Silent Witnesses

In conversation with Dorottya Szalay recently, I asked her what I could expect were I to call NANE’s helpline – ‘First of all’, she said, ‘We would believe you.’

We. Would. Believe. You.

My initial surprise and shock at the simplicity of these few words took a while to abate. We were talking about NANE (A Nők a Nőkért Együtt az Erőszak Ellen – Women for Women Together Against Violence), an association established in Hungary back in 1994. In its fight against violence against women and children in Hungary, this non-profit, non-governmental organisation is active at individual, community, and societal levels.

Founded some 30 years ago by a group of resolute women, most of the staff have had some personal experience of violence against women. And, given that until 2013, domestic violence wasn’t even a specific criminal offence in Hungary, they were much needed, then and now.

Back then, violence against women was like any other violence: categorised based on injury. If the injuries healed in eight days, they were thought to be minor, whatever the rage behind them or the potential danger they heralded. With the new law in 2013, things changed. Not a lot. Not enough. Even now, for domestic violence to have occurred, legally at least, two separate assaults have to have taken place on a cohabiting sexual partner. It’s hard to believe really. Or is it?

When Erika was 54, her partner systematically abused her and finally beat her to death. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time. A month before she was killed, her partner had broken her ribs and threatened her with a knife. The police were called. Proceedings were initiated, but he was still there, at home, when he killed her.

Anita was 32 and pregnant when her partner abused her, knocked her unconscious, and buried her.

Zsanett was 30 when her partner – previously convicted of sexual violence and on parole – strangled her. Her 8-year-old son tried to defend his mother with a knife. He also called the police.

Marko was only 8 when his father stabbed him to death and then committed suicide. According to the news, he wanted to take revenge on his partner, the child’s mother.

Given the EU standard for a 24/7 helpline for people experiencing such violence, NANE’s 22 hours a week seems paltry – but it’s all this country has. They have neither the funding nor the capacity to do the state’s job for them.

Each year, NANE puts out a call for new volunteers. The annual intake is 15; they usually get 3-4 times that number applying with only 4 or 5 staying active after this emotionally taxing process. As I said (and it’s worth repeating) most of the core staff of 12 have personal experience of violence against women; they come from different backgrounds and represent different age groups as it is important for NANE that their volunteers (both activists and helpline operators) represent the community they support.

The training begins for those selected in March each year. Every Saturday for eight weeks, volunteers are trained in issues related to gender-based violence – in this case, intimate partner violence against women – such as the inherent social norms, how violence affects children, and how it can lead to or result from prostitution and human trafficking.

Everyone who works or volunteers with NANE has to undergo this basic training, which is adapted to the needs of each new generation. Once the eight weeks are up, volunteers can become activists or helpline operators. If the latter, they train for another 18 months, at first listening in on calls, then answering calls under supervision, before finally working on their own. ‘It’s important for the operator to know her limits, to recognise where her knowledge ends and when to refer the client to other services’, explained Szalay, citing Patent (Hungarian Women’s Legal Aid Trust) as an example of one of their collaborative partners.

In addition to the core staff of 12 (only two of whom are full-time), NANE has two part-time paid operators, a roster of 30 activists, and a three-person supervisory board. With core funding from international foundations, they’re competing with myriad other NGOs for private funding. The more funds they have, the more services they can provide. Unusually, perhaps, NANE is particular about who they accept money from. ‘We are liked and trusted’, says Szalay. ‘We have very strict standards and we have said no to donors who do not reflect those standards.’

Currently, the helpline operates Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday between 6 and 10 pm, on Tuesday between 8 am and noon, and on Wednesday between noon and 2 pm. They have English-speaking operators too and provide services to refugees and other non-Hungarians living in the country.

Institutional betrayal is alive and well in Hungary, feeding on ignorance and denial. In addition to the physical and psychological damage NANE’s clients suffer, they also meet a wall of disbelief. Sadly, the outdated beliefs that women were asking for it, that they were somehow to blame, that their shortcomings drove their abuser to do what he did – they’re still there.

In addition to the helpline, NANE runs self-help groups, youth prevention workshops, and training courses for professionals and institutions. A big coup this year is the publication, in Hungarian, of Lundy Bancroft’s book When Dad Hurts Mom. On 25 November, to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, NANE begins 16 days of action to raise awareness of intimate partner violence against women. Culminating on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, this window in time has been used across the world since 1991 to raise awareness and share information about the phenomenon of violence against women, and to express solidarity with those who have suffered…and died.

Part of this is the Silent Witness March.

Born in 1990 in the USA, the Silent Witness Initiative soon spread to different countries, remembering the stories of women who died in the previous 12 months at the hands of their abuser or as a result of the abuse. Life-sized silhouettes of women each carry a story of their life and the abuse that ended it. The goal is to highlight the need for change given that domestic violence impacts one in four women in their lifetime. If not you, then look closely at those around you.

In a previous life, I wrote an editorial supporting an organisation doing similar work in Alaska. In it, I talked, from experience, about the unseen damage of emotional and psychological abuse (and there’s also social abuse, financial and economic abuse, technological abuse, spiritual abuse, stalking, and harassment).

The outward manifestations of black eyes, broken bones, and bruises are tangible traumas that society recognises as intrinsically bad. But what of the crushed spirits, the broken minds, the punctured psyches?

After it published, I was approached by a random stranger in the post office. He knew of me. He introduced himself and told me he’d been surprised to read of my experience. Because I seemed so strong. And in his world, strong women didn’t allow themselves to be abused.

We can never truly know or even understand why some women choose to stay with their abusers. For whatever reason, it should NEVER be because they feel they have no choice, because they have nowhere to turn. As a society, that’s the very least we can do – give them a choice and support them in that choice.

If I’m on your Christmas list this year, please don’t buy me anything. Give that money to NANE instead. Someone needs to be there to pick up that phone when the next woman reaches out for help.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 November 2023

 

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