Abuse reports hint at a hidden woe

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The paradox is typically Greek. In the recent rush to organize the Athens 2004 Olympics - the most challenging event in the country's recent history - three of the four top posts were held by women, including that of city mayor and Games organizing committee chief.

Although many Greek men like to point to an increasingly balanced workplace as proof that women no longer constitute the country's "weaker sex," studies show that a higher public profile has not saved Greek women from a practice still going strong behind the scenes: domestic violence.

The revelation in January that the wives of three parliament deputies and a female deputy all sought shelter from abusive husbands last year made headlines and - at least briefly - troubled the nation.

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Though scattered, such celebrity cases nevertheless serve to raise awareness of domestic violence in a country that still struggles with women's role in society.

Although long considered the real rulers of the Hellenic household, Greek women have been able to bring their skills to the workplace only in the last two generations. And acceptance is by no means absolute.

"The majority of women are still not financially independent," says Andreas Milios, head of the Greek health ministry's emergency center for social assistance. "I have friends who don't want their wives working, for fear of being harassed by colleagues."

While workplace harassment is a palpable concern in Greece, financial dependence breeds its own risks. A 2004 study by the state secretariat for equality found that 54 percent of women suffering domestic abuse are unemployed.

The study, conducted solely among women who sought help, also dispelled the popular assumption that domestic violence mainly strikes poor, ill-educated couples. In contrast to what many Greeks believe, the study found that 14 percent of victims - and 17 percent of perpetrators - are college graduates. The proportion of high-school graduates ranges from 30 to 40 percent.

Nearly 60 percent of women who participated in the survey described their financial status as moderate to good. Only 2 in 10 abusive partners were unemployed, while 38 percent were also substance abusers.

Finally, the study found that 47 percent of abused women were victimized in relationships that lasted longer than 16 years. One woman in three said the abuse did not prevent her from marrying the perpetrator.

There are few reliable estimates of the actual scope of the problem in Greek society. Experts suspect that many incidents go unreported.

"We cannot know what happens [in people's homes]," says Mr. Milios. In addition to financial dependence, fear of social exclusion and a tendency to keep family incidents private conspire to keep many women quiet.

"Even the younger generation is worried about the social stigma of leaving a relationship," says Georgia Bouri, a senior social worker at Athens' municipal equality office. "And matters are even worse in the Greek countryside."

A 2003 study on domestic violence, carried out among urban, semi-rural, and rural households by the research center for gender equality (KETHI), found that nearly 1 in 4 women knew a victim of domestic violence. But among those who knew of such abuse, only 41.3 percent said they would advise the victim to seek counseling or call the police.

When asked about their own partners, only 8.8 percent of the survey's respondents characterized them as violent. Overall, more than 13 percent said they did not consider forced sex with their partners as a particularly serious act, and over 11 percent said that domestic violence was wrong, but they did not consider it a crime.

A widespread lack of confidence in the authorities, sometimes fueled by the behavior of state officials themselves, does not encourage disclosure. In the KETHI study, women said they would be more likely to leave the home, or talk the matter over with their partner, rather than seek help. More than 10 percent said they would tell no one about their ordeal.

But Ms. Bouri hastens to add that domestic abuse is not exclusively a Greek concern. According to Amnesty International, 14,000 women were murdered in Russia in 1999 by partners or relatives. The Council of Europe estimates that domestic violence kills more European women aged 16 to 44 than cancer or traffic accidents.

"The problem exists everywhere," she says. "Sweden has a shelter for abused women in every city."

But Greek women may be less inclined than many others to seek help. The city of Athens operates a shelter for abused women seeking temporary refuge with their children. It has space for just 10 women, each of whom is permitted to stay for up to a month.

Despite limited capacity, "there's never a queue," says Bouri. In Greece, "women don't leave the home easily."

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