They sometimes slap or hit their children with the belt as a form of correction. For most parents, “real beating is getting beaten to death”.
63% of children in Romania say they get beaten at home, though only 38% of the parents admit it, reads a Save the Children report published in 2013. We visited a traditional village in Iași County to see how these figures agree with popular wisdom, alcohol abuse and living on social aid.
“I don’t beat them, I don’t kill them, but they should fear me”
“Go away, leave me alone!” says Marcel, pushing away Marian, his 4-year old boy who’s embracing his father’s knees. “Leave me alone, can’t you hear me?” He throws his shovel next to the wood pile in the yard and tries to escape the assault of the child who’s in a playful mood. The tall, massive 50-year old man has just returned from the village where he does day labour “to get something to eat” for his eight children: Alexandru, 2, Marian, 4, Sebi, 6, Ștefan, 10, Nicoleta, 12, Petronel, 15, Florin, 17, Mihaela, 18.
He sits down in the shade, on the porch, again pushing away little Marian, who won’t understand that his father is tired: “Go to your mom”. “Let him be, so the photos will show how much he loves you,” Cristina, his wife, tells him. Marcel looks at us, stunned, and suddenly becomes aware of the camera. He puts Marian on one knee, and Alexandru, the youngest, on his other knee. Alexandru has just peed in his pants and Marcel slowly puts him down. “Come and take him”, he shouts at his wife.
Cristina, his 39-year old wife, is as shrivelled as a raisin and her thin silhouette makes her look even taller than she is. The skin on her face has turned black from sunburn and is crisscrossed with wrinkles, while the thin lips reveal pink gums and missing teeth in front. The Cojocaru family and their eight children live in the household inherited from Marcel’s parents.
Two crooked adobe houses, with holey roofs and walls in different shades of blue. Each of the two houses, located a few metres from each other, has two rooms in which several beds are crammed. There’s not a single chair or table in the whole house, except for a beer crate on which Cristina invites me to sit down. The yard is marked by the neighbours’ fences and a small gate tied with wire; behind the house starts a meadow stretching to the edge of the forest. They don’t have a WC in the backyard so everybody relieves nature behind the houses, under the eave. They don’t have a well either, so the woman carries water from the neighbours with a bucket.
The family lives on the social aid worth 337 lei (76 euros); at the beginning of the month they buy wheat and maize meal, potatoes, rice and oil, and Cristina plans out the food to last them. They sent all the children to school, except for Florin who, says the woman, fell on his head when he was a baby.
However, except for Nicoleta, their 12-year old daughter, none of them like studying. The older children abandoned school before completing their eight grade, and Ștefan spent two years in the third grade. The boy skips school many times, and that’s why Marcel beats him with the leather belt, Nicoleta tells me, while laughing. The belt is hanging from a peg, exposed to view.
“It’s not as thick as you told me,” I tell Nicoleta.
“It’s not thick, but it’s double. You know how hard it stings?”
“Does your father beat you often?”
“He never beats us; he sometimes slaps us or hits us with a stick. He beats Ștefan more, because he’ bad, he runs away from home, he doesn’t go to school.”
Cristina sits on the bed and washes the dishes in a red wash-basin full of a brownish liquid in which food scraps are floating. The waste smell combines with the urine odour impregnated in the bed mattress. The room serving as kitchen during the day turns into the parents’ bedroom at night. “I don’t beat my children, I just slap them, hit them with a stick, pinch them a bit once in a while,” says Cristina. “I’ve never beaten Nicoleta, I only slapped her once. She was in the 2nd grade when the school mistress summoned me because she was drawing instead of writing. Marcel swears at them sometimes, but I tell him ‘Leave them alone, man, they’re just children’.” Marcel sometimes grabs the “small cane” and whacks their bottoms. “I don’t beat them, I don’t kill them, but they should fear me. Otherwise, why did I make them?” says Marcel.
