Domestic violence is a serious and insidious social issue that concerns anyone, regardless of gender or social status. It takes several forms, including physical, emotional, verbal, spiritual, sexual, economic, or a combination of the above. Due to the fact that it occurs behind closed doors, it is often completely invisible to society. This makes it difficult to assess how many families are actually involved.
What we do know is that domestic violence causes the death of one woman every week and one child every month in Hungary. According to a survey conducted by the Hungarian feminist organization NANE, one in every five women has experienced abuse from her partner during her lifetime, and there are currently over 200,000 women living in abusive relationships. This number is probably much higher since many people do not recognize the non-physical forms of violence, which often precede physical or sexual violence.
The problem of domestic violence is not unique to Hungary. According to statistics from UN Women, most European countries face similar problems, with the general trend being that one in five women will be affected by domestic violence in their lifetime. The differences lie in the effectiveness with which countries tackle this problem. In countries where gender equality is better achieved and men are more involved in the household and child-rearing responsabilities, women have more opportunities to build careers and are more likely to leave abusive relationships because they are less vulnerable.
The effectiveness of the justice system also plays a crucial role. If the system can protect victims effectively, they will have confidence in the legal process, thus preventing escalation in a timely manner. While there may not be major differences in the proportion of victims, the figures for deaths are much lower in Western European countries. For instance, in the UK, with a population of 67 million, approximately 80 women die every year from intimate partner violence, whereas in Germany, with 80 million people, experts estimate an average of three cases per week. This comparison highlights the ineffectiveness of addressing domestic violence in Hungary, where one woman is killed by her partner every week in a population of 10 million.
The Hungarian judicial system is unable to protect the victims. To mention a few common problems: a recurring phenomenon is that the police are called in vain and told they cannot do anything until there is blood. This attitude hinders the protection of the victim, as the abuser often knows how and where to inflict harm without leaving visible marks, and by the time blood is spilled, it is often too late.
Moreover, the problem is much more complex than physical abuse itself; it involves the systematic exercise of power over the victim. It is common for the victim to be questioned in the presence of the perpetrator, which creates fear and inhibits the victim from reporting the truth for fear of reprisals. Another typical mistake is the failure of the police to inform the victim that an incriminating statement is necessary for prosecution to be brought against the perpetrator. And if proceedings are brought against the perpetrator, they are usually followed by years of litigation, imposing an immense emotional and financial burden on the victim. Furthermore, the court often imposes disproportionately lenient sentences that do not provide real protection for the victim.
Over the past few years, a number of cases have become nationally known, primarily because of the unimaginable brutality and cruelty inflicted upon the victims. One of the most well-known cases is that of the butcher in Darnozseli.
Judith had been abused by her husband for years and had repeatedly sought help from the police, but the justice system failed to provide meaningful protection. Her husband, a qualified butcher, had a separate room in their house for meat processing. Despite their ongoing divorce proceedings, when the court placed their younger son in the father’s custody, Judith moved back in with him to remain close to her child. A few days later, he killed her, dismembered her body, and chopped it up. The man was acquitted twice and was sentenced to only seven years in the second instance for assault causing death. It was not until October 2020, more than six years after the murder, that the court finally ruled the man guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced him to 21 years in prison.
This example quickly shows how slow the justice system is when it comes to domestic violence and how often it tends to make wrong decisions, leaving victims vulnerable.
What Are Social Norms And Why Are They Important?
Norms are common rules for social coexistence against which the appropriateness of behavior is assessed. Failure to comply with them is a serious disadvantage for the individual. No society exists without norms, but social norms are not necessarily carved in stone. Public discourse, legal practices, politics, and the media have the potential to shape these norms and influence generally accepted behavior in certain situation. Therefore, these outlets have a strong influence in creating and establishing norms.
As far as domestic violence in Hungary is concerned, as I mentioned earlier, the legal system fails to provide real protection for victims, which sends a message that the victim is alone and cannot expect help. It leaves victims feeling vulnerable and frightened, while perpetrators are given the impression that they can act without facing real consequences. The inertia of the justice system also undermines society’s trust, as the perception that the police and the courts will not take meaningful action reduces motivation to act. The lack of hope for a positive outcome (punishing the abuser and safeguarding the victim) discourages individuals from intervening and risks potential conflicts with perpetrators.
