The Violence That We Refuse to Acknowledge

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Violence against women exists in all social classes, nations, family and intimate relationships. Lithuanian social scientist and activist Reda Jureliavičiūtė explains why it often remains invisible and how we as a society can recognise the scope of the problem and find effective solutions.

Alienation, exclusion from social activities, being stuck in violent relationships, expensive and exhausting court proceedings, anxiety, trauma, sleep disorders, inability to work, loss of income and housing, sexually transmitted diseases, addiction, pregnancy complications, short or long-term physical or psychological disabilities, various physical injuries, depression, death (suicide or homicide). Everyone can use their own perspective to rate the severity of these effects on a personal and social level. However, this is still a very incomplete list of consequences that, according to the FRA’s (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) 2019 Fundamental Rights Survey, affect 1 in 3 women in Europe: this is the number of women who have experienced or will experience some form of violence. It should be emphasised that violence against men also exists, but around 9 out of 10 victims of domestic violence are women. According to UNOD-statistics from the same year, about 7 women are killed every day by their intimate partners or other family members. According to data published in 2014 by the FRA, 3,7 million adult and teenage women over the age of 15 living in the 28 EU Member States have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.

Violence comes in many forms, two of them will be discussed in this essay: violence by proxy and sexual violence, both of which still receive insufficient or no attention whatsoever nowadays. In Lithuania, for example, the term “violence by proxy” still has no Lithuanian equivalent and is not even used by organisations and institutions dealing with the problem of violence. While the figures on sexual violence are kept paradoxically low, the statistics remain optimistic, since a large part of the crimes stay unreported and the inadequacy or non-existence of support systems is barely questioned.

What is violence by proxy?

Violence by proxy is a form of violence that theoretically does not exist in Lithuania; in practice, however, it is as real as any other. Although the phenomenon itself is not new, it has not been properly researched until recently. It was first reported in 2012 by Argentinian clinical psychologist Sonia Vaccaro. Considered by some to be the cruelest form of gender-based violence, it involves acts of violence committed against a partner via one or more third parties, often the couple’s child(ren). It is a double crime with at least two possible victims.

In Spain, where the issue of violence is openly discussed, 40 children have been murdered in such circumstances since 2013, 37 of them by their biological fathers. All of these crimes are considered cases of proxy violence: they aim to psychologically destroy the children’s mothers. According to the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Lithuania, 970 children were victims of domestic violence in 2020. 3 of them were murdered, 4 were seriously injured. However, the reasons and circumstances of these cases remain unknown, so one can only guess how many of these cases could be violence by proxy. Not all crimes end in the death of children: sometimes the torture, manipulation and control of a partner through children (or sometimes other important, loved or close people or pets) continues for a long time.

It is not enough to talk about violence by proxy in the general context of violence, as each form of violence has its own ‘face’, consequences and expression. To prevent crime and trauma, we need to recognise them and know what steps to take.

According to a 2021 study commissioned by the Lithuanian Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, 71% of men and 59% of women in Lithuania believe that women usually provoke violence against themselves. Also, 68% of men and 60% of women think that when women accuse men of violence, they tend to “lay it on thick”. Such victim blaming is also seen in cases of sexual violence.

Sexual violence on women in Lithuania

In March 2020, a sexual crime was committed in a bar in Lithuania: a young man, unknown to the victim, raped a young woman by physical force. A police officer decided to comment on the crime on social media, writing that in order to avoid such situations, women should “not drink so much and wriggle that much”. The public reaction was unambiguous: the officer’s comment was considered a violation of the Code of Police Officers of Lithuania, and he was officially reprimanded. In 2019, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute published the a handbook for officers “Communication with Victims”, with clear definitions of what such communication should and should not entail: “Since victims of sexual crimes very often experience strong feelings of shame and self-blame, when communicating with them, one must never use questions or statements that could be understood as victim blaming. One must always follow the principle that “no circumstances can ever justify sexual violence“. I am quite sure that the officer in question will never post anything like that again on social media – but he will probably continue to work with victims of sexual violence.

2021 survey “Gender Stereotypes in Schools” showed that 12% of girls and 25% of boys agree that “sometimes, it is the girl’s fault if a boy is violent towards her”. 20% of girls and 39% of boys agree that “sometimes, girls provoke harassment against themselves by their looks and (or) behaviour”. 3% of girls and 10% of boys agree that “when a girl says ‘no’ to sexual relations, it may mean ‘maybe’ or ‘yes’”.

In 2021, 252 sexual crimes were reported in Lithuania, of which 31 were domestic. To understand the seriousness of this problem, it is important to note that sexual violence starts at a very early age. Although such crimes are punished as child abuse, it is important to see them as part of a more common and broader problem. According to RAINN, the largest US-based organisation dealing with sexual violence, 34% of all cases of sexual violence against minors are committed against children under the age of 12. It is therefore important to add the number of sexually abused minors to the above figures. According to the Ministry of the Interior, in 2020, 63 cases of rape against children and 104 cases of molestation were reported in Lithuania.

