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Temporarily “Home”

A personal story of domestic violence illustrates the value of housing for the victims, but Moldova still has far to go before the country reaches European standards in tackling the problem. by Victoria Borta 10 July 2018

It was a usual February evening, without snow, numbingly cold. Corina, a young woman with a sun-kissed face and coal-black hair, had just gotten off work and was heading home. She arrived in front of her apartment building, climbed the stairs, and entered her boyfriend’s apartment. In the hallway she tripped over a travelling bag.

 

“You have 15 minutes to leave the house,” she heard.

 

The ultimatum did not come from the person with whom she had shared a bed for the past three years and conceived a daughter, but from his brother. “There weren’t many questions,” the young woman remembers. She took her little girl, grabbed the bag, and left, bent under the weight of the luggage.

 

Surrounded by the diffuse contours of the night, emphasized by the lightbulbs perched high atop the concrete poles, she headed toward the only center for victims of domestic violence in Falesti, a city in northern Moldova, suggestively called the “House of Hope.” She already knew the road leading there, which she had taken the year before. At the time, she only stayed at the center for two days, and then returned to her partner’s apartment. 

 

Corina doesn’t enjoy remembering that time, and tries to avoid getting into details. But at this moment she is determined not to pull back. “We don’t have anything holding us together anymore. We’ve stayed together only for the sake of the child the past couple of years,” the young woman admits.  

 

The House of Hope

 

On the premises of the Falesti district hospital, behind a small garden with alleys converging at a middle point, a pale-pink, one-story building hides between two taller ones. Architecturally, its decoration consists of a multicolored playground, with tables, chairs, and slides stretching like rainbows. Perched atop a tree nearby, a yellow sun crafted out of a rubber wheel stretches out its plastic sunrays.

 

At the entrance, several pairs of sneakers stare out at visitors from a piece of brownish cardboard. The two long corridors crossing the buildings are decorated with ikebana [the Japanese art of floral arrangement] and various handcrafted objects. They meet in the middle, in a spacious hall with scenes from a Romanian fairytale called “The little purse with two half-pennies” painted on a wall.

 

This is the House of Hope, which has, in the last two years, served as a “temporary home” for 41 victims of family violence. Created in 2007, with a large spectrum of services offered to individuals from at-risk families, homeless people, and children with special educational needs, the center was reorganized in 2016.

 

“Previously the victims kept coming to this center, but the staff was not prepared to offer them the help they needed. That's how we became aware of the need to become more specialized,” explains director Irina Mamai.

 

Corina has been at the center for a month and a half already. Shortly after crossing its threshold for the second time, she also found herself a job: painting the toys hidden inside the well-known Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs. She even had a daily quota – 220 toys. Nowadays she can usually do more than that, but at the beginning she would give up her lunch break to make sure that she could meet that requirement. “I hope this will be enough for me to afford rent – otherwise I won’t keep working anymore.”

 

It’s almost 5 p.m. when she arrives back at the center. She is wearing a blue winter jacket, and tight black pants. She leaves her shoes at the entrance, greets her partners in misfortune, and rushes to her room. Maria, her little girl, sees her, but she doesn’t run to her mother, and keeps pushing a doll stroller instead. “She doesn’t talk much, and, most of the time, just minds her own business,” kindergarten teacher Olesea Musteata says of Maria.

 

Corina’s room looks like the heavens above. Two bunk beds, a closet, and the four walls – everything the color of the sky. The window curtains stand in for the sun with their transparent and fiery yellow. Corina changes clothes and goes outside into the corridor. She lets Maria continue pushing the stroller, and heads toward the director’s office, located on the periphery of one of the buildings.

 

She returns after 10 minutes and walks into the kitchen, followed by other people. They move the table to the middle of the room, squeezing themselves around it. They fill their plates with sarmale, a traditional dish in Moldova, and start noisily eating. The grandmother of two brothers who now live at the center brought this specialty. The everyday, hospital-like food sits at the side, without receiving much attention.