Domestic violence is a significant social problem that affects a large scale of Hungarians, but it remains hidden from society and is often tabooed. There is no doubt that its representation in the media can play a crucial role. Journalism, as the “fourth branch of power,” carries a special responsibility in shaping social perceptions of domestic violence and, in the long term, initiating active efforts against it. After all, the media has the potential to draw society’s attention to the problem itself, expose flaws in the system, sensitize society to the plight of victims, explain available options for victims, and inform the public about actions that can be taken to support victims who cannot find protection through the justice system. Therefore, the media could create a social immune system that can help and support victims.
Hungarian Journalism And Domestic Violence
Instead of addressing the systemic problem, Hungarian journalism itself becomes part of the system and exacerbates the issue of domestic violence through its narratives, inaccuracies, and language.
Headlines on online news portals like “He killed his lover out of jealousy” contribute to the structural problem by approaching violence from the perpetrator’s perspective. This is highly problematic because it implies that the murder has a reason or an explanation, with the worst case being that the victim provoked it. In reality, aggression is unacceptable, and such narratives justify the perpetrator’s behavior. Another example is “She was so drunk that she was raped,” which perpetuates a damaging victim-blaming narrative. The victim is never responsible for the aggression; it is the choice of the perpetrator to commit rape.
In the case of “He had sexual relations with the 13-year-old girl,” it is important to note that in Hungary, it is illegal for an adult to have sexual intercourse with a child under 14. Regardless of the girl’s consent, it constitutes rape and not a consensual sexual relationship. Misconceptions like these create the false perception that the perpetrator is not solely responsible for the act of violence. It should be clear that a child cannot make such a decision, and the adult has abused their power.
The language used in Hungarian journalism is another serious issue. A striking example is the term szerelemféltés in the Hungarian language, which means “overprotection for love” and is used as a motif for murder based on jealousy. It is common for Hungarian journalism to romanticize violence and conflate aggression with love. This is highly problematic because it creates the false image that aggression is inherent in love and that true passionate love is necessarily violent.
It is important to recognize that these mistakes are not limited to a few newspapers but are prevalent throughout Hungarian journalism. Regardless of whether the portal is right-wing or left-wing, pro- or anti-government, the majority of them regularly use problematic language and approach domestic violence from an incorrect narrative. Therefore, the problem is systematic from this perspective as well.
The Nature of Violence
Domestic violence is characterized by a specific cyclical pattern. In the first period, tension starts to build up with frequent fights between the parties, and the abuser resorts to verbal and emotional violence against the victim. During this period, the victim tries to avoid escalation and behaves in a way to minimize the abuser’s anger. This is followed by a period of acute abuse, which is characterized mainly by physical violence, but may also include verbal and sexual violence.
After the abuse, the perpetrator typically apologizes, marking the beginning of the courtship period. During this phase, the perpetrator tries to regain the victim’s trust and make them believe that their behavior is normal, placing blame on the victim for provoking them. This period is characterized by grand gestures, and the victim tends to believe that if they do everything right, it will stay that way forever. This is one reason why it is extremely difficult to leave these relationships.
Another reason is that the victim is, with good reason, very afraid of the perpetrator’s revenge and that he will act even more brutally against them if they try to leave. Another complicating factor is that the perpetrator usually separates the victim from friends and family, making the victim feel that she cannot do anything and cannot cope without the perpetrator. Therefore, by the time the victim considers leaving their partner, they have often lost all other human connections that could provide support. However, it may also be that the manipulation has been so successful that the victim does not even consider that they could live without the perpetrator.
The promotion of the perpetrator’s narrative, journalistic inaccuracies, and the romanticization of violence contribute to and perpetuate the harmful narrative surrounding domestic violence in Hungarian society. The Hungarian media consistently normalizes the damaging and inaccurate belief that love is violent and that the victim is responsible for the abuse. On the one hand, it deprives victims of social solidarity, and on the other hand, it uses the narrative of the perpetrator and deprives the victim of the chance to face reality and to get out of the relationship. As a result, victims and victim protection lose a crucial ally in the Hungarian public.