by more than a third. Police launched nearly 950 prosecutions in 2017, an annual figure that has fallen to around 600 in the last three years.

At the same time, statistics show that roughly half of all cases are for threats of violence, an offence with lower penalties. This partly reflects the ignorance of the authorities, who are often at a loss as to which law to use when prosecuting.

Slovakia has no specific offence of domestic violence. This would clearly describe violent, coercive and humiliating behaviour towards a partner or family member. Perhaps the crime that most closely matches this definition is that of abuse of a close and trusted person. But police statistics show that this charge is not the most frequently used when prosecuting perpetrators. While this crime has a base penalty of 3 to 8 years’ imprisonment, the threat offence carries only up to one year’s imprisonment.

“The legal qualification of the deed is at the discretion of law enforcement”, explains Burajová. “For example, if someone makes a death threat and a person other than the victim overhears it, that will clearly be covered by the threats law, with evidence supported by the testimony of a third person.”

5. Rapes go unreported

Over the past decade, official rape statistics have barely changed. The Slovak police initiate just over 50 prosecutions per year for the rape of adult women, which is very few. By comparison the Czech Republic – a country twice as big – prosecuted more than 450 men in each of the last two years. This does not necessarily mean that there are disproportionately more rapes in Czechia. It may rather indicate that their institutions are more credible with women and more successful in helping them with prosecutions.

50 prosecutions per year is a particularly low number given the results of 2017 research which showed that almost five percent of Slovak women – more than 100,000 – have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Moreover, the police statistics are completely devoid of data on how many women approach the police with complaints of sexual violence. The statistics only cover prosecutions that have been launched.

Researcher Barbara Burajová explains that in cases where a woman has reported abuse but no prosecution has been initiated, this will be recorded by police officers in their routine daily reports. But these reports are not used to make statistics. Anyone wanting to do so would need to approach each police department and go through the daily reports one by one.

Thus, we have no idea how many victims changed their minds after contacting the police to press charges, or what proportion of such charges were rejected by the police or assessed as a misdemeanour.

6. Almost half of rape cases involve young women under 19

In the last three years, almost half of all rapes in police statistics have been of females under the age of 19. However, this does not necessarily mean that rape and sexual violence happens much more often to teenagers than to adult women.

According to lawyer Barbara Burajová, it seems rather to be related to the overall low number of reported sex crimes. “In the case of minors, an adult – a parent, teacher or other person to whom the minor confides – can take on the role of reporting the abuse. For adults, it is entirely up to the victims to report the act,” Burajová explains.

7. Rape is obscuring sexual abuse

Slovak law distinguishes between rape and sexual assault. While the former mainly refers to coerced penetration, sexual assault is meant to include all remaining coerced sexual practices. In Western countries, it is common that the number of sexual assault cases is higher than the number of rapes. In Slovakia, it is the other way round.

Of the 20 European countries for which the European Data Journalism Network obtained comparable data, thirteen of them had higher numbers of victims of sexual violence than of rapes.

Apart from Slovakia, only Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania have a higher number of rapes compared to sexual violence. Slovenia has similar figures for both offences.

The higher number of rapes in Slovak statistics may also be related to the fact that society still stereotypes sexual violence as only penetration, which falls under rape. Moreover, the crime of sexual assault itself has a rather vague definition.

Burajová points out that even assaults with a sexual context may be qualified by law enforcement authorities as simple battery if there is insufficient evidence of sexual coercion. The absence of injuries or biological traces of the perpetrator in intimate areas may thus cause sexual violence to be “lumped” with other crimes.

“We would know more about this if a qualitative survey was done into cases that are investigated. Without looking at both the reported facts and the proven facts, it is impossible to draw conclusions about these discrepancies”, says Burajová. She believes that we should not be afraid to expose weaknesses in the system. This could help better protect victims in the future.