“Where mother strikes a blow, flesh will grow”
The Cojocaru family is not the only one in Mironeasa village which considers that a slap, a hit with a belt or a stick don’t mean beating. Even Mr. Georgică, the medical assistant, shares this opinion: “I myself got beaten by my father, but not that bad, only enough to know to fear him”. “Pupils think a serious beating is when you’re half-dead and the ambulance comes for you,” says Cristina Botezatu, the principal of the local secondary school.
Anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu believes that “minor violence” in Romanian communities, which children turn into folklore, is ironized and shared until it becomes a form of group therapy where trauma is dissipated. “Romania is the most lasting rural society, and in a rural society ‘beating is heaven-sent’ and ‘where mother strikes a blow, flesh will grow’”, says Vintilă Mihăilescu.
“We find ourselves in an incipient zone of linguistic education where abuse is only something extremely serious, it means that beat your child until he or she loses consciousness,” explains Diana Stănculeanu, a Save the Children psychologist. “Some parents, when asked ‘Do you ever react violently towards your children?’ answer serenely ‘No’. When the following question is asked, ‘Have you ever boxed your child’s ears or beaten his rear?’, they give us the same frank answer: ‘Yes, of course.’”
“Some parents, when asked ‘Do you ever react violently towards your children?’ answer serenely ‘No’. When the following question is asked, ‘Have you ever boxed your child’s ears or beaten his rear?’, they give us the same frank answer: ‘Yes, of course.’”
Approximately 63% of children in Romania say that their parents beat them at home, and 38% of parents recognise they beat their children, according to Save the Children, which, in 2013, conducted the most extensive study in the last 10 years regarding child abuse. The same study reveals that 18% of children get beaten at home with a stick, 13% with a belt and 8% with a wooden spoon. Most parents and children don’t perceive punishments such as ‘slapping’ or ‘ear boxing’ as behaviour falling into the sphere of physical abuse.
However, the conclusions of the study also show that physical punishment increases aggressiveness in children and the violence level among siblings and schoolmates, later leading to intimidating, aggressing and hurting one’s partner.
Therefore, we could have visited 63% of the families in Romania, but as we lacked the necessary means to do it, we chose Mironeasa as a representative Romanian traditional community.
“A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, the more you beat them the better they’ll be”
We’re driving up and down the hills of the Central Moldavian Plane, crossing the cool woods, passing by Hadâmbu Monastery, and we lose our phone signal, though Mironeasa village is only 36 kilometers away from Iași. The houses are low, painted in soft blues, and they look like toy houses, with carefully carved porches and eaves, blackened by winters and rains. Most of the households have clay ovens in the yard and colourful flowers in the garden; noisy geese and hens are preening in front of the gates.
Mironeasa has almost 5,000 inhabitants, most of which live on their five, six or ten children’s benefits or on social aid, as many other villagers in Romania. Local people are engaged in survival agriculture and a few, very few, work at the town hall or in pubs.
The poorest households appear after we pass the church and climb up an earth road. It’s hot and dry, but the dust which fills our nostrils turns into mud every time it rains. The 1-year old, 2-year old or 10-year old children play in the street next to the teenagers listening to manele songs on their mobile phones. Here and there, a concrete house looms ostentatiously here, on Cote d’Azur, as this part of Mironeasa is called – these are the houses of those who left to work abroad and thrived.
Carmen, a 11-year old girl who laughs revealing her white and crooked teeth, is kneading the bread dough with her cousin. She looks after her younger brothers while her mother is away at work. They are under their aunt’s surveillance; the woman shows up right away to see who we are. “I have seven children and I sometime have them help me, I can’t do everything by myself,” the woman tells us though we haven’t asked anything.
The Ioniță family lives in the last house on Cote d’Azur, which you reach after climbing until you’re out of breath to the top of a slope on which the locals have put gravel and cobbles. The tall, thick forest starts right behind their house, where children go pick nettles and mushrooms and men gather firewood. The clay house has two rooms in which five beds are crammed. The walls and the floor are covered with carpets oozing moisture.
