Domestic violence occurs everywhere. It occurs in the United States; it occurs in Europe. It occurs in Africa, Asia, and South America. Wherever there are people, there is domestic violence. Domestic violence is constituted by the perpetration of violence in a household or family setting, by a partner or family member.[1] According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “victims and survivors often experience more than one form of violence (i.e. physical, sexual, psychological, economic).”[1]

Recent research has shown that levels of domestic abuse abroad are higher than those in the U.S. According to the CDC, Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) affects more than 12 million people each year.[2] Between 1994 and 2010, approximately 80% of victims of IPV were female.[2] The statistic we’ll use to compare the U.S. and foreign is this: 23.3% of women in the United States (approximately 1 in 4) have reported being victim to violence.[2]

The figure below represents research done by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights through the Violence Against Women survey administered in 2012. It shows, by EU Member State, the percentage of women who admitted they had experienced violence by a partner or non-partner since the age of 15 years. Countries with the highest percentages of violence against women were Scandinavian, not Eastern European. However, Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and other Balkan states reported violence percentages between 30% and 40%, numbers which are much higher than U.S. averages.[3] Notably, research by the UNFPA identifies sources of reporting bias among victims of domestic violence in Eastern Europe. The UNFPA cites a “lack of trust in state-run institutions” and institutional incompetence between police, judges, and health professionals to properly report acts of violence as impetus of reporting bias among victims in Eastern Europe, specifically.[1] Survivors of domestic violence in this region are often subject to victim-blaming or imprisonment upon reporting their experiences. Reporting bias helps to explain the percentage differential between Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and suggests that the Eastern European percentage of women who have experienced domestic violence is compromised in the data, and is much greater in reality. But what is driving these instances of violence against women in Eastern Europe? Our studies strongly point to one factor: common, patriarchal, societal frameworks.


© FRA - All Rights Reserved - FRA gender-based violence against women survey dataset, 2012 | Yes | All : All
© FRA – All Rights Reserved – FRA gender-based violence against women survey dataset, 2012 | Yes | All : All


We saw a prime example of abuse in Agnieszka Holland’s film, A Woman Alone.[6] The film chronicles the life of Irena, a single woman and mother living in utter destitution in a newly post-communist Poland. As a consequence of her inferiority (due to social class and sex), throughout her entire life, Irena was subjected to physical and verbal abuse. From the context of the movie, we know that she was hit by both her father, ex-husband, and lover; she was physically restrained by a Communist Party member; she was verbally abused by her elderly aunt. Two scenes illustrate her horrendous experiences with physical abuse, in particular.

One night her ex-lover returns to see their son. Upon his arrival, regardless of the presence of another man, Irena feels incredibly threatened. The fear she exhibits is jarring. His presence threatens her safety. She fears he will hit her and it will not be the first time. Her body language and facial expressions indicate helplessness and learned submission. In another heated scene, her current lover, Jacek, is angered and strikes her hard in the face. Immediately afterwards, she simply sits in silence. She did not cry. She did not fight back. This reaction indicated that she had adopted a learned response to such occurrences from her excessive experience with abuse. Irena recognizes abuse as an inherent property of her life.[7] Physical domination of women due to their perceived inferiority to men has rooted itself deeply into the Eastern European mindset. Eastern European women, just like Irena, are perpetually the casualties of domestic violence. 

The physical and verbal abuse of women appears, throughout history, as a ubiquitous characteristic of Eastern European culture. It is the result of a patriarchal framework that has underlined the entirety of Eastern European society and culture for centuries.[9] This patriarchal framework breeds attitudes and social norms of acceptance of domestic violence and abuse. These attitudes and social norms support stereotypical, female gender roles. Women are seen as the inferior sex. Women are solely keepers of the hearth and home, bearers of children, and caretakers of family. They are slave to the domestic, but also the domestic authority. To their husbands, women are the “formidable opponent” of the domestic realm, an opponent which must be stifled and oppressed by all means.[4] Due to patriarchal attitudes and social norms, domestic violence is perceived as normal and an effective strategy to assert authority and resolve conflict. If a wife argues with her husband, acts with excessive independence, fails to maintain the home, or neglects her domestic duties abuse seems justified. It is regarded as a method of communicating that a woman has neither a place nor authority outside the home and her duties therein. 

One piece of literary evidence is the Domostroi, or “Law of Home.”[5] The Domostroi is a sixteenth century text that was distributed to all Russian households. It provided thorough instructions for men on how to physically abuse their wives.[4]  According to the UNFPA, Eastern Europe is currently seeing a reemergence of conservatism regarding stereotyped gender norms and roles of women. This has heavily contributed to the reinforcement of strict gender roles and the perpetuity of IPV within the domestic realm.[1]

One current and poignant example of this patriarchal framework to February of 2015 in Poland. At this time, Poland’s lawmakers narrowly approved the 2011 Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention requires the government of any ratified country to penalize domestic violence, aid victims, and teach children about tolerance and equal rights between sexes in society.[8] Polish critics of the convention were reported as interpreting its intentions as challenging the traditional, established gender roles of men and women of Catholic Poland.[8] Conservative lawmakers feared that this convention threatened the historical, patriarchal framework the nation has embodied for centuries. By extension, they feared that some of the convention’s regulations would undermine Poland’s traditional roles of motherhood in the domestic sphere.[8] Although the convention was passed, and then ratified in 2015, it holds that there is a large constituency pushing to keep women vulnerable and inferior in their prescribed gender roles as domestic laborer and mother. The UNFPA posits that it is these “prevailing cultural and patriarchal attitudes” which “manifest in failing to protect victims and survivors and prevent domestic violence from occurring.”[1]

The products of patriarchal societies, Eastern European women have learned not to take up arms when a man asserts his dominance, whether his actions are overtly abusive or not.[7] For these women it is not the bruises or sores that remain, but the emotional burden created by these experiences. The social and psychological consequences of their experiences with domestic violence are something that these women carry with them their entire lives.[7]

Works Cited

[1] “Combatting Violence against Women and Girls in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.” (n.d.): n. pag. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). (2015). 9 Dec. 2016.

[2] “Intimate Partner Violence: Consequences.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 03 Mar. (2015). Web. 9 Dec. 2016.

[3] Violence against Women: An EU-wide Survey: Main Results. Vienna, Austria: FRA, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. (2014). Web.

[4] Pouncy, Carolyn Johnston. “The Domostroi.” Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. (1994).

[5] du Plessix Gray, Francine. Soviet women: Walking the tightrope. Anchor. (1991). Pg 117.

[6] Kobieta Samotna. Dir. Agnieszka Holland. Perf. Maria Chwalibóg, Boguslaw Linda. (1987). DVD.

[7] Graff, A. Untitled. Untitled Blog Post. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. (2016). Web.

[8] Press, Associated. “Poland OKs Law against Domestic Violence after Fiery Debate.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 06 Feb. (2015). Web. 09 Dec. 2016.

[9] Graff, A. Untitled. Untitled Midterm Paper. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. (2016).

Anna Graff

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