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Germany

Domestic violence: 'I don't want to be a victim'

A camera team interviewing Katja Schneidt once remarked that she didn't look sad enough to be a victim. She now sees speaking up about domestic violence in Germany as a struggle against the perpetrators - and clichés.

Some 53 kilometers (33 miles) separate Katja Schneidt from her former life, which ultimately almost killed her. The 46-year-old lives in a small town in the western state of Hesse. Recalling the first time she was attacked by her then-boyfriend, she says, "I can still remember it exactly. I sat in the waiting room at the hospital and thought 'My God, what sort of stereotype is this?' My Turkish boyfriend had beaten me so badly I had to go to hospital."

It is a stereotype that triggers a knee-jerk reaction in many people. When a woman is abused, it raises questions of blame and arouses resentments and also a search for reasons behind such an attack. When thinking about the reactions from her friends and family at the time, she says, "I still get goose-bumps." She had to listen to people saying that it was her fault because her partner was a foreigner. But, Schneidt stresses, violence against women is "definitely" a problem in all ethnic groups.

The standard excuse: 'I fell down the stairs'

The couple had only just moved in together when she went to visit her mother in the neighboring town. The visit took longer that planned and on the way home she was caught in a traffic jam. Her partner was furious when she arrived home late. He then attacked her, she recalls, "with a brutality that I didn't believe was possible."

Ashamed to tell the truth to the doctor who later examined her in hospital, she answered with the common excuse, "I fell down the stairs." The doctor was skeptical, she recalls, telling her that "it must have been the most spectacular fall he had encountered in his 30 years of practice." She stuck to her lie and went home with broken ribs and freshly-stitched wounds. "I could hardly breathe," she remembers. "That was 26 years ago."

Criminal statistics

One in four women in Germany has been a victim of domestic violence. For the first time, Germany's national investigative police force, the BKA, has analysed the number of reported cases of domestic violence. In compiling the data they found that in 2015 there were more than 104,000 cases where a woman experienced violence within a relationship. This is a third of all female victims of violent crimes.

According to Holger Münch, head of the BKA, "Violence against women has many faces." In gathering statistics, the BKA has found that in 2015 there were 16,200 cases where threats were made against women, almost 66,000 cases where minor injury occurred and more than 11,400 cases of serious injury. What's more, 331 women were killed by their partner. But Münch goes on to say that these statistics are based on reported cases, in an area of crime where "there is a significant number of unknowns. Victims of domestic violence often experience their situation as hopeless and don't come forward."

There's never a good time to leave

Katja Schneidt's partner followed her to the hospital and waited outside, crying, before apologizing. But she wanted to end the relationship. He slept on the sofa and she looked for a new apartment. But it was the time directly after German reunification and it was difficult to find affordable housing.

In making the decision to leave, women usually have to work out how they will finance this step, as well as their future life. Fleeing an abusive relationship often means giving up an established financial arrangement. If they are unable to be placed in a women's refuge, then they usually have to rent their own apartment. This is often financed by social welfare, but affordable flats are almost as difficult to find as spots in refuges.

After fleeing, women are often left without any financial resources. They are advised not to withdraw money from a joint account. This is because there is a high risk of being discovered by a revengeful partner who is able to read the woman's whereabouts on the withdrawal slips. This fear of revenge leaves many women in a position where they decide to stay. As Schneidt describes, women tell themselves:  "It's not a good time to leave right now. It would be better to stay with my partner."

This is what also happened to Katja Schneidt. Weeks passed and normal life resumed. It was as if it had all happened to someone else. But then came the next violent attack. Schneidt remembers, "He tried to kill me twice. The third time he almost succeeded."

An observant colleague saved her life

"I owe my life to someone who noticed what was going on," explains Schneidt. A work colleague had started to suspect Katja was being abused. One evening she worked late. Her partner, who could not tolerate lateness, came to fetch her from work. He then attacked her in the driveway of their residential building with a paving stone. She regained consciousness back inside the apartment when he continued beating her.

After she did not appear at work, her colleague stopped by. Schneidt was in bed, barely able to get up. "I was more dead than alive," she says. Her boyfriend lied, claiming that she was visiting her sick mother. Her colleague politely thanked him and went out and called the police.

"She had seen my car out the back," explains Schneidt. For safety reasons, she no longer has any contact to the woman who saved her life. Schneidt escaped - first to her mother, then on to Munich and over the years throughout Germany. She was given police protection.

Shame brings silence

Schneidt has written several books about her experiences of abuse. She understands that even today such openness about this topic is not common in German society. Victims of domestic violence not only struggle with beatings and threats, but also with shame, self-doubt and trauma.

Germany's minister for families and women's affairs, Manuela Schwesig, has called for "this taboo to be broken down." Politically engaged on this problem, she has openly said that domestic violence is not a private issue: "It is a criminal act - and must be prosecuted accordingly."

Three years ago a national emergency hotline was established which is run by the Federal Assembly of Women's Counseling and Rape Crisis Centers (BVV). They also coordinate a German-wide counselling service. A spokeswoman for the association, Katharina Göpner, says that the demand for counseling has risen.

This must become a public issue

There is growing awareness in society of violence against women, Göpner says, but many still attach a sense of shame to the victims. "There is a big problem with people having fixed ideas about how a supposed victim should look. This has a strong influence over whether women have the courage to come forward and talk about the violence they have experienced."

The internet has made it easier for women seeking help to contact emergency services or women's refuges. On the other hand, they must also be more careful that their abusers can't locate their whereabouts via their cell-phones. Some counseling services websites therefore offer anonymous access.

Katja Schneidt also helps women who have been through similar experiences. They are able to secretly contact her through social networks. She has organized escapes for many women and advises them to go public with their experiences: "Silence just protects the perpetrators."

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