Maria Apostolaki, coordinator of legal services of the Diotima Center, presents the main institutional obstacles to the protection of survivors, in her presentation entitled “After the decision to file a complaint, what? Gaps and challenges in the protection of survivors of gender-based violence” on the occasion of her participation in the debate on “Gender-based and domestic violence – Institutional and scientific implications” in the context of the International Women’s Day conference.
The police are biased
In recent years, where the phenomenon is much more visible, we all understand better that gender-based violence, whether it is chronic abuse or symptomatic, is not easily revealed by a survivor, and is even more difficult to report.
And when they reach the point of complaining, unfortunately even today, despite the improvement that has been noted in recent years, we observe inappropriate behavior by several police agencies, either due to a lack of knowledge of the legal framework or due to the reproduction of gender stereotypes.
From the narratives of women – assisted by the Diotima Center, we are able to know and can confirm that there have been quite a few cases in which women have been discouraged from reporting crimes that are being prosecuted ex officio, whether they are crimes under Law 350 2006 on domestic violence, or other sexual crimes standardized in the Penal Code: “If you sue, he will also sue you for false accusation. You may both get arrested.
You will suffer. Why bother? Why don’t you make up with him?”, are phrases heard by women who were abused and “dared” to report their abuser to the authorities, especially their husband/partner, current or former.
The urge to preserve family cohesion, at all costs, has driven many women who were abused time and time again, back home.
Some of them were eventually murdered. Also, in the cases of attempting to report sexual acts, many survivors encounter discouragement and reticence, attitudes that may even result in their secondary victimization. While the procedure to be followed is unquestionably unclear.
Ex officio offenses
The offenses of Law 3500/2006 on domestic violence are prosecuted ex officio, which means that any report to the Authorities regarding them constitutes a lawsuit.
From the moment the survivor herself or any third party reports an incident of abuse to the police, a criminal case must be filed and the offenses must be investigated to prosecute the perpetrator.
If it is about acts that were carried out within the time frame of the “flagrante delicto”, what is defined in the Code of Criminal Procedure should be followed, i.e. the immediate search for the perpetrator with the aim of arresting him and bringing him to trial.
At the same time, the forensic examination of the patient should be ordered and carried out as soon as possible.
And of course, alongside all of the above, the survivor should receive full and thorough information about all the possibilities she has in terms of asserting her legal rights, but also about the structures she can turn to for legal support, psychological empowerment, and more general assistance (e.g. medical care, housing, etc.).
The briefing of the stage, after the complaint, is not optional nor is it up to the “goodness” of the police officers, instead, it is an obligation, according to the Istanbul Council Convention.
Prejudice against refugee and immigrant women
And if the natives face these kinds of difficulties, the immigrant and refugee populations who experience gender-based violence face even greater ones.
It seems that it is even more difficult for a victim, for example of domestic abuse or sexual acts, with a refugee or immigrant profile, to go to a police station and report the crime.
We have observed that even if the enormous language barrier resulting from the lack of interpreters, especially of the rarer languages, is overcome, a sufferer can face particular bias and prejudice because of her country of origin, even risk arrest and administrative detention if she does not have the required legalization documents for her stay in the country, even though, in part, this issue is regulated.
Specifically, in compliance with the Istanbul Council Convention, our legislation has been amended, and according to no. 41 of Law 3907/2011, it now reads: “The return of a foreigner is prohibited if they are a victim of domestic violence according to the provisions of law 3500/2006 and comes to file a complaint or report the incident to the competent police authorities”.
Unfortunately, these protective provisions do not apply to irregular residents in Greece immigrant or refugee women who have not yet acquired the status of an asylum seeker, are victims of sexual crimes not within a family context and would like to report them to the Police, therefore, as a result, due to fear of administrative detention and deportation they do not claim their vindication and the punishment of the perpetrators.
While the legal arsenal exists, after the incorporation of the Istanbul Council Convention into our internal legislation with Law 4531/2018 today, the vast majority of forms of gender-based violence (excluding economic violence) are reflected in Greek legislation, the available tools of the legislative framework for the correct criminal treatment of the relevant crimes are not executed.
Furthermore, it has been observed that unfortunately even today there are Judges, Prosecutors, and even Lawyers who – ignoring and not caring about the psychology of the victims – question their credibility, and characterize the incidents of domestic abuse as “misunderstandings and exaggerations”.
When it comes to crimes related to sexual freedom, many sufferers end up being secondary victims after being subjected to the pain of humiliating questions that brutally insult their personalities.
The above, in combination with low – relative to the seriousness of the offenses – penalties result in a sense of impunity for the perpetrators and a relativization of gender-based violence, with the result that many survivors of violence ultimately consider it unnecessary as well as harmful for them to take the prescribed actions and start the criminal proceedings.
Of course, we welcome with relief the interventions and the recent circular of the Prosecutor of the Supreme Court regarding the treatment of the above crimes, however, in practice it appears that the road to legal justice is not easy at all.
