Huge numbers of women are in prison for murder in Romania, but there are indications that half of these convicts were victims of domestic violence and many were acting in self-defence
It is Christmas in the only women's prison in Romania.
In a textile factory inside the Targsor jail, a few miles from the Carpathian foothills, tinsel and plastic stars decorate the sewing machines and clothes racks. Here, incarcerated women stitch together uniforms for policemen and robes for judges in the hope of reducing their sentences.
In a classroom, three inmates, one convicted of murder of her boyfriend's wife, another of fraud and a third of embezzlement, dress up a Christmas tree with baubles and stars.
Behind the bars of a cell, where around 14 bunk-beds huddle in a 25-square metre space, hangs a festive wreath. Inside, a mother and daughter both guilty of drug trafficking warm themselves around a portable radiator.
Inside the courtyard of the cell dormitories, housing 600 women and with a capacity for 800, there is a wooden cross in an open plan for a new church, where only the stumps for the columns and the outline lie.
In the yard outside the prison shop, selling toiletries and Christmas cake, women queue to buy phone-cards to call up their relatives and wish seasons' greetings and curled up on the muddy ground is a stray puppy. Meanwhile outside the hairdresser many of the inmates are making an appointment to make sure they have the latest style for Christmas day.
With a factory, shop and hairdresser, the prison can act as a second home for some women.
But while in most of the EU, the majority of female convicts face sentences for theft, fraud and drug crimes, in Romania, the most common offences are different degrees of homicide. Over 200 women in Targsor, one third of the inmates, are guilty of murder.
However experts estimate that a large number of these women are victims of domestic violence: 50 per cent of all women in Romania’s prisons have suffered some kind of abuse at home.
Almost 18 months into her eight year sentence, 48 year old farm worker Dorina was convicted of the murder of her husband in an act, she states, of self-defence.
After growing up in the countryside around Bacau, Dorina, who has three children by her late husband, married a second time to a carpenter.
But her new husband started to drink and hit her on a regular basis.
“Some days I slept alone in the loft of our house because he had beaten me up,” Dorina said. “But the next day he cried and apologised for what he had done, so I forgave him.”
Through five years of marriage, she was often afraid to sleep during the nights when he was drinking. “He would go to bed with a knife under the pillow,” she says.
One Saturday she came home after working on a nearby farm. Her neighbour warned her that her husband was drunk. When she entered the house, he started to slap her face. She tried to escape from him, but he grabbed a knife and threatened her.
She ran into the yard and, to defend herself, picked up a hoe. He dropped the knife but moved close to her to grab away the tool from her hand.
In the struggle, Dorina brandished the hoe against his thigh-bone. He started to bleed, so Dorina took him into the house and bandaged him up. She offered to take him to the hospital, but he refused.
“The next day he said he was okay and promised he would never drink again,” says Dorina.
That day she went to work, but when she visited him in bed he was lying, still conscious, in a pool of his own blood. She called the emergency services, but when an ambulance arrived after three hours, he was dead.
“I would have wanted so much to help him,” she says.
Arrested for murder, the authorities dismissed her argument that the act was self-defence.
“No one checked the state of my health,” she says, “although I had bruises all over my body.”
The trial did not help her, neither did her state defender. "He wasn't supportive at all, that's why for the appeal I tried to hire a lawyer from Bucharest but I couldn't afford to pay him,” Dorina says.
“The people in my village turned against me,” she adds. “When one of my friends was called as a witness, she said she knew nothing about my family problems.”
Dorina claims her mother-in-law paid her friend not to support her in the court. Only one neighbour testified to the court that Dorina was beaten by her husband on a daily basis.
Both her initial trial and the appeal resulted in the same judgement: of murder.
Dorina now works in the prison's kitchen. She hopes the regular work hours will help reduce her internment by 12 months - she still has to serve over five years.
“When I'm free, I am afraid to go back to my village because even the young kids will call me 'prison woman' and I am ashamed to face my neighbours,” Dorina says.
Her youngest daughter still visits her. Dorina calls her once a month and they exchange letters. But she has no contact with her other two children who work in Italy and her two brothers, who are both policemen.
But the victims of domestic violence who turn to murder are not all in husband and wife relationships.
Take Maria, 49-years-old from Dambovita county, a wooden spoon carver from a Rroma family. She had four children from two different husbands. During her second marriage, her eldest son started to beat her up.
“He accused me of being a loose woman because I was married with another man,” Maria says. “He would take away money earned by my other sons.”
One day, after her youngest son - who was 15 - went shopping and bought some new clothes, her eldest, who then was 23, wanted to take away the items for himself.
“I tried to interfere between them to stop,” she says. “But my eldest was drunk and he started to beat me up and pull my hair.”
Maria had been carving spoons at the time and held a knife in her hands. In the struggle, she stabbed her eldest in the chest. He stood up and left to go to his room. Less than half an hour later, he was dead.
“My lawyer helped me a lot,” says Maria. “First I was convicted for qualified murder but my lawyer succeed to transformed it into murder.”
She received ten years in prison.
Murder at home
Domestic homicide, where women kill those closest to them due to a legacy of violence at home, is common in all societies.
But Romania has faced criticism for failing to see the perpetrator of the crime also as a victim of abuse. Now 12 per cent of all women in prison are convicted of qualified murder – compared to 9.5 per cent of men.
