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Emptied Romanian village lives again as haven for battered women -F24

Emptied Romanian village lives again as haven for battered women
2016-05-27 10:30:00
As more and more residents left looking for work, a Romanian village desperate to ensure its future has found a new way of boosting its population that also helps the needy.

It has become a safe haven for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

The novel scheme was dreamt up by the village of Concesti in the far northeast, one of Romania's poorest regions, where 12 families have already arrived in the six months since it started. Six others are on a waiting list.

"It's so good here. I've found peace and calm, I can finally raise my children as I had hoped," said 36-year-old Claudia.

The mother of three boys and three girls aged two to 18 said she never expected to find herself in a rural backwater near the borders with Moldova and Ukraine.

Yet the final straw came on December 29, when her husband broke down the door of her home despite a restraining order to stay away after 16 years of brutalising, raping and insulting his wife.

She piled the children into a bus and left for an unknown village where the mayor, she had heard on television, was offering free housing to poor families with several children.

"I had no idea if they would actually welcome us... but I'd had enough of sleeping with the children in the train station," she told AFP.

Though considered prevalent in Romania domestic violence was taboo under the old communist regime, according to Mihaela Mangu, a psychologist with a group called Anais that helps such victims.

The country has been slow in addressing it since, she added, explaining that it only introduced protection laws four years ago.

Mangu blames this on "a patriarchal culture that is still widespread in Romania, and by a lack of confidence in authorities".

After the 800-kilometre (500-mile) journey from their home in Romania's southwest, Claudia and her family spent their first calm night in years in a home in Concesti.

Down the road in another house nestled on a sunny hillside, Valentina, 42, busily cooks as she cradles her youngest child Alexandru in her arms.

Five of her eight children will be home from school shortly and hungry for dinner.

Her story of her husband's brutality echoed Claudia's. "The children were sick of it. One day they said to me, "Mum, we can't go on like this. You have to do something'."

She too had serious doubts about the offer from Concesti, whose population, though never large, was down to 1,800 residents -- many ageing -- after working-age residents increasingly left in search of jobs.

"I didn't really believe it," she told AFP, but "when we arrived here, the fire was already burning, there was food in the house and it was clean".

Concesti mayor Costel Nazare said the prospect that the village school would close because of the massive emigration and declining birth rate, started off the idea.

Initially, the offer was aimed at poor households but of the 13 families who arrived since December, seven are single mothers and their children, Nazare told AFP.

So far, his office has bought out some 10 homes for a total 450,000 lei (100,000 euros, $112,000).

"At first I thought there would be problems but then I saw the villagers' reaction and it was very positive," said the mayor, who also helps the new residents find jobs in local farming or construction.

On Saturdays, Valentina works in the fields or in a warehouse for locally grown vegetables. She earns 11 euros a day, which tops up her state welfare aid to give her a total 370 euros a month, in a country where the average net salary is 470 euros a month.

- Little choice -

"It's a remarkable initiative, other towns should follow Concesti's example," said psychologist Mangu.

"Romania has very few rescue shelters, especially in rural zones, which means most victims have no choice" and stay with their abuser, she told AFP.

Legal restraining orders were only introduced in 2012 and "very often they are not respected and most of the time the offenders are not punished," she said.

Romania registered 12,461 cases of domestic violence in 2015 but "these figures do not reflect the true extent of the phenomenon," a spokesman at the National Agency for Equal Opportunity (ANES) told AFP.

A 2014 study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights said 24 percent of Romanian women were subjected to violence by their partners, a figure slightly higher than the EU average of 22 percent.

But Mangu said she believes this figure is grossly underestimated because "very, very few women have the courage to talk openly" about abuse.

Nazare said he is happy to have helped at least a few women start a new life.

"They told me they didn't imagine that such a peaceful place like Concesti even existed," he said.

by Mihaela RODINA

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