 

“It’s not very tasty. Last year we had a cook, Maria, who cooked really well, and asked us every day what we wanted to eat,” Corina says, slowly chewing the sarmale. The young woman’s phone brings the conversation to a halt. “You’re a vagabond,” an oriental-sounding song fills the kitchen. “Corina like vagabonds,” one of the boys at the table jokes.

 

A Swift Decline

 

Corina has never seen life through rose-tinted glasses, but she didn’t imagine either where decisions made out of love would take her. She grew up with her grandmother in the Drochia district in northern Moldova, her mother off working in Russia. She doesn’t know anything about her father. Though she saw him for the first time a few years ago, Corina doesn’t recognize him as her parent, and she doesn’t keep in touch with him.

 

After growing up, she went to a college in Chisinau. But her diploma didn’t keep her from following in her mother’s footsteps. While she was in Moscow, she met Vova through a friend. He was in Moldova, so they talked on the phone. “I wasn’t looking for beauty. I saw that he was behaving appropriately. He wasn’t servile.”

 

Smitten by Vova, Corina came home, to Drochia. He crossed the 70 kilometers (43 miles) that separated them, and brought her to his hometown – Falesti. “It was quite a challenge. My younger sister was laughing at me that, look, I’m 22 years old and still not married, while she was married already.”

 

Her first night of love followed, after which she got pregnant. Her happiness lasted for about half a year. Vova started to drink, to throw parties for his friends, and to beat her up. The situation didn’t change after Maria’s birth. Vova would punch her into corners, pull her by the hair, or strangle her by the neck. Corina did not let him get the better of her, and hit back. “I didn’t have that many bruises, but he did. That's why I also had to pay some fines at the police station,” the young woman recalls.

 

For a while she brought up her little girl with money she received from her mother. Vova did not want to work, so Corina got a job at a bar. In addition to her buying everything, he also asked Corina for money to buy alcohol. If she refused, he would punch her.

 

Although Corina fought back at the beginning, at a certain point she gave up. “The last time I pushed him aside he almost hit his head and died. I couldn’t touch him ever since. I had this image stuck in my mind. I have a child to raise. I didn’t want to go to prison.”

 

This is how, slowly but surely, their life as a family completely ended. They still lived together, but only for their child’s sake. Vova would bring home other women, and Corina met another man at work, her current boyfriend. “The first time I saw him, he was drunk. His sister had come to pick him up. He started growing on me, but I thought: ‘What do I need another alcoholic for?’ ”

 

In a while, however, Andrei managed to win her heart – even though not completely. “I cannot trust men anymore. All my love has gone to my family and my child. I cannot love anymore. I just want a man next to me, who would pay attention to me. Andrei is serious, and we understand each other in few words,” Corina remarks.

 

A Safe Haven

 

Recent statistics show that, on average, 500 people in Moldova go through a center for domestic violence every year, in an attempt to get their lives back on track. According to data from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Protection (MSMPS), there are nine such centers in Moldova: two in Chisinau and Balti, and one in Drochia, Hancesti, Ungheni, Causeni, and Cahul.

 

 

Here, the victims of domestic violence can find a temporary place to live, along with food, psychological counseling, support in finding a job, and judicial and medical assistance. 

 

But the House of Hope in Falesti is not part of the ministry’s statistics. “It’s a normal thing. The situation changes from year to year, as more services develop,” explains Lilia Pascal, the chief of the Division for Policies Ensuring Equality Between Men and Women.

 

At the same time, the national strategy for preventing and combatting violence against women and family violence for 2018-2023 notes that “the existing housing services for victims of domestic violence have a capacity of receiving 181 people.” That is much too small a number, given that Moldova signed the Istanbul Convention in December 2016. A Council of Europe convention to counter violence against woman and domestic violence, the convention specifies, among many other things, that one spot in housing centers should be available per 10,000 inhabitants. Scaled to the size of Moldova, that would mean 365 spots, which is almost double the number available nowadays.

