Till death do us part… | Lara Dimitrijevic

A recent EU survey on domestic violence points towards a soft white underbelly of crime directed specifically at women. Lawyer and women’s rights campaigner Lara Dimitrijevic outlines the reality behind the statistics

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
31 March 2014, 9:11am
Lawyer and women's rights campaigner Lara Dimitrijevic (Photo: Ray Attard)
Lawyer and women's rights campaigner Lara Dimitrijevic (Photo: Ray Attard)
EU reports and surveys may be useful in determining the nature and scale of any given phenomenon; but very often the realities of the situation will be veiled by a barrage of nameless and faceless numbers and statistics.

Even shorn of any anecdotal detail, these numbers can in themselves be disconcerting. A recent EU-wide survey about domestic violence suggests that 16% of Maltese women said they had experienced physical violence, sexual violence or both by a current or former partner since the age of 15.

In the light of other studies, the incidence of violence targeting women appears to be even higher. A spokesman for the Ministry of Civil Rights recently indicated that the percentage of women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence since they were 15 may be as high as 22% - almost a quarter of all Maltese women.

If you add non-physically violent forms of abuse – for instance, stalking or verbal harassment - the numbers grow considerably higher. A recent study by the EU’s agency for fundamental rights, FRA, observes that: “Women in Austria are most likely to indicate that the most serious case of stalking came to the attention of the police, by the victim or somebody else reporting it, or by the police coming to know about it some other way. Some 40 % of victims of stalking in Austria indicate so, followed by 35 % of victims of stalking in Malta and Slovenia, and 34 % of victims in the United Kingdom.”

These statistics do not take into consideration cases which are not reported or investigated by the police.

Another worrying revelation concerns widespread ignorance of the laws that protect women from domestic violence. “28 % of women in Estonia, Malta and Finland, and almost every fourth woman in Greece (24 %), Latvia (23%), the United Kingdom (23%) and Bulgaria, Spain and the Netherlands (each 22 %) indicate that they do not know if there are any specific laws or political initiatives for protecting women in cases of domestic violence in their country of residence.”

Disturbing as they may appear, these revelations come as no surprise to those involved in the campaign against violence on women. Lara Dimitrijevic, a family lawyer and founder of the Women’s Rights Foundation, argues that surveys such as the FRA report are all concomitant with her own experiences representing victims in court.

“Often, when confronted by a bad case of domestic violence, I say to myself ‘now I’ve seen it all’,” she tells me when we meet in a Ta’ Xbiex café for this interview. “But then, I always see more… another case that will be worse than the previous ones…”

And all along, she tells me, the serious cases of violence – i.e., the ones which end in grievous bodily harm, or even murder attempts – are not necessarily reflective of the much broader problem that is domestic violence.

“In terms of physical injuries I’ve seen some bad cases,” she admits when asked to describe a ‘worst-case scenario’. “But the truly awful cases involve the complete psychological breakdown of the victim. I have seen women who have been broken, their self-confidence almost completely destroyed: afraid to do anything, like answer the phone or talk to other people, in the presence of their partners, because of consistent, recurring abuse.”

Most of these cases will involve physical violence, but by no means all. One aspect of this issue that is often left out of public discussions involves what Dimitrejivic describes as ‘mind games’: intense psychological pressure aimed – like all other cases – at maximising control over the victim.

As an example she cites a case in which a husband constantly reminded his wife of their marital oath: “Remember, he kept telling her: ‘till death do we part… till death do we part…’”.

Coupled with other types of mind games, this thinly-veiled death threat drove the victim to her wits’ end. “Yet while she often reported the case, she never carried it through. She would have the courage to file the report, but then she’d always go on to drop the case…”

This in turn points towards the chilling ‘success rate’ of psychological torture as a tool with which to exert control.

“Both physical and psychological violence have terribly detrimental effects on the victims, and in cases where the two forms are both present, the situation is obviously so much worse,” Dimitrijevic adds. “Across the board, however, there is always psychological harm. Individual cases may vary in the detail, but ultimately what they all have in common is psychological damage. Some perpetrators limit themselves to verbal abuse and consistent harassment; others may take it further into physical and sexual violence. But there is lasting damage in all cases.”

But are we dealing with a phenomenon that is on the increase? Judging only by media reports one tends to get that impression. I can confirm from my own experience that cases of domestic violence have become steadily more frequent fixtures in the news pages. Is this a case of Malta regressing in terms of its treatment of women; or has it always been this way, but we’re only noticing it now?

Lara Dimitrejivic admits it is a difficult question to answer precisely. “From a media point of view there is certainly more attention being given to this issue now than ever before. But this in itself may not indicate an increase in actual incidence of domestic violence… it can just be that the media was never paid as much attention before…”

Another possibility is that this sort of crime is more frequently reported now, perhaps because of recent legal instruments that make prosecution possible.

“Let’s not forget that the Domestic Violence Act was only passed in 2006. This law made it possible for the police to take action ‘ex officio’ in cases of reported domestic violence… and with this law, it is no longer necessary for the victim herself to file a report. This may have led to a rise in reported crime.”

All the same, media coverage falls short of describing the actual extent of the problem. “Most of the cases that have been given prominence involve physical violence, and these will be prosecuted in the criminal courts, where they are usually picked up by the press, normally within 48 hours of the arrest being made…”

The details, she adds grimly, are often extreme enough to warrant the publicity. “But other cases are not so straightforward. Cases which do not involve physical violence tend to be heard before the duty magistrate; three to four months may pass between the report and the trial, which is normally a one-day hearing. Often the victim may drop the charges in the meantime… sometimes under pressure from the perpetrator, or even by family or other directions, or sometimes because of genuine forgiveness…”

These cases tend to go unreported, so even the recent interest taken by the media may have failed to take in the full picture. And even when cases do get reported in the press, it is very often in connection with a sentence that is perceived to be too lenient. Recently we have seen cases of domestic violence let off with suspended sentences… sometimes provoking angry reactions from readers who argue that this leniency betrays the fact that the law-courts do not take the issue seriously enough.

