BUDAPEST — Judit Wirth is one of the originators of Nane, Women’s Rights Organization, a nonprofit group in this capital city banked on the Danube. Established in 1994, the charity’s first service was to set up a hotline run by trained volunteers for women and children exposed to violence. Nane then set up an information help line for women who were planning to work abroad to help prevent them from being trafficked, among other programs.
From the beginning, Nane’s goal was to address threats of violence against women and children in Hungary through advocacy, support services and public education. It has based its principles on those embedded in international treaties on human rights and women’s rights, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), which Hungary ratified in 1980.
Besides the phone services, Nane’s other accomplishments include campaigning successfully for a change in the penal code to outlaw marital rape.
Wirth, a slim, intense 51-year-old Hungarian, speaks perfect English. In addition to her work in Nane, she helped start the Association of Hungarian Women Judges and the Hungarian Women’s Lobby, an umbrella for nongovernment groups. She has a master’s degree in English literature and linguistics from Eotvos Lorand University (or ELTE) in Budapest, where she also studied law.
This interview was conducted with her one chilly afternoon in late March in an apartment-cum-therapy office on the Buda side of the capital, set amid the steep hills of the Castle District — Varnegyed, in Hungarian.
We started by talking generally about the lasting effects of two world wars on Budapest, which seems to operate with an effortful stride and a sadness left over from Hungary’s history of oppression — from Nazism during World War II to Communism from 1949 to 1989 — even though those regimes have long ended. Yet the far-right political party in power, Fidesz, actively flirts with a Russian allegiance as the country keeps its membership in the European Union and NATO.
Wirth also discussed the evolution of feminism in Hungary and how the use of the phrase “domestic violence” in public circles came into being as well as what she senses is an intensifying patriarchy in the country, manifested primarily in workforce laws.
The interview has been cut and condensed for length.
Q. For an American, the two world wars hail from a distant time and place, but in Budapest and other cities in central Europe, like Vienna, the effects the wars had are immediately apparent, making visitors realize how much the societies not only lived through two brutal episodes but also how the damages of the wars linger long after.
A. Yes. I sometimes think about the fact that that every previous generation before us here in Europe or at least in some parts of Europe went through some kind of big war. This is the first time in 70 years, basically, that there was no war, except for when there was in Yugoslavia. And it’s kind of a window. It’s difficult to imagine that there won’t be wars. So it’s like really being in a privileged place and privileged time, very lucky time, because the moment there is war, everything is stopped on its head. All the things we deal with, all the things we fight for, becomes secondary.
Q. Hungary’s many decades of peace occurred after a very complex history. Can you briefly describe the process and history?
A. The second World War finished in 1945, so the next thing that happened in Hungary was the 1956 [Communist] revolution, which wasn’t really a war — [it was] an internal war. I would say historians would call it that. It was bloody in some relatively small way. So it was basically an upheaval that was put down and [no war] happened after that. But of course the socialist era had its difficulties. Certainly it was not an overt war, but there were some covert dangers all the time for many people. You had to comply.
Q. Spying was done in Hungary by everyone during the Communist regime?
A. Yes, you had to comply. I’m no historian, but certainly this combination of not war — peace but oppression — but relatively mild oppression if you compared it with Romania and Bulgaria [means that] Hungary was always a strange society of mixtures of experiences. Kind of a split experiences for individuals because it was livable, but it was know your own boundary, like living in a relatively big cage; a big, comfortable, warm cage.
Q. How have women’s rights fared since the liberation after the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the failure of that brand of socialism in Eastern Europe? And what is the status of women now?
A. That’s interesting, because when we talk about liberation — all I can tell you is basically some person’s feelings and evaluations. [There] is a huge literature about this interesting phenomenon of, first of all, so-called state feminism. Because of course in Communism and in socialism, theoretically it’s inherent that women and men are equal and the idea that the decline with the class differences, the class struggle won. Women and men became also equal, and that wasn’t even an issue in and of itself in Marxism much or in Leninism. It was kind of self-evident, so of course when we speak about Marxist feminism and socialist feminism, it wasn’t an issue in terms of feminism. It was an issue of everybody works, goodbye.
So, at the time of the fall of the Soviet regime, in 1989, in these countries, it was really interesting that many women were already in the workforce than they were in Western countries. I remember being on a US visitors program tour with some colleagues in 2001, over 10 years after the change of the regime, visiting AFL-CIO, and we came out of the meeting, and one of my colleagues, a Hungarian MP [minister of Parliament], said: These people have been fighting 40 years for something that we have, so what are they pretending that they are so ahead of us?
But of course when you go deeper, for example, into research on the certification of work, on the wage gap, and issues like that, on care work, on the remuneration of women’s work in different fields, [you] will find that more women work partly because there was a time when it was obligatory to work. If you didn’t work, then you basically committed a crime; that was a crime — a minor misdemeanor or transgression of the law.