“In general terms, as far as [women] convicted of murder are concerned, many of the victims have been domestic partners and there are frequently well-substantiated allegations of abuse over long periods of time,” says Professor Andrew Coyle, from the International Centre for Prison Studies, King's College, London.
In such cases, justice has to punish the women who kill their husbands even when there has been long-term abuse. But to what extent should this legacy be taken into account as mitigating circumstances, is a huge matter of debate.
A victim of ongoing domestic violence's state of mind can also be described as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. In the USA, some defence counsels have invoked the idea of the mental state of 'Battered Women Syndrome' in domestic homicide cases, arguing that this is evidence for ‘diminished responsibility’ for the accused.
But, in most cases, this does not happen in Romania.
“Most of the time justice takes into account that women have been victims of domestic violence,” says assistant professor in Sociology and Social Work at the University of Bucharest, Ionut Durnescu. “But the amount of discretion judges have is limited and the special limits of punishment are very high - 15 to 20 years of imprisonment.”
The Criminal Code states that killing a husband or relative is aggravated murder. This decision aimed to protect women being killed.
“The hypothesis in which the woman is the killer after being abused for a long time is not included in this male-oriented criminal code,” says Durnescu. “It is only judicial practice which makes the distinction.”
Lack of training is at fault here. Judges have to deal with too many cases at once and state defenders often do not have the time or the facilities to build up a proper case for the defence in murder trials.
When reaching a judgement, magistrates often analyse the circumstances of the criminal act for which the defendant is accused, but do not look into the context of the crime in detail, such as a history of long-term abuse and its implications on the mental state of the offender.
“There is not a culture in the justice system to see women, who are abused by their partners and end up killing them, as victims as well as offenders,” says Dana Titian, spokeswoman for the General Prosecutor's Office.
But this is a symptom of another problem in Romania.
There is a strong tendency for both men, and a large number of women, not to view domestic violence as a major crime.
Around 15 per cent of married women, between the ages of 15 and 44 years old, reported physical abuse and three per cent sexual abuse from their partner, according to a 2004 United Nations Reproductive Health Survey.
But among men, this figure was higher. About 21 per cent of men admitted causing physical abuse to their partner, according to the same report.
“The Romanian population is significantly more tolerant towards domestic violence in all its forms [than the average level in the EU],” says Roxana Tesiu, executive president of the Partnership for Equality Center (CPE).
According to a 2003 CPE report, six per cent of women do not think it is a serious or unlawful issue when their partners force them to have sexual relations. While one fifth of women believe nobody should intervene when a husband (or wife) is beating up their partner.
Domestic violence in Romania seems to go hand in glove with alcoholism, poverty, a violent environment and a patriarchal family. A shocking statistic is that one in five women in Romania believes that a woman is man's property.
Psychologist Manuela Stanculescu sums this up in a conclusion to the CPE report:
“The tolerant attitude towards domestic violence and the set of beliefs defining violent behaviour as ‘normal’ are accompanied by the ignorance of individual rights provided for by law.”
Most women and their husbands engaged in a relationship of hostile dependency are born into a family where domestic violence is accepted. “Because the woman’s partner in most of the cases is their first partner, this [abuse] is an assumed model for a family,” adds Cristina Horia executive manager at Fundatia Casa Blu, which runs a temporary shelter in Bucharest for victims of abuse.
The shelter, one of a growing number in Romania, has housed women from all levels of society. They are usually in a marriage and have been abused since the wedding day. In 2004, the most common age of women victims of domestic violence was between 30 to 40-years-old category, but one year later this increased to 40 to 50-years-old, according to the foundation.
Still, one in five who have been provided support by the foundation return to their husbands. “The decision belongs to the women,” says Horia. “A few of this number came back to us, but most of them are embarrassed by their wrong decision.”
Now the shelter hosts two women, both in their 40s, and three children. If a woman wants to meet her relatives, this can only happen at an appointed place outside the shelter. Financial constraints and a lack of independence often force women to stay in a relationship of hostile dependency. “The biggest problem for the victims of domestic violence is having enough money to rent an apartment,” says Horia. Sometimes the women in the shelter rent a place together. “One of the elements missing in their life is friendship, because most of the men forbid them to have friends,” says Horia. “But most of them consider this normal, like the beatings and verbal abuse.”
Meanwhile, the Romanian Government and the UNFPA are also helping piloting local authority support mechanisms. These would recognise the early signs of domestic violence, encourage victims to report on the offenders, give counselling and shelter to victims and their families and bring justice to those guilty of violence.
Because they stand at the most common entry point for victims, doctors, the police and the emergency services need training in the correct behaviour to assume with victims and to give them the right information referring them to the relevant agencies.
One pilot, ongoing in Mures county, also includes a domestic violence register with details of victims.
But for a consistent support nationwide, staff and training shortages are a problem and this requires a joined-up effort between many ministries at a local and national level: Justice, Interior, Education, Health and the Child Protection Agency.
“It goes smoothly in some counties, in others not so much,” says Stela Serghiuta, programme officer at UNFPA.
Romania boasted over 7,000 men and women in prison for homicide in 2004, according to the Council of Europe – over twice as many per capita as Bulgaria and Hungary and comparable with the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. The latest statistics show that 316 women, 21 per cent of the female prison population, are incarcerated for murder.
Prisoners guilty of homicide in prison (men and women) by percentage of the population:
Stats: COE/Calculation: The Diplomat