Dimitrijevic however disagrees with this assessment. “When I started out I shared the same sentiments. But now that I’ve seen the sort of cases we are dealing with, I can understand the reasoning of the law-courts. One has to always bear in mind the situation between the victim and the perpetrator. Often they will still be living under the same roof; how will a harsh sentence impact the victim’s situation in the long term? In some cases it may seriously exacerbate matters. Let’s not forget that many of the victims will have gone through severe trauma. Insisting on a harsh punishment for the offender could very easily result in more trauma. The court sees all this; it does assess the situation. It is one thing, for example, if the couple is separated and the victim is stalked by a former partner. It’s another if the couple is still living together and the victim fears for her life, or worries about repercussions on the children, or other factors we won’t know about….”

Meanwhile, we now have compelling statistical evidence that Malta’s levels of crime targeting women are considered high even by international standards. How does she account for this?

Dimitrejivic is reluctant to generalise about the local scene – reminding me that the same EU report also highlights problems in other countries that do not fit the traditional stereotype of ‘Mediterranean machismo’. But she concedes that national culture may have a bearing on the argument.

One common trend that crops up in domestic violence cases is a widespread misconception that the family environment is somehow outside legal jurisdiction when it comes to prosecuting crime. Dimitrijevic sees this as a natural extension of what she describes as an indigenous ‘tindahalx’ culture.

“There is a tendency to view what happens in the home as ‘private’, and therefore none of the authorities’ business,” she explains. “You see variations of the same theme in other areas, too, so I suppose you can talk about this as a cultural thing. It is however changing. In my experience, younger victims tend to be much more aware of their rights than older ones, and are often more assertive. But with older generations things are different…”

That is where one still encounters the view – often held by the victim herself – that the marital bond somehow gives a husband ‘ownership rights’ over his wife, and that these rights are beyond the reach of the law.

Dimitrijevic adds that this is a dangerous perception that needs to change. “For one thing it isn’t true. Domestic violence is not a private matter. If a woman needs a shelter, this can no longer be considered as a private problem. She would need social benefits, social housing and other support measures; in cases of physical violence she might have be treated at casualty or a polyclinic; if she or someone else files a police report, the police have to investigate and where necessary prosecute… all this uses up national resources, and is paid for out of our taxes. The State has a duty to provide for the vulnerable and needy. We cannot continue pretending that what happens in the marital home is none of the State’s business.”

On another level it also indicates how far we have yet to come to achieve full gender equality. “Bear in mind that Maltese women were only emancipated as recently as 1993, when the concept of ‘patria potestas’ [the Roman law that gave the husband/father plenipotentiary rights over wife and children] was finally abolished. Before that, it was not just a cultural perception that the man was the only authority of the household. It was a legal reality, too…”

At some levels, echoes of this reality can still be heard in the details of domestic violence cases. One little-known but quite widespread aspect of marital abuse involves financial coercion, which Dimitrijevic argues can be as damaging and demeaning as any other form of abuse. 

“I’ve seen cases where the wife has to tell her husband what she’ll be cooking, and he will give her the money for the shopping for only that day… to make sure that no extra money ever goes to the wife. In some cases the husband will do the shopping himself, leaving the wife with not even the choice of going out to the supermarket…”

This form of extreme control is rarely cited as an example of abuse, and existing legal definitions may not cater for the details in every case. To my mind it also seems highly indicative of pathological obsessive behaviour. At the risk of generalising I ask Lara Dimitrijevic if there is such a thing as a psychological profile of a man more likely to resort to this form of harassment… and indeed any other, including physical violence.

“It’s not easy to pin down, because individual cases are sometimes very different. But from my experience I would say that most perpetrators of domestic violence or extreme harassment tend to be highly egocentric and narcissistic individuals. It is not necessarily always the case, but you do find that many cases will involve some form of personality disorder. For instance, I had one case where the husband admitted violently abusing his wife. He expressed regret, too… but when it was suggested to him that he seek help, he denied that there was anything wrong with him. He said something along the lines of: ‘Just because I occasionally beat my wife, it doesn’t mean I have a problem.’ Don’t tell me that’s normal behaviour…” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lara Dimitrijevic has had plenty of opportunity to observe such disorders first-hand. Her Women’s Rights Foundation provides free legal advice, as well as initial free legal representation in court, to victims of domestic abuse… which often places her in the role of perceived ‘antagonist’ as far as the perpetrator is concerned. Has she ever faced harassment herself on account of her voluntary work?

“I have had cases of stalking, yes. I have received intimidating calls on my landline, and have put up with a barrage of… how can I put it?... verbal diarrhoea. But far more frequently they use another tactic. They try to befriend me. That happens very often. So more than verbal harassment, I get to put up with all the sweet-talking and charm.”

The sentence trails away to an almost inaudible sigh. “I would say that is by far the most common approach,” she resumes. “As for threats and harassment, I’d say that happens in around maybe four out of 10 cases…”

Four out of 10 cases sounds like a high percentage to me. How does she react to verbal violence?

“It makes me more determined,” she replies with a shrug. “I feel, ‘if they can this to me, just imagine what they can do to their victims’… it gives me, and my colleagues at the foundation, courage to carry on.”