And second, because in Hungary you can’t really live on one salary, certainly not a whole family can live on it, unless you are usually male in a middle- to higher-level manager in a private [company]. Otherwise it’s not enough if one person works. There is since [the regime ended] a great kind of deliberate movement to drive out women from the workforce [through] all kinds state policies, the lack of services, childcare services, with wage policies that make it, for some people, indifferent whether they work or not. But at the same time, it’s also a movement to keep women really in poverty because the very long maternity leave, for example, covers [the expenses of] maybe 8 packs of diapers or 10 a month.
Q. Can you explain more about the maternity/parental leave in Hungary?
A. You can stay home for about three years on maternity leave. You get some kind of stipend from the state. About 25,000 forints a month [equal to about $90].
Q. It’s not very much money to live on, the maternity stipend, even if the spouse is working.
A. It’s nothing, and at the same time, you lose all those years of work, it’s difficult to get back into the workforce, therefore people within those three years have a seond child, then you are out of [the workforce] for six years. So your chances of getting back are lowering, plus there is always the law changing over whether this constitutes into your pension time. I would say that for women the change of the regime brought a necessity to face issues that usually make women’s lives harder. With this opening of things [after the Communist regime]; basic, so-called self-evident things to debate, the position of women became debatable too. And women were absolutely not ready for that in Hungary.
Nobody had any idea about how to deal with the fact that there was unemployment; it was not self-evident that your child will get into kindergarten; [nobody knew] how to deal with the pornography, how to deal with the beginning of those years in the early 90s. Wherever you went, what you saw were hard-care porn magazines, in the stores, in the newsstands: that was absolutely new. We didn’t have this organic development for any sort of feminist consciousness. The first thing that we Hungarian women faced related to feminism was the backlash. Before there was any kind of “forward lash,” before there was any kind of consciousness.
Q. Was there a specific women’s consciousness-raising in Hungary after the Soviet regime collapse?
A. One of the first bills in Parliament that was introduced concerned curtailing abortion rights. So people who [wanted to] put women back to where they belonged, they immediately moved forward at a time when nobody was — not only women — mostly nobody was ready for fighting any kind of specific type of oppression: gender, race, ethnicity, education. Class they knew about it [in Hungary] because there was, of course, the core, the whole ideology of Communism and socialism. But discriminations or special forms of oppression based on all kinds of other groupings . . . nobody knew anything about those and nobody really cared. Maybe very few people who had been abroad before and university people mostly, or the intelligentsia.
So suddenly women had to face an attack on their reproductive rights, and they didn’t even know what it was. Everybody still in Hungary — about 80 or at least 70 percent of the population, in most recent statistics — is in favor of abortion rights.
So in the beginning, for a while, whoever had any eye for these issues, they had to throw [focus on] it after the events, like you get a blow and then you realize there is something there. And then somehow, some women, became feminists, became outspoken feminists. I wouldn’t say that they created a Hungarian feminist movement because they weren’t numerous enough, but they did create some organizations, and then those organizations also created other organizations, and they proliferated.
Q. When did the feminist organizations in Hungary begin grouping in earnest?
A. I would say from the beginning, 1989, to the middle of the ’90s. Some people started to get together informally. I wasn’t here then. I was in Israel at the change of the regime. I came back in ’91.
Q. Were there certain models that the Hungarian feminists were emulating?
A. There were so many. So there was a so-called feminist network, which did become . . . an association. There was another one called the Hungarian Women’s Foundation, which was formed . . . in ’93; and then some women from the Feminist Network, which was originally a loose group of people interested in feminism, they created the association; then some people from there and others got together to create Nane in 94. These were the three organizations that you could say were feminist. Many of the participants were either university students or beginning academics, and there was one particularly active person who did have a lot of input in many of these groups or gatherings: Antonia Burrows, who was British. She lived in Hungary at the time but had been a feminist, an activist most of her life since her university years, and she was also a founding member of Nane and active in the Feminist Network.
And one of the good things out of this setting . . . was that these people had quite a lot of contacts in different countries. But yeah, it was mostly Western countries. On the other hand, because Antonia was quite active all over the place, she also had some contacts in ex-Yugoslavia. So, for example, the first Nane training [for the hotline for battered women] was provided by a joint team of women from Zagreb and Belgrade and, I think, San Francisco.
Because these were places where Antonia had contacts and where women’s help lines existed, and that’s what Nane wanted to do. So they needed training for that. Women came over — these were really the nice pioneer times in this region, except for Yugoslavia. These women came over just because they were asked and ran trainings, if they were asked. Basically the models were taken from wherever we found something useful. And I’ve been an activist for about 17 years now, and I have to tell you that oftentimes I read articles and professional literature and some oral history stuff, too, about this feeling of the big Western sisters coming over in their little colonialistic stance and telling us what to do. But I have never encountered this.
Q. Let’s return to what you said earlier about women now being sidelined from the workforce in Hungary through, for example, extended maternity leaves, including a mandatory one-year leave in some instances. Where is this momentum coming from?
