A woman murdered every month: is this Greece’s moment of reckoning on femicide?

When a woman reported domestic violence in her building in the Athens suburb of Dafni in July, it took 25 minutes for the police to arrive. All the neighbours could hear Anisa’s husband abusing her but the police officers did not bother to get out of the patrol car. “They just rolled down their car windows and left,” Anisa’s neighbour angrily wrote on Facebook that evening. “No stress, guys. Television only cares about the bodies. So when he kills her, I’ll tell a television channel to call you.”

Less than three weeks later, Anisa was dead, murdered by her husband. Neither can be named in full as the case has yet to reach trial. In a statement to police, the perpetrator described how he was overcome with jealousy after Anisa allegedly cheated on him. “I took the knife with my right hand and entered her room. She was sleeping, and I rushed to her and lay on her, stabbing her with the knife in her neck,” he said. He later retracted his claim that Anisa was asleep when he killed her.

“He finally killed her. That’s all I have to say,” their neighbour wrote on Facebook after the murder. At the time, Anisa’s murder was the sixth femicide in Greecethis year. Since then, at least another six women across the country have been murdered by their partners or ex-partners.

Feminist groups estimate that at least one woman in Greece dies at the hands of a man each month, often their partner or ex-partner. Of the 11 victims of femicide so far this year, two had previously tried to report their attacker for domestic violence before they were murdered, but none of the men had been charged or convicted. A third woman in the coastal city of Volos was in the process of trying to obtain a restraining order when she was stabbed to death by her ex-husband.

The spate of femicides throughout this year have shone a spotlight on police failings when it comes to combatting violence against women, including accusations from victims’ families that statements from officials acted as a blueprint for would-be attackers on how to kill with impunity.

Lawyers and campaigners also point to clauses in the Greek penal code that they say enable a culture of impunity around violence against women. These allow reduced sentences for those accused of homicide if they were “provoked” or the crime was committed in a rage – often referred to as a “crime of passion” – or if the accused displayed good behaviour before the incident and showed guilt afterwards. They say adding femicide as a motive to the penal code would act as a vital counterweight, denying perpetrators the opportunity to present themselves in court as innocent men suddenly overcome by emotion that justified murder.

Ioanna Panagopoulou, a lawyer who represents the families of several victims of femicide, says: “No one in my entire career has ever taken full responsibility, confessing they planned the murder exactly as it happened. They try to make excuses and say it was a crime of passion or something else so they get a lesser sentence.”

Panagopoulou is a forceful presence. She flips through a legal dictionary, a wall covered in religious icons behind her, as she describes how broadly courts can interpret clauses in the penal code that allow for reduced sentences for femicide. “If the person cooperates with the police afterwards, that’s considered good behaviour,” she says, adding that she receives calls about domestic violence every single day. “Most days I receive two or three,” she says, spreading her hands wide to show the scope of the problem.

Families of victims say that lax punishment for femicide is just one of several ways in which the Greek state fails women, including ignoring them when they report domestic violence. Campaigners say this can prove deadly, as police inaction emboldens perpetrators and can result in femicide. Data from the Hellenic police, the national force, shows a steady rise in domestic violence reports over the past decade.

“There is a culture of violence towards women,” says Anna Razou, a forensic doctor at an Athens hospital who assesses survivors of domestic violence. Razou says she has also seen a rise in complaints, including an unusual spike this year during Greece’s annual holiday month of August, which is normally a quiet period. She views this as a sign that Greek women feel increasingly compelled to report violence in the wake of Greece’s #MeToo movement, which began earlier this year.

“Everyone’s talking about how important it is to stop the violence, but we can’t do that just by saying it’s bad. We need laws, and to be strict,” says Razou. She says few women she meets press charges against their abuser, and those who do often retract their claims, swayed by a culture that tells women that male violence is excusable, as well as a recently passed law that can force women to share custody of their children with their abusers.

Data from the Greek justice ministry shows consistently low rates of prosecutions and convictions under a 2006 law criminalising domestic violence. An average of just 3,566 men a year have been prosecuted for domestic violence since 2016. Conviction rates are also low: on average, just 23% of men prosecuted were convicted, and the vast majority received suspended sentences.

An activist holds a placard reading ‘the law forces women into silence’ at a protest in May over a controversial law giving divorced fathers equal time with their children. Rights groups say it ignores victims of domestic violence and puts women and children at risk.
An activist outside the Greek parliament in Athens with a sign saying ‘the law forces women into silence.’ Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty

The percentage of men serving prison time after domestic violence convictions also fell from a high of 16.4% in 2016 to as low as 6% in 2019 even as convictions for domestic violence hit a five-year peak. It is this environment, campaigners say, that discourages women from reporting domestic violence at all.

Anisa’s relatives believe that night in mid-July was the turning point. They say the lack of police intervention allowed the perpetrator to believe he could kill with impunity. The two officers who failed to get out of their car and investigate have since been suspended.

