Monika is combating gender stereotypes and their destructive effects by providing battered women with a range of services, including education in democratic rights and life options that empowers them to take control of their lives and futures.
The New Idea
Monika emphasizes that the problem of domestic violence is social rather than a result of the characteristics of individual men and women. From this conviction, she has built Fenestra, an organization that relies on trained, highly motivated volunteers to provide comprehensive psychological and legal services to battered women. At the same time, they are addressing underlying issues of gender equity. The services Fenestra offers include crisis assistance and consultancy, counseling, legal advice and advocacy, and support groups that empower women to realize independent lives and overcome the abuse they have suffered. Monika aims to equip women with a liberating and empowering understanding of the societal root of their problem to help them overcome the trap of gender stereotypes in what continues to be a principally patriarchal Slovak society. The services Fenestra provides are anonymous, secure, free and accessible.
Domestic violence is a widespread problem in Slovak society and it is on the increase throughout the Central European region. An estimated one in five women in Slovakia suffers from some form of violence at the hands of spouses, boyfriends, or other family members. Crime statistics reveal that family members commit almost 70% of violent crimes committed against women. Of these violent crimes, an estimated 10% are reported and less than 2% are investigated officially by police, social workers, or other professionals. Currently, there is a network of government psychological counseling centers and a sprinkling of NGOs that provide limited advocacy services to battered Slovak women. However, no agencies or organizations so effectively address domestic abuse alongside the long-term, yet highly relevant, issue of restructuring gender roles.
Most abused women see their abuse as stemming from their own character, physical, or behavioral deficiencies, rather than from a widespread societal misconception. Education systems and other social institutions contribute to this acceptance of gender imbalance and violence in families by using texts and lesson plans that reinforce negative stereotypes concerning gender roles and distribution of power between men and women. Professionals who could contribute to a solution to domestic abuse are ineffective because their perceptions are frequently aligned with the prevailing understanding that violence toward women is socially acceptable and taboo as an item of general discussion outside the context of the family. Therefore, psychologists, policemen, and judges often present a barrier to introducing progressive reform, as they want to protect their own professional status.
Since 1996 Fenestra has been developing an array of services tailored to the very personal and individual needs of their clients. These services, which are free, include immediate crisis assistance, crisis consultancy and counseling, free legal advice and advocacy, support groups and networks, and representation in administrative and legal proceedings. The services are anonymous, secure, and non-bureaucratic.
The operation of the organization is based on the core principles of self-supporting community and therapeutic groups such as self-help, co-operation, consensual decision-making and respect for diversity. To maintain the principle of managing by consensus, the staff size is limited to 50 staff, volunteers and members. The number of clients who seek Fenestra's services at one time is also limited to maintain quality of services provided. Prospective clients are informed of Fenestra's services through advertisements for the crisis telephone line and information leaflets distributed by police and counselors. Fenestra has developed a regional network of volunteers who identify signs of violence and abuse in their communities and determine the best strategy for addressing it in their individual contexts.
To achieve broader impact Fenestra is focused on providing other existing and emerging organizations with their feedback for success, especially in the area of crisis intervention and management. Therefore, Fenestra proactively links networks of organizations and individuals working in related fields and facilitates information exchange among them. Additionally, Fenestra distributes publications on domestic violence and maintains a web site. Monika and her staff co-operate with international organizations and participate in international comparative studies of gender, domestic abuse, and related topics.
Fenestra staff and volunteers work to alter existing government structures and to lobby for increased financial support for organizations working with victims of domestic violence. Fenestra organizes training seminars for government officials and policemen, and cooperates with universities to prepare professionals working in related fields.
Remarkably successful at motivating unqualified volunteers and training them to become experts, Monika has incorporated the principles of the self-supporting community into the management of her organization. This has allowed her to develop an initial small group of volunteers into a highly respected organization that has begun to impact educational curricula and policy issues relating to women and violence. The organization has sustained conditions that ruin other organizations working in the field, including scarce financial resources and volunteer burnout. Monika's approach in developing the organization has allowed Fenestra to avoid dependency on foreign donors, which almost all non-government organizations in the region face. Instead, a high portion of Fenestra's operating budget derives from individual gifts and donations, a rare occurrence in Slovakia, where individual philanthropy is severely underdeveloped.
As a victim of domestic abuse herself, Monika has personal experience with violence. In addition, her professional experience as a university researcher in literature has aided her understanding of the complexities of gender issues in Slovak society. During maternity leave from her university post, Monika organized a small group of women who later became the core of Fenestra's work.
Monika recently became a member of a new governmental expert advisory committee on domestic violence. She is also lobbying for changes in the legal system that would improve the legal position of battered women and create better conditions for the operation of organizations helping victims of domestic violence.