The Hungarian government has (rightly) taken a lot of heat for backsliding on democracy as the ruling party Fidesz attempts to finish what it sees as an anti-Communist (and anti-left) revolution. By now, most of us have read something about the changes to the media law, attempts to stack the judiciary, and re-nationalizing various businesses. Yet I, for one, had not heard anything about the government’s despicable attempts to bury an issue as crucial as domestic violence.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal‘s “Emerging Europe” blog reported that parliamentary leaders considered the topic so crucial that they scheduled a discussion for 2am about a possible law to criminalize domestic violence – apparently a common tactic for covering up certain issues that the powers-that-be would rather fly under the radar. All of that despite the success of civil society groups in drumming up around 100,000 signatures to force the issue onto the public agenda. And despite an estimated 70 women being killed each year by their partners in Hungary (population less than 10 million) versus, for example, around 150 in Germany (population 83 million).

According to the blog:

Women’s groups in the country say it’s a sign that lawmakers want to avoid visible debate on the issue. When minority green party LMP proposed holding discussions during the day, House Speaker Laszlo Kover said that the issue wasn’t weighty enough to warrant more attention.

The Hungarian parliament’s move actually shouldn’t be that surprising when one hears some of the opinions that were voiced during the 90-minute debate (if one can find them since cameras weren’t around and only a handful of reporters stayed around that late at night).

According to historian Eva S. Balogh’s excellent “Hungarian Spectrum” blog, a Fidesz member of parliament had his own particular explanation for the existence of domestic violence:

One of the loudest voices in the debate was István Varga, a lawyer in civilian life who boasts owning a 10,000-volume library. The learned member of parliament opined: “The most important calling for women and ladies, especially for young ladies, is to give birth. It is obvious that if everybody  gave birth to two, three or four children, a gift to the fatherland, everybody would be happy. After that task is over, every woman can fulfill herself and may work at different jobs.” And if that weren’t enough, Varga proposed that “if  three or four or five children were born, members of the family would respect each other more and then the question of violence within the family wouldn’t even come up.”

According to another Fidesz lawmaker, one reason for domestic violence is that “a mistaken school system resulted in an increase in women’s ego in an inappropriate sense.” Well, that wasn’t the actual wording, but it’s the gist of “egy elhibázott oktatási rendszer egy rossz értelemben vett női megmutatást hozott be a családba.” Don’t try to become anything on your own.

Balogh said the resulting outrage led to some Facebook-organized demonstrations (the organizers wrote: “It is intolerable that the opinion can be heard in parliament that domestic violence can be solved if women are not emancipated.”), and the circulation of a picture of Varga on Hungarian television and this biting caption: “I didn’t want to hit her but she hadn’t given birth to enough children.”

The true extent of the problem, and the reason why some many activists are calling for a change in the criminal code, was on full display in a recent verdict that the European Court of Human Rights handed down this past spring. In Kalucza v. Hungary, the court found against the state and awarded a Hungarian woman more than €5,000, agreeing the authorities had not acted sufficiently to protect her from domestic abuse.

The judgment describes an ugly relationship that rapidly disintegrated into mutual violence, numerous calls to the police, and a long succession of civil and criminal proceedings. Even so, Kalucza and her partner continued to live in the same apartment (he owned half, bought from her former husband, and she couldn’t get a court to kick him out). Overall, the court noted 13 medical reports over the course of five years that recorded contusions on various part of the woman’s body, including her head and face.

In its ruling, the court found that the Hungarian authorities had failed in their obligation “to take measures to protect Ms Kalucza from her former partner’s violent behaviour in her home.”

… the Court was struck that it had taken the authorities more than one-and-half years to decide on Ms Kalucza’s first request for a restraining order, despite the fact that the fundamental reason behind such a measure was to provide immediate or at least prompt protection to victims of violence. Nor had sufficient reasons been given for dismissing the restraining order requests, the courts relying simply on the fact that both parties were involved in the assaults.

The court also couldn’t understand why the civil cases about the flat couldn’t have been handled faster (they had been ongoing since 2007 and 2008) even though settling those cases would “in theory, eradicate the root of the problem, namely the unwanted residence … in the flat.”

So back to Varga and his truly outrageous comments. At least some Fidesz leaders later distanced themselves and the party from their colleague’s comments. However, with the party’s apparent lack of even a middling interest in the domestic violence issue, it’s hard not to agree with Balogh’s's suggestion that at least part of the motivation was simply that “the party cannot afford to alienate women voters.” How sad that is.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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