It happens in the living room or in the bedroom, sometimes at family gatherings and birthday parties. Women in Germany are particularly at risk in places where it is assumed they should feel safest. According to statistics, every five minutes a woman is threatened, beaten, stalked, put under psychological pressure, sexually coerced or raped. And this trend is on the increase, according to the latest figures from the German Federal Criminal Office. The perpetrators are usually husbands, domestic partners or male family members aged between 30 and 39.
Just the tip of the iceberg
The number of victims of partnership violence or domestic violence has risen from more than 121,000 in 2013 to almost 140,000 in 2017. What is particularly shocking is the fact that in 2017, a woman was killed by her current or former partner every two to three days.
"But the problem is definitely bigger than the figures show," Dominic Schreiner, spokesperson for the crime victims' aid organization, Weißer Ring (White Ring), told DW. According to Schreiner, women are generally at greater risk of becoming victims of domestic violence than other violent crimes such as general bodily injury or robbery.
According to authorities, there is a high number of unreported cases. "A maximum of 20 percent of those affected actually seek help, so you have to assume that there are far more victims," Schreiner explains. Katarina Barley, Germany's justice minister and former minister for family and women's affairs, stated on German television channel ARD that the high numbers of unreported cases are due to the fact that violence against women was still very much associated with shame, and "that women are often persuaded that they themselves are to blame for this situation."
Perpetrators in the home environment
Women are particularly reluctant to turn to victim protection groups or authorities with their problems if the perpetrator is part of their immediate environment. "That's why it is so important to make this issue public and let these women know that they are not alone," Barley explained. This Sunday, when the United Nations once again draws attention to this issue by holding the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the focus in Germany will be on domestic abuse.
On November 25, the UN will also launch its "16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence" campaign, which runs every year until Human Rights Day on 10 December. During these 16 days, events and activities will take place worldwide and buildings and landmarks will be illuminated in orange, including Deutsche Welle's building in Bonn. The color orange symbolizes a future free of violence. This year's motto is "Leave no one behind."
Millions of euros to stop violence
Ahead of this event, the German government has already presented new plans to tackle violence against women. Last Tuesday in Berlin, Minister for Family Affairs Franziska Giffey presented the "2017 Evaluation of domestic violence crime statistics" and announced that €35 million ($39.6 million) would be invested in an action plan to combat violence. She also called for more counseling centers, more women's shelters and stricter legal regulations.
Women who are exposed to violence can turn to organizations such as the "Weißer Ring" or the "Violence against Women" helpline run by the Federal Office for Family Affairs and Civil Society Affairs, which offers anonymous initial support, 24/7, in 17 languages. Callers come from all levels of education and income, all nationalities and religions.
"We are contacted by women of all ages, and by women both with and without a migration background," says Petra Söchting, head of the helpline. "We observe the same phenomenon that we see everywhere else: Violence against women can affect any woman."
Encouraged by the #MeToo campaign
In the last year alone, her organization recorded 38,000 requests for counseling. Sixty percent of the calls were about domestic violence. There are always cases, Söchting says, "that are also exceptional for the counselors, cases that still affect them long after the call." The number of calls has been increasing for years. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Söchting traces this back to her organization's growing reputation and campaigns such as the #MeToo debate. This has helped "to bring the issue of violence against women into the public eye and remove taboos." According to Söchting, such campaigns have shown how commonplace violence against women is. "I think this makes it easier for those affected to come forward."
Experts largely agree that it is still possible to tweak the mechanisms for protecting women. Justice Minister Barley has said that at least some improvements in criminal law have been achieved in recent years. "These days, one can hardly imagine that until about 20 years ago, rape within a marriage was not a criminal offence. We have now introduced the principle of 'no means no' into the law governing sexual offences." However, Barley believes that criminal proceedings should not be so difficult for women. "We know that many women do not report abuse because they would have to testify so often," which is a tormenting process. Barley's suggestion is a single hearing, recorded to video, which could be used repeatedly.
The danger of traditional gender roles
Traditional gender roles in Germany are seen as a further central point that needs adjustment. "The high level of violence against women that we are witnessing here is a manifestation of the fact that there is still inequality between men and women," says Söchting. Equal participation of women in all matters of societal concern has not been achieved yet, she argues.
Dominic Schreiner of the aid organization "Weißer Ring" even describes there being a social imprint that "still assigns, to the man of the house, the role of a kind of ruler within his own four walls." According to Schreiner, this increases the danger that a man might exercise his power by force under certain circumstances. So, is Germany a macho country? Schreiner's revealing assessment: "Perhaps Germany is not as modern as it may seem when it comes to understanding roles and traditional role cliches."