Katharina Wiesner looks at the “hidden epidemic” in Berlin and beyond…
A woman in Germany is killed due to domestic violence once every three days; in fact, the domestic violence rate is two percent higher in Germany than the rest of the EU. In the worst-case scenarios, domestic violence results in death, which are classed as either feminicide (or femicide)—women being killed for the simple fact of being women—or forced suicide, when the psychological weight of the man’s control over his wife or partner directly causes the woman to kill herself.
In an investigation led by the Feminicide Observation Center of Germany, it is stated that between the beginning of 2019 and the end of 2020, fourteen women were killed in Berlin, plus another nine in Brandenburg. The perpetrators were either the fathers, sons or partners of the victims, but also their exes; in a vast majority of the cases, the feminicides are caused by the husbands of the victims.
This quantitative study is based on press releases and excludes rape or beatings resulting in death. Investigation parameters include narcissism, misogyny and lack of impulse control. The most popular modus operandi is most frequently stabbing, and the second is attacks on air supply (i.e. suffocation). The settings of these heinous crimes are in a vast majority of cases, private: the household of the victim or the common households shared with the perpetrator. It is important to add that this investigation is independent.
Domestic violence results from omnipresent domination processes that, like most things, work in vicious cycles. The term vicious cycle is key here; there are often many causes, which enhance each other and create intertwined mechanisms that are difficult to change but affect every aspect of society, including its private sphere such as is the case for domestic violence.
Violent behaviour from a man towards a woman close to him is normalised, and in some environments even encouraged. Further analysis leads us to believe that domestic violence, particularly that of a sexual nature, can be linked to the idea that a woman’s body is something that can be owned by her partner, which in turn implies that it is his right to inflict pain on her as a form of control, and that it is her duty to satisfy his sexual needs (Jaspard, 2012).
The problem with domestic violence is that it is a hidden plague: the police do not know much about it because it happens beyond the realms of the public sphere, victims are scared or ashamed to report it and neighbours are unlikely to contact the police. Police admit they know least about domestic abuse compared to other crimes.
Cornelia Möhring, a Left Party member of the German parliament, asked what the number of women killed in Germany this year was and what proportion of these had fallen victim to feminicide, to which the government of Germany replied that they “had no findings in the sense of the question at the present time, however that in the police crime statistics (PKS), women were recorded as victims of homicides.” This illustrates how on a governmental scale, feminicides (and domestic violence as well, since feminicides are only the most extreme version of these) are not even being addressed as such.
That said, the Protection from Violence Law—which was passed with the slogan “wer schlägt, der geht!” (“The batterer is the one who must go!”)—has offered some protection to victims of domestic violence since 2002. And more recently, victims of domestic abuse have been able to ask for Wohnungsverweisung from the police, which means that, for a few days, the persecutor cannot enter the shared home, leaving the victim an opportunity to seek help in peace (such as the women’s shelters mentioned below).
Real pre-trial protection, however, does not exist yet. Criminal law provisions fight domestic violence the same way they condemn rape and other sexual offences, by treating them in criminal court. In 2016 a penal reform took place in Germany, conforming it to EU norms regarding sexual violence and domestic abuse. The approach is both preventive and legislative with multiple organisations offering assistance and cooperation via awareness raising campaigns.
Although Germany was one of the first to sign the Council of Europe convention to combat and prevent violence against women, and by extension, domestic violence, it has unfortunately not yet ratified it (EIGE, 2019). Overall the issue seems to be an ongoing discussion between the German States, the police and field specialists rather than something being treated with the legal urgency it clearly requires.
Epidemic + Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened pretty much all pre-existing social and economic issues, including domestic violence. Headline after headline have stated that numbers in domestic abuse cases are on the rise—except now they are even more bound to stay behind walls, which means there are less witnesses.
Pre-corona, victims of domestic abuse could often be spotted by everyday interactions with, for example, work colleagues or doctors. SPD’s Franziska Giffey stated that it was highly likely that the Corona pandemic has further exacerbated the situation, adding that it is vital to shed light on the unknown number of unreported cases, what with economic and social issues worsening stress and anxiety and potentially increasing partner violence.
Dirk Behrendt, Berlin’s new Justice Senator (previously representing the Green party in the Bundesrat), stated at a press conference that there are more victims in 2020 than there had been a year earlier; a total of 1661 domestic violence victims were reported to Charity last year throughout Germany, an eight percent increase over pre-Corona 2019.
Agents fighting for the cause against domestic violence like the Violence Protection Outpatient Clinic—part of the Charité Hospital in Mitte, supported by the Senate of Justice, Consumer Protection and Anti-Discrimination, and some Berlin Parliament MPs—are also pointing out that the added impact of the Corona crisis is absolutely devastating.
