LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Reports of domestic violence in Greece have soared in the last two years partly because of greater awareness about the crime, though some experts fear the crippling economic crisis could be pushing more men to violence while forcing women to stay with abusive partners.
The number of female victims in domestic violence cases reported to police increased from 1,186 in 2010 to 2,043 in 2012 – a 72 percent rise. Experts say the jump could be attributed to a 30 million euro ($40.7 mln) campaign that has helped bring the taboo subject out of the shadows.
Greece has set up a 24-hour hotline and is opening 60 counselling centres and shelters across the country with European Union funding. The helpline has received more than 12,300 calls since its launch in March 2011.
Maria Stratigaki, Greece’s former secretary general for gender equality who implemented the initiative, said the country was "30 years behind the rest of Europe" in tackling domestic abuse.
She said there was no national data on domestic violence, so it was impossible to say whether rates had increased, but she believed the crisis was probably having an impact.
"The problem is women may find it harder to leave a violent partner if they have no means to support themselves and their children. We also think that men, faced with economic problems, may become more violent, but there are no statistics," said Stratigaki, who is now a university lecturer on gender issues.
"However, we cannot say that it is only the economic crisis that makes Greek husbands violent because the structure of society is so patriarchal. It’s really unbelievably male-dominated."
One victim of domestic abuse told Thomson Reuters Foundation how her relationship became abusive shortly after she and her husband lost their jobs.
The woman, who gave only her first name Eleni, did not blame the crisis but said their financial hardship had "worked like a magnifying glass" on their problems.
Unemployment in Greece topped 27 percent in the summer with nearly two-thirds of young people out of work. Others have seen their pay slashed since the crisis began in 2008.
Eleni said she initially stayed with her husband partly because she had no income and feared ending up on the streets. She eventually left him after his blows landed her in hospital.
Despite the lack of data, there is a perception in Greece that the crisis is exacerbating domestic violence.
Yet one expert said this perception had been strongly fuelled by misleading media coverage of a small study in the summer which suggested domestic abuse - physical, sexual and psychological - had soared 47 percent in recent months.
The survey, based on a poll of callers to a helpline for sexual problems run by the Hellenic Association of Human Sexuality Research (EMAS), said one in three women had been beaten by their partner at least once in their lifetime.
But Kiki Petroulaki, president of the European Anti-Violence Network, said it was "totally misleading" to use the EMAS poll results to make generalisations about the whole population. She also said blaming domestic violence on an external factor like the crisis jeopardised efforts to tackle the root causes.
“Domestic violence is an issue of power and control,” she said, noting that the crisis might make abusers more aggressive, but it does not create abusers.
“In Greece, children are still brought up with very strong gender stereotypes. And this is why some men may feel entitled to set the rules and punish the woman whenever she is not fulfilling what he sees as her role. This is what we need to address.”
Greece introduced a law criminalising domestic violence and marital rape in 2007, but experts say the legislation is flawed and much more needs to be done to ensure the police and courts prioritise the protection of victims.
“Many, many times you hear that a woman went to the police, and the police sent her home in order not to break up the family,” Petroulaki said.
“If an abused woman reaches a police station she is already in crisis. She has needed all her courage to go there. And then they send her away! The lack of protection is a very serious issue.”
Stratigaki and Petroulaki also called for the removal of a provision in the law that encourages abused women to accept mediation instead of going to trial.
Petroulaki said this could put a woman at greater risk because it could involve her confronting her abuser while still living under the same roof.
A woman also loses all protection measures once she agrees to mediation, while no one checks whether the man honours the promises he makes to the court not to re-offend.
Still, experts believe that despite its failings, the domestic violence law is lifting the veil on a long-hidden issue.
“In the last year it seems like it has been accepted that domestic violence is a crime, and I assume the law has a lot to do with that. People talk more openly. The issue is still a bit taboo in Greece, but not as much as it used to be,” Petroulaki said.
Domestic violence is a theme at the Thomson Reuters Foundation international conference on women’s rights opening in London on Dec 3.