by Foteini Svarna
I am shocked to see my good friend – an interior designer – with a nasty bruise on her face. “My husband is very violent these days” she whispers, looking toward her shoes. “Since he lost his job, he swears at me and slaps me. I am afraid. I feel humiliated and depressed. I feel guilty.” My friend lives with her husband in Athens, the capital of Greece, where I assumed they enjoyed a happy family life.
The economic downturn in Greece has left my friend and her husband unemployed and has added a crisis to their household: domestic violence. I have since discovered that the violence in my friend’s home is not unique to her, but has been a growing trend throughout the country since 2009 when the financial crisis started. According to family and mental health counselors, there has been a substantial increase in the number of women who use help lines and shelter services.
In an interview, Dimitrios Tsoukalis, a licensed psychologist tells me “Greeks have passed through various psychological stages since the financial crisis started. First, disbelief. Second, frustration built up due to constant reductions in payments and increases in taxes and expenditures. When frustration reached a certain point, tolerance declined and the Greek movement of Aganaktismenoi (“frustrated”) appeared. Greeks began to direct their anger outward and toward politicians on whom they put total blame for their sufferings.”
While Greece historically has had a very low suicide rate, it has been on the rise since 2009. “On average, in the last four years, 2 to 3 people commit suicide each day in Greece,” Tsoukalis tells me. “Every hospital and public service for mental health has to deal with long waiting lists of people who request to see psychiatrists and psychologists to relieve the psychological and psychiatric problems which have multiplied by the current financial crisis.” He concludes, “Quite often, in such a situation, some people tend to avoid responsibility for their actions and to displace their anger from themselves to their partner.”
Ms. Vasso Kollia, Secretary General for Gender Equality, reports to parliament that the domestic violence hotline, SOS 15900, received 12,500 calls and 100 emails between March 2011 and November 2013 – 79 percent were for family violence, 1 percent reported sexual abuse, 1 percent were reports of rape and 12 percent were regarding other cases of violence not necessarily in the family environment.
The Greek Police report that when the economy began to collapse in 2009 they observed an alarming increase in cases of domestic violence. In comparison with previous years, domestic violence was up 53.9 percent in 2011 and 22.2 percent in 2012. Ten women were murdered by an intimate partner in 2011, five in 2012, and eight in 2013.
Domestic violence is a classless problem that knows no age, religion, or location. It can appear in any family regardless of cultural or socioeconomic background. However, some researchers argue, domestic violence may be found more often among unemployed and poor people. When a man is unemployed, they reason, he may feel useless because he regards himself as unable to meet his social role as “breadwinner.” Consequently, he develops psychological problems which may exacerbate domestic violence – a phenomenon observed in Greece during the recent financial crisis.
Domestic violence can be many forms of intimidation or violence – physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, sexual or financial – carried out by a partner. As Tsoukalis tells me, “in an abusing relationship the cycle of give and take of love is disrupted or totally replaced by hatred as seen in bursts of violence with the purpose of hurting the other emotionally or physically.”
Quite often an abused woman feels like everything she does is wrong. According to Tsoukalis, “She may blame herself and feel guilty, trapped, humiliated, hopeless and helpless, frightened and powerless, confused and shocked. She may suffer from stress disorders, anxiety attacks, low self-esteem, anger, depression, and may even attempt to commit suicide.”
Tsoukalis’ suggests “When you feel that your partner has abused you psychologically or physically, even once, always consult a specialized helpline or a psychologist.” When my friend was abused she had to first admit to herself that she lived in a toxic relationship and then to decide she would no longer put up with that abusive behavior. The Greek police recommend avoiding any confrontation with the abuser. Break the silence and talk to someone you trust about what is happening. The police point out that physical assault is a crime. Seek help from women’s groups, family help centers, social service organizations, or doctors.
Statistics show that men who have abused their partners in the past are highly likely to abuse again. The day my friend confided her ordeal to me I wondered in what way I could help her. Today, months later, I have learned that when we suspect one of our friends is being abused we should approach her politely and ask if there is anything she needs. At first, she may feel ashamed and embarrassed to talk, but she will soon realize there are people around who are willing to help.
Now, my friend lives a happy life away from her abusive ex-husband. Her case, and the case of many in Greece, demonstrates a strong association between the financial crisis and domestic abuse. As unemployment rates climb to a higher level, the Greek police and help lines receive more calls from battered women. High levels of economic stress can fuel anger and violence and result in domestic violence. We must arm ourselves psychologically to cope with any financial difficulty which may cross the path of our life and be aware that domestic abuse thrives in silence; if we want to break its cycle we must speak up.
These final remarks from Tsoukalis leave me hopeful: “Many survivors become able not only to overcome their trauma with the help of a trusted, loving adult or a caring professional, but they can also thrive, become stronger, independent and most importantly, they can help many others who experience the trauma of abuse.”