 

But Pascal says that the development of housing facilities is only a recommendation of the Istanbul Convention, and thus non-binding. “We are already applying two types of victim protection: the restraining order – issued by a court, and the emergency restraining order – applied by the cops. Both of them are used to protect the victim, and to ensure her a secure space in her usual environment. Analyses from European countries have shown that, thanks to these measures, the necessity of developing housing services disappears.”

 

On the other hand, statistics from the General Police Inspectorate don’t paint a tranquil picture for the future – quite the contrary. With an annual average of 8,500 complaints regarding domestic violence, the number has been constantly increasing over the past six years.

 

The number of police complaints regarding domestic violence.

 

Readjusting to “Normal” Life

 

It’s Saturday, a little after eight in the morning. The House of Hope is immersed in a deep silence. Several pieces of clothing that have been washed the evening before had been left to dry on piping hot radiators.

 

Corina squints her eyes as she walks into the corridor, and heads toward the kitchen. Her hair is frizzy, and her face is sleepy. She makes herself a cup of black coffee, without sugar, and sits down at the table. In the meantime, her roommate wakes up too – a 14-year-old teenager, chatty and always up to something. The latter runs through the center full of energy, and tells Corina that Maria has also woken up. Sleepily, Corina heads back to the room, holding on to her coffee cup.

 

After a quarter of an hour she returns with her daughter. Corina makes herself another coffee, and a kindergarten teacher gives the little girl a plate of rice pudding. The little one is picky, but her mother doesn’t pay attention to that. “If she doesn’t want to eat, it means that she isn’t hungry. You eat when you are hungry,” Corina says, sipping from her cup.

 

Although she doesn’t show much outward affection toward Maria, Corina says that she is ready to do anything, just to be near her. “My mom suggested that she could have her in Moscow until I get back on my feet, but I will never do something like that. I don’t want her to live without her mother, too.”

 

After lunch, the young woman starts to chat with her roommate and the two brothers, and Maria grabs hold of her pink doll stroller and starts to play again just like the day before. “She has been affected by the harmful environment she lived in with her dad, and that’s why she isn’t very close to her mom, and they’re not very attached to one another,” says Constantin Prodan, the center’s psychologist. “At the same time, the little girl has some developmental delays. She stutters. She is in the habit of permanently sucking on something, a sign that she was using a pacifier for too long, but she is, slowly, starting to adjust.”

 

Though Maria is still recovering, Corina got over pretty quickly the situation she found herself in and is no longer “emotionally destabilized,” the psychologist notes. The young woman herself thinks that she doesn’t need a psychologist anymore. “I can calm myself down,” she says in Russian, as she also sprinkles her Romanian with Russian words.

 

To Corina, it was obvious that her life must take a different turn even before she arrived at the center, but the lack of a place to live kept her from doing anything. She does see her future more clearly now, and is looking forward to being able to rent an apartment that would be closer to the factory where she is working.

 

She plans on staying in Falesti – she is already used to the city – sending her daughter to kindergarten, and eventually making official her relationship with her new boyfriend. She is, however, in no rush about the latter. “Time will tell if we are meant to be together,” the young woman cheers herself up, while her colleagues run like bees throughout the center.

 

Saturday is cleaning day. Everybody makes sure to tidy up his or her own room. Corina limits herself to her closet. The rest of the room is the responsibility of her roommate, whose turn it is to clean up.

 

While Corina is arranging her belongings on the shelves, she confesses that she doesn’t spend that much on her own clothes, but rather on Maria’s clothes, which need to be changed every few months. This is why she doesn’t use any makeup, or jewelry.

 

“I used to have earrings, golden rings that my mother gave me, but all of them are at the pawn shop.” She even pawned the new cell phone that her boyfriend gave her as a present for the winter holidays. “There’s nothing I can do – I have financial difficulties. I will keep working until I can buy them back,” she optimistically tells herself.

