The Hungarian political scene is so active that one can’t keep up with it, especially now that the jostling among opposition parties has begun in earnest. After all, the national election is just a little more than a year away. Yet I would be amiss if I didn’t report on what one can only hope is a significant achievement of women’s groups in Hungary. The Orbán government has at last begun the process of ratifying the Istanbul Convention, which was initiated by the Council of Europe and opened for signature on May 11, 2011. The convention aims at preventing violence against women and domestic violence. As of May 2016, it had been signed by 44 countries. Between 2013 and 2016, it was ratified by 21 countries.
Hungary was one of the signatories, but it has yet has to ratify the convention, although it could have done so at any time after August 2014. Ratification involves changing existing laws to conform to the requirements of the Istanbul Convention. Preparations for the ratification have been taking place in secret without any input from women’s groups or experts.
The Hungarian government has been dragging its heels for about two and a half years. Népszabadság reported in August 2014 that Hungary was one of seven members of the European Union where the law does not guarantee automatic prosecution of all forms of domestic violence. In addition, it is only in Hungary that there is no specific intervention program guided by experts, working with men who had committed sexual violence.
Several months went by without anything happening until, in March 2015, Zsuzsanna Szelényi (Együtt), supported by 36 other members of parliament, turned in a motion to speed up the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. It was known ahead of time that Jobbik would not vote for the motion because the Convention “is not concerned with the most widespread and most brutal domestic violence, the act of abortion,” but to everybody’s surprise the members of Fidesz-KDNP joined Jobbik and voted against Szelényi’s motion. Even Mrs. Pelcz, née Ildikó Gáll, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, couldn’t quite understand why the government refused to speed up the process of ratification. Péter Niedermüller, DK MEP, considered the Fidesz decision “shameful and abominable.”
After two years of government inaction, on February 1, 2017, in the pouring rain, a small group of women labelled feminists, a curse word in Hungarian right-wing circles, demonstrated in front of the parliament. Fidesz’s reaction to this small demonstration was outrageous. According to the latest Fidesz spokesman, “at the moment, immigration and the settlement of migrants are the greatest dangers in Europe. Wherever migrants appeared violence against women and children skyrocketed…. Those same opposition parties that keep worrying about women in roundtable discussions prevented parliament from modifying the constitution to prohibit the settlement of migrants.” The message is that domestic violence in the country is insignificant or at least is not nearly as serious as the migrants’ sexual assaults against European women and children.
A week later, on February 8, 2017, Szilvia Gyurkó, a lawyer involved in children’s rights issues, wrote a short article in which she listed three reasons for the government’s reluctance to act on the ratification. One is that in Hungary domestic violence is a relatively rare occurrence. This is not the case. According to a 2014 study, 27% of girls under the age of 15 experience physical, sexual or psychological abuse. Seven percent of adult women can be considered victims of domestic violence. The second reason is that proponents of the Convention include under the rubric of sexual abuse actions that are not violent but are only inappropriate behavior toward women. The third reason is that Hungarians don’t need the ratification of the Istanbul Convention because the government defends Hungarian women more than adequately from unwanted approaches or physical abuse.
Gyurkó may have been kind to the government. A Fidesz-supporting journalist offered his reasons not to ratify the Convention. László Vésey Kovács of Pesti Srácok objects to changing the Hungarian law primarily because “women’s rights NGOs, supported by George Soros, under the pretext of a concern for battered women, want to interfere in the lives of Hungarian families.” In plain language, domestic violence is nobody’s business outside the family.
Meanwhile a survey taken late last year shows that Hungarians are fully aware of the problem of domestic violence in their country. Almost 20% of them consider it to be a very serious problem and another 53% think it is widespread. Only 3% seem to be ignorant of the problem. Even so, half of the adult population believe that there are certain situations in which sexual violence is acceptable: a drunk or drugged partner (24% in Hungary while the Union average is 12%), a woman willingly accompanies a man home after a party (20% versus 12%), sexy clothing (21% versus 10%), and the “no” is not explicit enough (14% versus 10%).
A few days ago the government at last decided to submit the issue for discussion in parliament, which was described by Index as a “Valentine’s Day gift.” However, there is fear that the government will try to “soften” the legal consequences of the Convention. For example, LMP’s Bernadett Szél is afraid that the present practice of launching an investigation only after the victim files an official complaint will continue. Szél also asked Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to provide crime statistics. Last week Pintér assured the chairwoman of LMP that the number of physical abuse cases has been decreasing in the last six years. While in 2010 there were 5,000 such cases, by 2016 the police registered only 3,210 such instances. The number of registered rapes in 2010 was 241, but last year they reported only 10 such cases. In the whole country! Among a population of almost 10 million! A miraculous improvement, I must say.
What will happen now that the text of the modifications to Hungarian law is available online and comments can be submitted for about two weeks before the final text reaches the lawmakers? I have the strong suspicion that the women’s groups and human rights activists are not going to be satisfied with the Ministry of Justice’s understanding and interpretation of the Convention’s intent.