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Gabriela Manea - Domestic violence: what justice looks like behind closed doors

Domestic violence is one of the issues that we hardly stop in our country. We pay no attention to it, we treat cases superficially and hastily, we blame victims for the choices they, forced by circumstances, make. Gabriela Manea spoke to People of Justice '23 about what each of us can do to change this state of affairs at least a little.

Author: Gabriela Manea

Imagine a little girl of just 10 who is excited to have just started 3rd grade. She's at home in her room full of posters, notebooks with cartoon characters and crayons. 

Though she has many reasons to be happy, every night she hides behind her bedroom door, cries and listens in fear as one of the people she loves most in this world is demeaned, beaten to a pulp, insulted and controlled like a puppet by the other man she loves perhaps just as much. 

She sits with the blanket crumpled between his fingers and hears from the other room, angrily:

"All your life you've been a nobody, lucky I made you human. 

Can't you see how stupid you are? What do you want these kids to learn from you? 

What are you doing out with your girlfriends, you think you're a star? Who's raising these kids?

See what you did? You made me beat you up and you scared this kid with your crap.

You call the police, so what? You think anyone believes you?"

I'm a lawyer and I've talked to women who have been burned by their own husbands or had their noses bitten off to the point of bleeding, trampled, punched in the stomach and bruised on each side of the face. I saw pictures in criminal records of women who have lost their teeth because they didn't warm up the food well enough and I read about children who ended up to the emergency room because of violent beatings by a parent, by the man who was supposed offer them protection, safety and, above all, love.

It happened that a large part of the victims I've met to give up their claim for the issuance a protection order. Sometimes I shake their hands and ask them why they want to quit, and in a hesitant tone or, other times, with tears in their eyes, they tell me they're giving up for the children, for the family. That's what the lady who was burned by her husband and received repeatead death threaths told me: “I have three children, where to go with them and what should I live on? I'm afraid.”

But what does things even more difficult is that, in Romania, a good part of the people in the justice system are not specialized to address such cases.

The reason is a as simple as it can be: because no one is is teaching us, not even at university nor in internships, whether we're lawyers, judges, prosecutors or even police officers. There is no kind of ABC for hearing victims of domestic violence, even though we, as a society, are champions at identifying reasons to justify the fact that it is normal to assault your partner.

In my job, I took part in countless trials that involved issuing a protection order.

I was stunned when I heard for the first time from a judge the follwing: “But why did you stay with him for 20 years, if he beat you so badly?” Even more painful was that this question was asked in a tone that inspired a great deal of distrust and it was questioning the credibility of the victim.

On another occasion, I witnessed the settlement of a claim filed by an elderly lady against her own son. It wasn't the first time she asked the court for help for being physically assaulted, but every time she ended up withdrawing her request because she was afraid her own son would end up on the streets. I empathised a lot with this woman, because I understood the contradictory position she was in.

But the judge warned her firmly that, in the event a future withdrawal, she would be fined. All I could think of was that next time, this woman is not gonna call the court for help.

But what do we do if tomorrow we see at the 5pm news edition that this lady was murdered because she didn't have the guts to call 911? Who's bringing her back? Victims of domestic violence have a lot of reasons not to leave. If all of us here today in this room, make an effort, we can identify these reasons without any problem.

But how do we react when the people who are supposed to do justice in situations like this forget these reasons?

Fortunately, we have witnessed situations where... the victim was heard separately from the perpetrator, in the courtroom, about the reasons why she wants to give up the issuing of a protection order. It was among the few times that I noticed empathy, patience and genuine openness to dialogue from a judge in a case of this kind.

In another case, my heart warmed when the judge said to the victim, who had decided to grant a second chance with the aggressor, that she could call 911, that she had the support of the court and of the police and that she can always formulate a new claim if she is in danger.

This is how justice should sound and it should start with our capacity, as people, to make efforts to understand the victim's perspective and to ensure for them a safe space, free from prejudice.

How do we do this?

First, we don't add up reasons not to leave to the list of victims and we listen actively. This way, we get to know what reality looks like: a confused world, where she no longer understands what love looks like, and where she believes the abuser is right when he tells her that she's the most incapable person in the world.

Second, we don't say, maybe out of frustration: “it's her fault for not leaving, she does it herself”. But we turn our attention mostly on the person who created this hell, namely the aggressor. Just as it is not the fault of an ordinary man that he's mugged on the street, in the same way, neither is it the victim's fault for being offended and beaten up on a daily basis by a man who... seemed to have good intentions at the beginning of the relationship.

You know, this whole thing with victim blaming I've heard it also from lawyers and cops. Sort of: “she deserves it if she failed to leave until now”. There are times when even I, as a lawyer, have a tendency to desensitize myself and fall prey these preconceptions. But then I remember it's my responsibility, as a defender of rights, to correct myself and remind myself that justice is served, first and foremost, for the people. And not to make a crooked justice, it is our obligation to make sure that the victims seek help to the appropriate bodies before it is too late. In these cases, even a wrong word said to the victim can make the situation worse or, conversely, a cooperative and understanding attitude can change her destiny.

I know that, same as the 10-year-old girl at the beginning of the speech, there are many more children in Romania, who see their mothers in pools of blood and who have nowhere else to ask for help, because there are not enough judges who listen without prejudice or policemen who to take such cases seriously.

But I also know that we have the power together to make sure that there will be fewer and fewer little girls who are forced to savudice or policemen to take seriously cases like this.e their own mother, and the first step is... empathy.

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