In the valley of fear

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

In Monterrey, north of Mexico City, women demonstrate against domestic violence and globalisation. - OMAR TORRES/AFP

In Monterrey, north of Mexico City, women demonstrate against domestic violence and globalisation. - OMAR TORRES/AFP

JULIA RIOS is a petite brunette. Born in Brazil, she qualified as a microbiologist and it was in Rio de Janeiro, near her parents' home, that she first met her husband, a Swiss architect. The publication in 2000 of her book Le Piege (The Trap) gave rise to shock and consternation in Switzerland, a country that sees itself as one of the most democratic and socially advanced in the world. In the book, she told it all - savage beatings, repeated marital rape, sequestration, financial deprivation - and took the lid off the double standards that underlie Swiss society.

"I decided to write the book after a judge ruled in favour of my husband saying my injuries were self-inflicted. My lawyer said to me later, `had you been blue-eyed and blonde-haired, if you spoke French with a Swiss instead of a Brazilian accent and if your name had been European, not Latin American, the outcome might have been different'. I wanted to warn other women, explain to them that as a victim of violence, one need not feel guilty, need not feel ashamed. That women are not the cause of what they endure. Also, that we do not and must not put up with inhumane treatment. What violent partners reserve for us is not love, it is a hunger for power disguised as love, jealousy," she told Frontline in an exclusive interview at a Geneva hotel. "I also wrote the book as a form of therapy. It helped me free myself of my husband and the terrible memories of our life together."

It is only now, in retrospect, Julia Rios says, that she realises the violence started long before her husband Bradley began hitting and abusing her. "He was extremely possessive and with time his jealousy became worse. He would spy on me, follow me to work, he would intimidate my friends. I became a virtual prisoner. He would confiscate my money, dole out an allowance. He listened to my phone calls, opened my letters. Why did I put up with it? Why did I lie to my parents, pretend everything was all right? Because I was brought up with the idea that one married for good and that a woman's place was next to her man. I was three months pregnant when I left him forever. I was frightened his beatings would damage my child. The daughter I was carrying gave me strength."

Says Elizabeth Rod-Grange: "Despite its apparent modernity ours is a very conservative society. Women won the vote very late. We are a discreet, non-demonstrative people and a public washing of linen is frowned upon. It was only in 1997, when a scientifically conducted study showed that 20 per cent of Swiss women suffered from domestic violence that the taboo was broken. After that it has been an uphill task persuading legislators to make laws protecting women. Since so many women love their violent partners, they feel guilty accusing them. We have noticed that a large percentage of victims - as many as 75 per cent - withdraw their complaints once the husband or boyfriend has apologised. The new law makes it mandatory for the state to pursue the offender, even if the victim has withdrawn her complaint. In the city of Geneva alone, last year over 1,000 complaints were registered."

Leaving a violent man is often a long-drawn-out and traumatic process. Many women feel that with love they will be able to pacify the violent urges of their husbands. But the reverse is usually the case.

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