Last year, an eight-year-old girl in Vienna was rescued from the clutches of her abusive father, after her mother mustered the courage to speak up against her husband and report his heinous deeds.
When the girl was rescued - in October 2007 - by the Austrian Women's Shelter Network, a Vienna-based non-profit organization, and taken to live at a city shelter with her mother, she was in no state to talk about her ordeal. Only recently, has she begun interacting with people. After a great deal of cajoling, when the child spoke to social workers, she told them that her father had said that it was 'normal' for him to do what he was doing to her and that all fathers do this with their daughters.
Shocking as it may sound, this young girl is not alone in her misery. There are several child victims of sexual abuse in Austria. And, unfortunately, more often than not, the perpetrators are from within the family.
According to Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE), every fifth woman in Austria has suffered abuse at the hands of a close male relative at some point in her life. Sexual abuse within the confines of the family and at the hands of the patriarch or other close family members, has become a common social malaise in Austria.
It may appear that the law to address such abuse is not adequate. According to the law, it's not wrong for a 50-year-old man to have sex with an 18-year-old - legally an adult. Whether this 'sanction' justifies sexual intercourse is another question altogether. Where younger children are involved, justice is delayed, as the victims rarely come forward to expose the abusive patriarch.
Experts, however, state that the law is adequate. It is its manipulation that is undesirable. In fact, they argue that the silent acceptance of violence by victims only helps the perverts, as was seen in the recent case of Joseph Fritzl, who imprisoned and raped his daughter in a cellar for nearly a quarter-of-a-century.
"The actual law is not the problem. It is the manipulation of the law and the justice system - which is dominated by the patriarchal mindset - that is the problem. The structure of our social system remains patriarchal and we grow up believing that it is perfectly normal to be afraid of parents and that we need to always obey the authority figure within the family," says Rosa Logar, 49, Project Manager, Austrian Women's Shelter Network.
Three decades ago, Logar founded Austria's first women's shelter. She has come across many cases of child abuse and domestic violence in Europe, and believes that the crime has now become commonplace. "It starts with the family, ideally the smallest unit of democracy in society, but which has been reduced to a totalitarian prison due to the violence and abuse practiced by the patriarch," she says.
Child abuse remains a grave problem, even though governments in several European countries monitor such abuse and prosecute offenders. Austria's Ministry for Social Welfare estimates that 90 per cent of child abuse occur within families, committed either by family members or family friends.
According to Logar, sexual abuse within a family is the most hidden form of domestic violence. And there seems no end to it as long as the patriarch remains confident of a social system that empowers him with the right to abuse women and children.
Joseph Fritzl's case has been an eye-opener of sorts for people. They had until then looked the other way when they came across an abusive or overly dominating parent. Had Fritzl's neighbors, family members, friends or relatives cared to question the story he had fabricated about the mysterious disappearance of his daughter, Elizabeth, she may have been saved from his atrocities much earlier.
At the age of 18, Elisabeth, the eldest of seven children, was abducted by Fritzl and imprisoned in a dungeon below the family home for 24 years, during which she gave birth to seven children fathered by him. In 1984, Fritzl had told everyone, including his wife, Rosemarie, that Elisabeth had left home to join a cult. Nobody had dared to probe further.
In fact, Christine, one of Rosemarie's sisters, revealed that she had always been afraid of her brother-in-law and that no one in the family was allowed to question him or his decisions.
But things are probably changing now. With Fritzl is behind bars on multiple charges of rape, murder and holding his daughter hostage, people are beginning to talk.
Although the number of unreported cases is still very high, the mushrooming of numerous telephonic helplines has certainly helped victims and potential victims. To assist them in getting over their anxiety and talk about the incidents of violence they have experienced, the WSN has recently introduced a 24-hour telephonic service. Also, there has been an increase in the number of shelters for victims of violence. Austria now has 28 homes of this kind.
While the various steps taken to rehabilitate the victims are proving to be lifesavers, the issue demands systematic reform. Austrian society needs to shed its patriarchal legacy and ensure that women in the country are empowered to break their silence and confront their attackers.