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Europe's Harsh Austerity Policies Are Leaving Domestic Violence Victims Stranded

Countries in turmoil see an increase in domestic abuse--and programs to stem the violence are under severe economic strain.

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Up to a quarter of women in Europe  have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives. But despite the widespread nature of the phenomenon, more often than not we ignore it. A short video launched last month in Serbia managed to break this silence.

At first glance, the clip is just another photo-a-day video popularised on YouTube: photos of a smiling young woman follow one another, offering glimpses of different hairstyles and makeup choices.

But after a while  the time-lapse video breaks the pattern. The woman’s eyes start looking sad, scared, and her face is covered in increasingly severe bruises and cuts. In the last image, she holds up a sign that issues a desperate call for help.

Before anyone even knew who the woman was or whether the video was genuine or fiction, it became a hit in Serbia and abroad, reaching two million views in just a few days.

It turned out that the film was in fact part of a campaign by the B92 Fund, a foundation associated with the leading private TV channel in Serbia, to raise awareness about  domestic violence in this southeast European country.

In Serbia, over 60 women died as a result of domestic violence between the start of 2012 and today, according to the  Autonomous Women’s Centre in Belgrade. And women’s groups claim that every second woman has suffered from verbal or physical abuse at some point in time.

“It is important to talk about this problem so that our society on the whole comprehends that it is not normal to beat women, so that women themselves are encouraged to report violence,” explains Veran Matic, the president of the B92 Fund. “Solidarity, getting people to react, and exerting pressure on authorities to take action on domestic violence are also our goals.”

Matic’s foundation has built five shelters for battered women in six years of work on domestic violence, and plans to open two more this year.

Together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the B92 Fund also works on lobbying authorities to better implement legislation providing protection from perpetrators of violence and assistance for victims.

B92 tries to harness the popularity and resources of the television station to meet social needs that are not properly fulfilled by state authorities.

For Danijela Pesic from the Autonomous Women’s Centre, which has worked on violence against women for the past two decades, improving the enforcement of legislation already in place is the most important aspect, as it would offer systematic solutions for victims.

She said that shelters, while important, are merely a short-term emergency response.

The other key to combating domestic violence is changing the culture, says Pesic. “The main cause of domestic violence is patriarchal values,” she says. “It is not poverty, lack of education or alcoholism – we are seeing the same rates of abuse in villages and cities, and across educational and wealth levels.

“Men have to stop believing they can be violent, and for this to happen we need to change our perception of gender roles, starting as early as kindergarten.”

Despite noticing some positive changes in Serbia over the past few years – importantly, women are feeling increasingly empowered – Pesic fears that the lack of systematic state support for actors working in the area of domestic violence might jeopardise progress.

Financing is patchy, often coming in the shape of project-based donations from the West, which inevitably run out without being replaced. As a consequence, for example, call centres for victims are forced to close down after only a few years, just as women are starting to rely on them.

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