A. Political parties. Lawmakers, mostly. I think one of the first campaigns that Nane started was to criminalize marital rape; it was finally criminalized in Hungary in 1997; until then it was O.K. for someone to rape their wives. That was a campaign that was pro-active; it wasn’t something that was threatened to be taken away; they started this campaign. It was [done] because it was outrageous and discriminatory to not have marital rape criminalized. And the debates that went on in Parliament were really, well, I could call them ridiculous, except you wouldn’t want to laugh at them because there were all these MPs who thought that’s the point of getting married, that you don’t have to ask permission to have sex with your woman, and they weren’t ashamed to say things like that. And some other people . . . actually found it funny, a whole culture of total misogyny combined with ignorance. I mean, [there was] ignorance about you can’t say such a thing, little boy, but of course it was because they could.
So if you generally ask me where it [the rollback on women’s rights] comes from, it comes from patriarchy. Specifically, any bill that is making even a slight change towards the negative, towards the lessening of equality, usually comes from right-wing parties or members of Parliament or policy makers. And changes that do make women at least in the letter of the law more equal usually come from the European Union, because you have to comply with E.U. legislation; and sometimes, they come from some left-wing Parliamentarian. It doesn’t come from them, it comes from civil society, of course, but they are the ones who usually pick it up if anybody picks it up.
Some exceptions: there is a recent change in the law criminalizing specifically domestic violence, family violence, and that was enacted during the previous government, which is the same as now, Fidesz. This was something unexpected and probably there are a few factors that somehow played into it. The operative word is “at the same time,” so it was like all these little factors acting separately [and coming together]. Some quite progressive steps, surprisingly — this recent law.
Q. What are other progressive steps in Hungarian law regarding women’s rights?
A. There are milestones that I could list, but if you would ask what gives me — you wouldn’t say hope — but a kind of satisfaction, is that it makes sense to do this. Ten years ago, even if I strangled you, you wouldn’t have said the words “violence against women” in one sequence.
Q. How did the ability to use the phrase “violence against women” in Hungary come about?
A. Totally from NGOs that had done a huge amount of public education and through first, the media because it became clear to more and more media outlets that these words are usable and have to be used and these notions and expressions are not for laughingstock, but they are for describing actual phenomenon that exist. At the same time, getting through to decision-makers, different levels of decision-makers, and at the same time getting through to some international actors that could educate or were in a position to actually expect decision-makers to behave this or that way, plus the public, who at times raises up when something is really outrageous and demands with the same words, and the same expressions, the same things from the decision-makers.
Basically it’s a shift in language in Hungary; and language describes your reality. It describes what you can put out for the world to see as your reality but also to deal with your reality. Domestic violence, when it was first translated in Hungarian, it was a nonexpresssion, it didn’t exist. The literal translation would be “violence within the family”; now ,after 20 years, this wasn’t the best translation. Now we usually call it “intimate partnership violence.”
Q. What are the domestic violence rates in Hungary?
A. Very similar to other European countries: 1 woman in every 4 or 5 over lifetime. So this is the prevalence rate.
Q. The World Health Organization says that about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced “physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.” In some regions, 38 percent of women have experienced intimate partner violence.
A. It’s the same everywhere somehow.
Q. So you don’t have the market on domestic violence in Hungary.
A. No, we absolutely are like other countries, although when you go a little deeper, you find that Hungary has about six times the rate of domestic-violence murders of women than in Sweden, which is about the same in population. The most way women are killed around the world is in the home. There is really no dispute about this; for women, their partners and their fathers are way way more dangerous than any stranger.
Q. It’s startling that women and girls are at most risk in their own homes. Why?
A. It’s very sad, but at the same time it’s clear when you are a feminist, you re-meet this issue all the time.
Q. Why is it so hard for people to admit that abuse is going on in the home?
A. People are really trained to think they have to think that their families are loving; so it goes way beyond individual beliefs; it goes into whole building of societies, which is based on those patriarchal values, where you cannot question your superior, and there was this order, based on age and gender, but mostly, first and foremost, within the family.
Q. What is next for Nane’s programs on women’s rights and addressing domestic violence in Hungary?
A. Our goal now is to make it clear that the state very often, usually, I would say, is a bigger obstacle in front of women who suffer any form of gender-based violence, including domestic or sexual violence, than the perpetrator himself. It’s the state that actually keeps women in this situation. It’s the state, therefore, that has to stop doing it, state and public institutions, the law, state funding, health care systems and stuff like that.
I spent 17 years on the hotline, and the most calls that I received is not out “I love him so much and I can’t believe that he’s doing this to me”; it’s about “How the hell should I get out of here and I can’t?”
And I think if women were given the freedom to leave violent partners, we wouldn’t have to talk about it so much, but they are not given the freedom to leave violent partners. On the contrary, they are really constricted when they want to leave because their financial claims are not acknowledged, even though they are totally valid because nobody [holds] the violent partner accountable; he doesn’t have to answer for his acts because women do not get any kind of financial remuneration for all the work that takes up their time, therefore they cannot do other type of work . . . just take care of children.
What we see is that it’s not that women don’t know how to [leave] or that they are ashamed. No, it’s that they are in a cage. And the key of the cage is way less often only in the hands of the abuser than we think; very often, it is in the hands of different state institutions.