Painted in blood red on a makeshift memorial in Vienna, the number 31 is a grim reminder of a grim count: the women killed by men in Austria last year.
After several particularly horrific cases of the murders have been widely reported in the media, the issue of femicide is now fully in the spotlight.
In a small, prosperous country where violent crime is generally rare, a public debate has begun, encouraging activists and forcing politicians to act.
“It’s a really dramatic situation… It’s incomprehensible,” Maria Roesslhumer, executive director of a network of women’s shelters, told AFP.
The numbers have fluctuated over the years, but between 2010 and 2020, 319 women were murdered in Austria, mostly by their male partners or ex-partners, with a record 43 victims in 2019, according to a government-commissioned survey last year.
In 2018, Austria was one of three members of the European Union to report the highest rates of femicide where the perpetrator was a relative or relative, according to Eurostat data.
However, activist Ana Badhofer still denounces a “lack of outrage” over femicide and says her group organized the memorial at a Vienna market out of frustration.
She cited an example from November of a woman being beaten to death with a baseball bat.
It was a particularly shocking case last March that forced the issue to the forefront.
A 35-year-old woman, identified only as Nadine W., was beaten and strangled with a cable in a Vienna tobacconist’s shop by her 47-year-old ex-partner.
He then poured gasoline on her and set her on fire before leaving the store and locking the door.
She was rescued, but died a month later from her horrific injuries.
In April, the 43-year-old craft beer shop owner – previously accused by a politician of harassing her with obscene messages – was arrested for the murder of his former partner, a 35-year-old mother of two.
Both men received life sentences and were sent to institutions for mentally disturbed offenders.
‘Shame and stigma’
From France to Mexico, from South Africa to Turkey, activists have raised the alarm about femicide and violence against women, often through mass demonstrations.
In Austria, the coalition government recently allocated 25 million euros ($28 million) this year, among several initiatives to combat the problem.
The killings have sparked some soul-searching in the Alpine country, where more women than men are killed, according to Eurostat figures, making it an outlier in the EU.
Roesslhumer pointed to a “tangible social disrespect and contempt for women” that needed to be addressed.
Karin Pfolz has bitter firsthand experience of such attitudes.
During the decade of being trapped in an abusive marriage, she often felt isolated, she told AFP.
“You don’t have anyone to talk to because there’s so much shame and social stigma,” says Pfolz, who now talks about her experiences in schools.
Criminologist Isabel Haider of the University of Vienna said law enforcement officers also needed to be trained to respond more sensitively, as many women feel that “the police don’t take them seriously.”
The fear of not being believed kept Pfolz from contacting the police.
When she finally took her husband to court, she said that the attitude of the – female – judge reinforced the feeling that she was not believed.
‘Refugee in own country’
The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, on a recent visit to Austria, called for “an ambitious and comprehensive approach” to “protect women’s rights and gender equality”.
She noted that Austria’s gender pay gap — just under 20 percent in 2019, according to Eurostat — is among the largest in the EU.
“When you leave, you only have a plastic bag in one hand and a child in the other,” Pfolz said.
“You become a refugee in your own country,” she added.
But Pfolz knows that even when women are busy building a new life, they are often still threatened by former partners.
Her ex-husband was due to come to her new house and she recalled having to “lock myself in a room with my son because our lives were on the line”.
While acknowledging that the issue of violence against women is now higher on the agenda, Pfolz still laments that “hardly anyone even considers this a crime – until it turns into murder”.
This year was just a few days old before another shocking case made headlines: a 42-year-old woman was shot in the head and murdered by her husband at their dinner table.
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