“The murder was planned. He knew exactly what he was doing,” says Anisa’s cousin Christina, who wanted to keep her surname private. Christina, an elegant 22-year-old, tries to contain her anger, folding her delicately manicured hands as she speaks. “Then he washed his hands and cleaned himself up. He was very thorough. Then he went to the police. He did exactly what Balaskas said,” she says, referring to a senior member of Greece’s police union.

Stavros Balaskas made headlines after the murder of the British-born Caroline Crouch by her husband, Charalambos “Babis” Anagnostopoulos, in June. Anagnostopoulos confessed following a month-long manhunt after initially blaming the murder on a gang of robbers, and was arrested at Crouch’s memorial service. The incident captured the Greek news cycle, so much so that most people refer to Crouch just by her first name, a byword for violence against women.

Caroline Crouch, 20, whose husband has confessed to her murder.
Caroline Crouch, 20, whose husband has confessed to her murder. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

For more than five weeks, Anagnostopoulos, a flight instructor, had maintained the crime was the result of a robbery, in which he and Crouch had been tied up and gagged, until he admitted he had fabricated the story to conceal the killing.

In a television interview later that month, Balaskas claimed that if Anagnostopoulos had confessed immediately, he may have received a reduced sentence. “It was an unfortunate event, committed in anger, and he lost it and went crazy. If he had just called the police, he would have gotten four years in prison,” he said. “If the moment this man killed Caroline, he called [the police] and said, ‘I had a fight with my wife and I killed her,’ he would have had a different kind of treatment.”

A number of femicides that occurred after Balaskas’s statement involved perpetrators immediately telling the police what they had done. Victims’ families believe his statements emboldened would-be perpetrators, enabling the idea that accused men can sway courts by displaying behaviour that match the clauses in the penal code. “Don’t advise future murderers and make their lives easier,” says Christina.

Balaskas claimed the quote was taken out of context, and shrugged off any suggestion that, unintentionally or otherwise, his statement acted as a guide for violent men. “I have a name as a tough guy,” he said. “I have a reputation for this. Some people want to use this against me, but people who know me understand.” He said combating the rise in domestic violence in Greece required women to speak up.

Other victims’ families say Balakas’s statement epitomises a macho culture in the Hellenic police that often fails to take domestic violence seriously, producing gaps in policing that enable femicide. “There’s no option to talk – that’s why women don’t talk. Our society is patriarchal,” says Sofia Karasachinidou, who, with her sister, Maria, is mourning their mother, who was shot by their father earlier this year.

The two women say their father terrorised their family since they were young, but his brutal attacks on their mother increased after their divorce in 2017, sometimes even taking place publicly.

The sisters estimate that their mother reported their father to the police at least eight times after the divorce, including once in 2018 when their father filed a counter-claim that led to the pair being held in the same cell overnight. The police, they say, then just advised their mother to avoid their father, in their Athens suburb of Agia Varvara, but offered no other solutions.

In June, their father shot their mother in the shoulder and head, fatally wounding her. When Sofia arrived at the police cordon around the crime scene, she struggled to convince officers their father was responsible. “I told the police, ‘My mother called so many times. How could you let this happen?’” says Sofia. “They do nothing for domestic violence. They don’t care.”

Their father turned himself in the day after the shooting and will stand trial for homicide as well as illegal possession of a firearm. The sisters fear he will receive a lenient sentence. “We are both afraid for our lives,” says Maria.

The Hellenic police are attempting to change how they handle domestic violence after Greece signed the Istanbul convention on violence against women two years ago. This includes a new department to monitor how the police process domestic violence complaints as well as setting up a network of 72 police stations across the country where at least one or two officers are trained in how to treat survivors of abuse.

Yet Sofia Kyriacou, an officer in the new police department, denies that the Hellenic police have historically had problems aiding survivors of domestic violence. “Sometimes it’s useful to criticise and focus on problems, but this means you will not focus on things going well,” she says. “Many police officers do their best and more within their responsibilities to help these victims.”

Feminist activists paint a different picture, saying that violence against women has reached such epidemic proportions in Greece that they are left with no other option than to intervene. Traditionally at odds with a police force that Amnesty International accused of flouting international human rights law in its alleged abuse of protesters and minorities, activists said they are now working with the police to change attitudes towards domestic violence and make it easier for women to report these crimes. The feminist group Diotima says they have trained at least 150 police officers on how to identify abuse, how to listen to survivors and what the law proscribes.

“Gender-based violence is one end of a continuum. The other end is femicide,” says Anna Vouyioukas of Diotima. “It’s become obvious in Greece. Domestic violence can lead to femicide, and that you cannot change because it means death.”

Christina agrees. “The state does nothing for women,” she says, shaking her head. “So many femicides and they do nothing.”

In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org 

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/nov/10/a-woman-murdered-every-month-greeces-moment-of-reckoning-on-femicide


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