Furthermore, the scope of sexual crimes is generally much wider. According to various data, 60-80% of victims do not report such violence, and the most common reasons for this silence are the possibility of revenge and the reluctance to accuse a close person, as well as downplaying the seriousness of the situation or thinking that the police would not investigate, that such cases are either not important or purely personal, or that the police would not help in any way. Although sexual violence against children has its own specific causes, related to genetics, epigenetics, changes in the brain, etc., it is important to understand that when it comes to sexual violence in general, all causes are related and intertwined with models of thought that are embedded in our societies, our level of trust in institutions and our perception of our environment. Stereotypes create certain guidelines that lead young people to certain reactions, evaluations and decisions; and the public position of institutions encourages us to either trust or fear them.

Sadly, the media often echo this victim-blaming tone and position. Here are some absurd headlines from the Lithuanian media that trivialise the experience of violence: “Libido Rises Not Only in Spring”; “Girl Found Out She Was Raped Only After Watching Internet Video”; “In Lazdijai, Girl Unhappy with Party Accused Two Men of Rape: Truth Revealed in Scandalous Phone Conversations”; “Raped Woman Found Guilty”. Not only are such headlines sensationalist, but they also show that their authors are completely unaware of the gravity of such situations.

In 2020, the media reported: “Polish Court Reverses Verdict: 14-Year-Old Was Not Raped Because She Didn’t Shout”. The legitimisation of sexual crimes is inconceivable without a furiously resisting victim. Victims of sexual violence are also portrayed this way on the big screen, leading to a distorted understanding of what a victim should look or behave like. It is often assumed that if a woman, a girl, a man or a boy does not resist, it means that they clearly consent to the act. This has been challenged by Swedish researchers who found that around 70% of victims of sexual violence experience involuntary freezing (tonic immobility), with 48% experiencing a very severe version. Freezing is a normal and appropriate response to a stressful or frightening situation, as is active resistance. Such rigid beliefs about how a person should respond to sexual violence are further evidence of the lack of education on such sensitive issues – gaps in knowledge are quickly filled by myth and hearsay.

How to overcome old stereotypes and apathy towards gender-based violence?

Today it could be said that the world is slowly waking up to this reality and understanding things that were previously ignored or misrepresented. Attitudes are being formed and information is being absorbed deep into minds. But even if the approximate statistics are ringing the alarm bells, flashing the red lights and horrifying us, why has this phenomenon not yet been universally condemned and why is so little being done to change the situation?

Let us go back a few decades. Monika Kareniauskaitė is a researcher on the phenomenon of violence against women in Soviet Lithuania. According to her, there was a legal basis for criminalising sexual violence in the Soviet era, but crime statistics are not a good reflection of the reality of the time. In the late Soviet era, crime statistics were not published because it did not serve the illusion that crime was becoming much rarer on the road to communism. Neither sexual nor violent crime statistics were realistic or accurate, and the practice of talking women out of reporting crimes or simply not reporting crimes was widespread. Moreover, domestic violence was seen as a family matter and ‘airing one’s dirty laundry in public’ was frowned upon. The imagined ideal Soviet citizen was an organised, undemanding worker for the common good who ‘knew his place’. Therefore, when it comes to sexual crimes, attention is often shifted to the victim: she may have wanted some attention, she may have “exaggerated”, etc. The shifting of responsibility to the victim is linked to the attitude that all crime begins when one loses the path of the ideal Soviet citizen.

The illusion of a low crime rate fostered a sense of security, while in reality, even given the widespread tendency not to register such crimes, the numbers were not that low: in 1966 104 cases were reported; in 1970 81 cases; in 1983 141; in 1984 152.

Although mental inertia is gradually being challenged, it is natural that the apathy towards violent crime that has been fostered for many years is still felt today. It is high time to fight this. Although the reform of support mechanisms for victims of violence has been going on for about 20 years, Lithuania still has a long way to go to ensure adequate support. Our society is still full of stereotypes and there is a general lack of research and information. Stigmatisation, isolation and the violence itself are the main reasons why it is not easy to see the real consequences of this phenomenon. It is also not easy to estimate the real figures. However, it is clear that the extent and distribution of violence must be important not only for its victims, but also for society as a whole.

Right now, it is important to focus on research that will allow us to understand the true scope of the problem, but it is equally important to discover new relations and correlations and then, with a complete picture, to find more and more effective solutions. It is also very important to teach and educate the professionals working on this issue, to find and adopt the best practices, and to contribute to the creation of an educated, reflective, mature and safe society.

Reda Jureliavičiūtė is a Lithuanian social scientist, head of the association “Lygiai” and co-founder of the organisation “Ribologija”. Lygiai promotes debate on sexual rights, gender equality and feminism. Ribologija’s vision is to live in a world without sexual violence, where the boundaries and physical integrity of every human being are respected.

Originally published in the 5th issue of Lūžis, the left-wing magazine in Lithuania, launched 2020 by DEMOS Institute of Critical Thought and supported by transform! europe.