Nationwide Network of Structures
The Istanbul Council Convention provides for the creation and operation of Counseling Centers for Abused Women as well as Shelters for them (and their children) so that they can be empowered and removed from the abusive environment and find themselves in a safe setting.
In Greece, under the auspices of the General Secretariat of Demographic and Family Policy and Gender Equality, fourteen (14) Women’s Counselling Centers operate (in Athens, Piraeus, Heraklion, Lamia, Patras, Tripoli, Ioannina, Corfu, Komotini, Larissa, Mytilini and Hermoupoli, Thessaloniki and Kozani). Also, Counseling Centers operate in other 27 Municipalities of the country.
In addition, twenty (20) shelters (18 of the Municipalities and 2 of the National Center for Social Solidarity) are included in the Hellenic network of protection against gender-based violence.
Are these structures adequate for all the incidents that need to be managed?
The Counseling Centers provide free information and counseling services to the women who come to them, within the framework of integrated psychosocial support actions. They provide psychological support and also legal counseling services.
However, legal representation is not mentioned, which is a basic and permanent request of survivors, to take legal action (in the criminal and civil courts).
Thus, women with low incomes have to resort to the institution of the state, free, legal aid, which, however, does not always prove to be an effective solution for dealing with these types of situations.
Recently, the General Secretariat of Demographic and Family Policy and Gender Equality signed memoranda of cooperation with the Bar Associations of the Prefectures where Counseling Centers operate, at which time lists of lawyers who will undertake to provide legal services to victims of gender-based violence will be drawn up.
In this regard, the Athens Bar Association has already signed the relevant agreement and we hope that it will be implemented soon so that the existing gap can be someway filled.
First of all, it should be pointed out that women and their children are included in the shelters. If it is boys, they must be up to 12 years old.
When women with older boys seek accommodation, then either the boys themselves or the mother choose on their behalf, to stay with their father, and only the mother is accommodated, or juvenile facilities are sought for the child to go to, such as the Smile of Child.
This, as we all understand, is another factor that makes it difficult for the abused woman to remove herself from the abusive environment.
In terms of timing, as a rule, admission and accommodation can be immediate if we are talking about an extremely dangerous case. The duration of the procedure varies depending on the cooperation of the woman herself with the counselors of the Counseling Centers.
Before joining the Shelter, specific medical examinations are required. The necessary tests are chest x-ray (tuberculosis), dermatological evaluation (scabies), psychiatric evaluation, and for children medical tests, plus everything related to COVID-19.
However, at present, after the pandemic, hosting a woman who is in great danger may not be immediate. From our experience, we can say that there have been emergency cases where it was not possible to be immediately admitted to a shelter due to the absence of a covid test and medical examinations.
For irregularly residing immigrant women etc. (“without papers”) who therefore do not have AMKA or PAAUPA, the exams become very difficult.
Also, regarding drug-addicted women, or women with mental illnesses who have suffered abuse and need support, there is a big gap, as according to the Operating Regulations of the Shelters, drug-addicted people cannot be accommodated as the Shelters are not staffed with specialized staff, nor do they have the means required to support such cases of vulnerable categories.
The time frame of residence
As far as the time frame of residence is concerned, this is also predetermined. Women with their children can be accommodated for up to three (3) months, and if deemed necessary by the scientific staff of the Shelter, the duration of accommodation can be extended up to six (6) additional months but this only applies to extremely vulnerable cases, under the logic that “hospitality must be short-lived and aims to empower the woman to be able to continue her life”.
This could be true for women who have the means and ability to get on with their lives, so what they need is empowerment.
The same is not true for vulnerable and excluded cases, for unemployed women, immigrants, and refugees, for whom this period, even 9 months, is not enough, in a Greece with non-existent social benefits, and with recorded gender discrimination in accessing the labor market.
The number of shelters and beds is small
Finally, it should be noted that ultimately, as shown by a recent investigation, Greece is not fulfilling its obligation arising from the Istanbul Council Convention, regarding the number of Shelters and beds that should be available. According to the Convention, each region must have one family place per 10,000 people.
From this, it follows that based on its population, Greece should have 1,072 beds, while the General Secretariat announced that the number of beds amounts to just 400, in which women and their children must be accommodated.
It is therefore obvious that there is overcrowding, and thus the beneficiaries have to wait for availability in a shelter even in another city than the one they are in. In our experience, this waiting time cannot be determined.
And if we consider that the beneficiaries often wish to remain in a large urban center where they already live, additional stress is created for them to move away from the city where they are used to.
Trapped in an abusive environment
In summary, all the above gaps and obstacles, both in the response of the prosecuting authorities and in the rest of the management of the phenomenon by the state apparatus, unfortunately, contribute to the fact that many victims remain trapped in an abusive environment or soon return to it.
A complaint of violence alone is not the solution. Real protection and safety come only when survivors are included in specially designed and supportive frameworks to take the steps for a new life. The creation of these frameworks is what the feminist movement has always claimed and will continue to claim!