Local Support Organisations
BIG is a German initiative fighting against domestic violence here in Berlin: it stands for Berliner Initiative gegen Gewalt an Frauen or “initiative against violence against women”. The organisation states that its goal is to push society to act upon domestic violence through concrete and established action. Its intrinsic causes must be understood in order to actually tackle them, thus emphasising who the aggressors are and how to, on the one hand, alter their behaviour, and on the other, cease the violence that they cause.
BIG Prävention offers prevention work at elementary schools in Berlin. An innovative and practice-oriented concept combines pedagogical work with students, parental work and further training of teachers, thus teaching each party how to cope with these situations beforehand. Further training on the topic of “Children and Domestic Violence” is offered, as well as parents’ evenings, children’s workshops with 4th and 5th grade students, children’s consultation hours and case discussions with teachers. Multiplier training courses are held for interested educators.
As an accompanying measure, BIG Prävention makes its interactive travelling exhibition “ECHT FAIR!” available to the public. Another field of activity is to promote cooperation between schools and youth welfare services in cases of domestic violence.
Other support resources include the Ministry of Family Affairs, with a 24/7 Violence Against Women support hotline (08000 116 016) and a nationwide initiative called “Stronger than Violence” (Stärker als Gewalt), which was launched in 2019 to provide defence mechanisms to respond to psychological and physical violence, as well as raise awareness from people around in order for them to react appropriately to such situations.
During COVID, the “not safe at home?” campaign was launched with information and help available to those at risk of experiencing violence at home. The website offers nationwide support and counselling – for example, by teaching victims how to recognise different types of violence.
The Opferhilfe Moabit support both victims and witnesses, advising them to how to respond to situations of domestic violence, even months or years after a specific act took place. The organisation also offers legal support in court and have a proactive service centre for victims of crime that offer help finding a suitable specialised counselling centre.
The social welfare association Volkssolidarität takes on a different approach with an award-winning project that shows men how to resolve conflicts without violence, with counselling sessions available in Turkish and English. The specialised counselling centre works in cooperation with the project “Kinder im Blick“, which is dedicated to the effects of domestic violence on children.
Every six months, the Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband LV Berlin e.V. evaluates the quality of the service on behalf of the Senate Department for Justice, Consumer Protection and Anti-Discrimination, which is a sponsor of the project. This organization also co-created the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Täterarbeit Häusliche Gewalt, an umbrella organisation uniting institutions fighting domestic violence.
Practical Resources (what to do to report or find help for a domestic violence issue)
- Police (dial 110, if you are not in a dire emergency but wish to find out from the police how you can be helped, you can call 115 which is the Bürgertelefon Service), however this only applies to German speakers.
- Otherwise, call the help centre of the “Gewalt gegen Frauen” (“Violence against women”) organisation; they speak English, Arabic, French, Farsi/Dari, Kurdish (Kurmanchi) and Turkish. You can reach their team at 08000 116 016.
- Women’s Shelters in Berlin include Frauenprojekte Bora, Frauenselbsthilfe-berlin, Frauenhaus Cocon and Hestia.
- Hotline Support Services like BIG Hotline offer free and confidential support. Their support hotline is 030 611 03 00.
- Frauenberatung TARA can be contacted at 030 7871 8340 or via their website.
- Weisser Ring
- Caritas offer support as well as running a women’s centre in Berlin. They can be contacted by phone on 030 851 1018.
- The organization Kinder im Blick, which you can contact on 0151 14648755, offers support for children which find themselves between two parents.
- Beendet hausliche Gewalt are available via phone on 0151 14648751.
How You Can Help
For most of these organisations, you can participate by donating money or working as a volunteer. Furthermore, there are a few things you personally can do when faced with situations of domestic violence. First, offer emotional support. Listening to the victim breaks the circle of silence and helps them understand that this situation is abnormal. Indeed, victims of domestic violence are often gaslighted by their partners (a form of manipulation leading the victim to question their perceptions of reality) and need an outside person to bring back perspective.
The label “domestic violence” can be a hard pill to swallow, so it is important to bring the discussion with kindness and understanding. Thus, it’s important to identify red flags, such as bruises, but also less obvious ones such as social isolation, excessive texts or calls from the partner, or any drastic change in behaviour.
Secondly, you can help the victim by planning an escape with them – which is where the previously cited organisations play a part. You can also create a code to help them leave the situation, prepare a bag with essentials, and clearly establish where to go and who to call.
And last but not least, never blame the victim. Domestic violence can be extremely harmful in ways an outsider to the situation may not understand. It is never easy to escape these situations because the perpetrator is also a person with emotional power over the victim.
Links & Resources