8. Changing the law will not be enough

Ending violence against women will not be easy. For instance, Slovenia, which is culturally close to Slovakia, has already had the Istanbul Convention ratified for nine years. In Slovenia, domestic violence is defined in law, and non-consensual sex is considered rape. And the country is preparing to incorporate the concept of femicide into criminal law.

And yet Slovenia has not yet seen any changes in the abuse statistics. Per capita, the Slovenian police in fact registers more cases of both partner violence and femicide than in Slovenia.

“For the developed world Slovenia has a relatively high rate of femicide”, says Jasna Podreka, a Slovenian sociologist who was the first in the country to study femicides in detail. “I still say that our laws are good. But it is one thing to pass these laws and another thing to implement them.”

Changes to the law are a good start, Podreka says, but society also needs to shift its focus from punishing perpetrators to preventing violence. Partly, this is a question of how violence is talked about in society. That is why Podreka is conducting training for female journalists and police spokespersons. They are often the people who shape the debate on femicide.

Compulsory and systematic education for children would also make a difference, she says. “We need to teach children about gender equality, about what a good and safe relationship is, and about the violence that can hide behind love and jealousy.”

9. We need to restrain offenders better, and also to try to change them

In Slovakia, we do not have statistics to show whether murdered women contacted the police or sought protection in other ways before they died. However, media stories have repeatedly told of partner violence that ended fatally even though the police or the courts were already involved in the case.

Slovenian researcher Jasna Podreka, in her femicide study, found that up to a third of Slovenian women who were later killed by their partners had told the authorities about their abuse. The latter failed to recognise the danger or directly downplayed the woman’s fear for her life. Podreka believes that social workers, judges and magistrates, in addition to police officers, should be given better training.

There is also a lack of professionals who can work with offenders, focusing on their specific personality and behaviour. In fact, Slovenia is in a similar situation to Slovakia when it comes to working with perpetrators – only one organisation does it and its trainings are voluntary.

And, like Slovakia, Slovenia also has a problem protecting women and children who have managed to walk away from their abuser. For example, a couple may be forced to keep seeing each other even after a divorce, or a rapist may be released from prison without his victim being informed. Or the police might not check a restraining order properly. Each year in Slovenia, a third of restrained offenders break their injunction, and there have been tragic cases where a man has killed his partner while a restraining order was in force.

We have similar cases in Slovakia. Probably the most notorious was the murder of a mother of seven children from Orava. She was beaten by her husband in November 2022 in their home, which he had been forbidden to enter.

Notes on the data:

  • Most of the data were provided to Denník N by lawyer Barbara Burajová of the Coordination and Methodology Center for Gender-Based and Domestic Violence (KMC), who combined police statistics with her own research. The data collection was carried out as part of a project of the European Data Journalism Network, which involved newsrooms from 28 European countries.
  • The police data show the number of prosecutions launched. The Slovak police do not record the number of reported offences, so it is not possible to say how many women have reported, for example, rape or domestic violence. The figures used in the text therefore do not show the actual number of victims, but only the acts in which criminal prosecutions have been initiated.
  • In the text, we mention the terms “partner violence” or “murder by a partner”. They include all acts in which the perpetrator was the spouse, former spouse, partner or former partner of the victim.
  • All cases involve women over the age of 19 because that is the data collected by the police.
  • The figures include premeditated and attempted offences. For cases of murder, this means that the number of acts may not be the same as the number of women who lost their lives as a result. We decided to include and interpret this data, since we do not have more precise numbers.
  • In the way that acts are recorded, an offender can be prosecuted for two offences at the same time – for example, rape and assault. His victim will therefore be reported twice in the statistics, even if both acts were committed against the same person.
  • The figures are distorted by the statistical category of “group”, where there are multiple victims who are not recorded separately by sex or by relationship to the perpetrator.

Original source: https://dennikn.sk/3876294/9-veci-ktore-sme-zistili-pri-skumani-partnerskeho-nasilia-a-vrazd-zien/?cst=2bdbb0751bddf691c801b0ab0f90cc7b60bd6f4866215172ba2048e39ffa1b9d

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