 

A Heavy Burden on the State

 

The local presence of a domestic violence center or of an NGO always makes a difference, according to Veronica Teleuca, the coordinator of the National Coalition “Life Without Domestic Violence.” “Those are the places initiating campaigns, organizing events, helping local women be better informed, where local public authorities are more receptive, and even the police work better, because the problem is always on the authorities’ agenda,” she says. 

 

But the lack of places in housing centers, compared to European standards, is not the only problem facing the state. The financing of housing centers for domestic violence victims is in most cases severely deficient.

 

“If local public authorities don’t understand the importance of this problem, then the financing of the center will be their last priority,” says Teleuca. “It depends a lot on the advocacy capabilities of the center’s administration, because if the head is a very active person who constantly goes and pressures the authorities, then things can start moving.”

 

At the same time, violence in its actual form costs the state millions of Moldovan lei every year. That comes in addition to the hole of 1 million lei ($60,000) in the public budget from fines that the European Court of Human Rights levies on Moldova for various infractions.

 

The costs of violence in 2014, divided into fields. Green: social protection, red: medical, yellow: legal.

 

The Women’s Right Center, an NGO promoting women’s rights and the reduction of domestic violence, calculated that figure in 2016. The group’s report also estimated the overall expenses for 2014, covering, in particular, the medical-, law-, and social protection-related costs. In the end, the total came to around 36 million lei – with the medical sector the leader “because of the response mechanism centered on mitigating the consequences instead of prevention,” the report said.

 

Moreover, the Women’s Rights Center noted that, in reality, civil society organizations cover more than 60 percent of the cost of social services offered to victims of family violence. These “offer specialized services to the victims, such as judicial counseling, representation, telephone lines for emergency assistance, psychological counseling, and shelter, as well as the coordination of assistance from professionals.”

 

“In consequence, taking responsibility for the permanent financing of these services, as well as ensuring geographical coverage, should be a priority of the national authorities,” the authors of the report conclude.

 

Pascal admits that there are situations where the shortage of cash might even lead to the closing down of certain services, although that problem is a more sensitive one.

 

“I believe that, in this case, a national reference system should be put in place in case a district has a certain profile of people benefitting from such services, but doesn’t have the money to assist them, not even for housing centers. In this case we could work on the mechanism, and the ways in which somebody could be referred to another district.

 

What follows from the reforms targeting the central and local authorities – along with the disappearance of certain services, including for financial reasons – is that the best solution would be to approve a minimal package of social services at the local level, which would be financed from the state budget. This would also ensure the durability of the services put in place.”

 

On the other hand, Elena Burca, the head of the Association Against Violence “Marioara’s House,” an institution that in 2000 opened the first center against domestic violence in Moldova, says that the prevention element is even more important than the opening of new women’s shelters.

 

“We arrived at the conclusion that the emphasis should be on education, because the increase in the number of centers won’t solve the problem,” she says. “If we want to get rid of violence, we must educate. I think that it would be efficient if every district had a center for training education professionals. We need to have places in centers, but that is not the ultimate solution.

 

The parents must know how to deal with these aggressive tendencies, which could seem sweet at first. If you see it as sweet, as honey-like, you might end up choking on that honey. The means of taking power and control can be very sweet. You get caught in this net through love. The instruments of violence are sometimes used on purpose, other times unintentionally, and by doing what he [the aggressor] wants, the way he wants it, you only nurture his aggressive side.”

 

To protect their identity, the names of some individuals have been changed.

Victoria Borta is a reporter at Oameni si Kilometri (People and Kilometers), a Moldovan site founded in 2016 that features long-form journalism and other content. In the words of the founders: We are roaming across Moldova to write stories that haven't been told about people and destinies divided into kilometers. We spend a lot of time together with the heroes of our stories, to better understand social phenomena and to convey them in detail.” Images by Diana Roscovan.


Translated from the Romanian-language original by Ioana Caloianu, TOL’s assistant editor.

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