Ioniță Dumitru and Maria, 46 and 38, have nine children: Gabriel, aged 1 year and 3 months, Ionela Petronela, 3, Denisa, 5, Neculai, 6, Maria Adelina, 10, Georgiana, 12, Alin Andrei, 15, Alexandra, 17, and Dumitru, 20. Ionela, Denisa and Neculai stay stuck to their mother and frown at us. Gabriel, the youngest, breathes heavily in his mother’s arms. “He has a disability, I gave birth to him after the accident with the wagon”, Maria says. She feeds him water and sugar from a baby bottle – there isn’t a dime left in the house and no powder milk.
The nine children have frequently witnessed their father beating their mother. The history of the Ioniță family is known in the village, and the social assistants took Maria to the hospital several times. When Dumitru beat her until he broke a few ribs and burst her spleen, they took her to a centre for victims of domestic violence, but the woman left a month later: the children had stayed back home with their father, as the centre didn’t have enough places to accommodate all of them.
Alexandra, now 17, has interposed several times to break them apart. “I yelled at him, I flung him on the bed so he’d stop beating her, and eventually he calmed down, but it was hard too cool him down,” she recalls. “Once I got between them to protect my mom, so she won’t get beaten, but he slapped me instead…”
The teenage girl has beautiful features, a slim body and generous breasts. She has the flat feet of someone used to walking barefoot and big hands, with nails blackened of too much work. When they started fighting, Alexandra would take her younger brothers outside in the yard, or, if it was cold, to the other room, and turned on the TV. “I would run outside crying, I couldn’t stay inside and watch them.” When Alexandra was younger, she frequently had nightmares and dreamed that her mother was dead.
The girl speaks haltingly and she doesn’t seem to be used to telling a story. I find it difficult to follow the chronological order of the events; her memories from one year mingle with what happened ten years ago, the fights she witnessed turn into a single, seemingly endless one. “It was my father’s birthday and my mother picked a quarrel, she told him to stop drinking and he, out of spite because she had taken his bottle away, started to beat her with his fists, his hands. He beat her too hard then. She couldn’t walk upright anymore, she was hunched, as if she had something broken, and when she got to the hospital, they told her she had her spleen broken.”
Maria has blue eyes and a smooth complexion; she was a beautiful woman, and the beauty hasn’t faded away, though Dumitru has marked her face with scars. He’d beat her because he was jealous, he’d blame her for being more beautiful than him. Liliana Tănase, the social assistant monitoring this case, believes that the man has hallucinations caused by alcohol.
“Then one day he was with a friend of his, he was smoking and I saw how he dropped ashes in his jug of alcohol”, Alexandra recalls. “And all of a sudden he turned really mad, he turned into someone else. When he sobered up, he didn’t remember anything. I told him that he had beaten mom, that the ambulance had taken her to the hospital.”
“He beat her too hard then. She couldn’t walk upright anymore, she was hunched, as if she had something broken, and when she got to the hospital, they told her she had her spleen broken.”
In 2007, Alexandra, who was then 12, went to the town hall and complained that in the morning, when she had left for school, her father had been beating her mother and in the afternoon, when she had returned from school, he was still not done. Following the girl’s complaint, the social assistant and the mayor’s deputy went to the Ioniță family and found the woman tied to the bed – she had been systematically hit all over her body with a power cable. Shortly after, the police took the children away to an emergency care centre.
“I spent about two months in that centre, then I ended up in the hospital because my brothers were being taken away from me and I was too worried I’d never see them again”, Alexandra says. “I was left alone with Adelina and Georgiana, and I had a bottle of poison. And I wanted to drink that poison, I said to myself that I’d rather die than live like that. Then they took me to Socola (a asylum for the mentally deranged –Editor’s Note) and there it was even worse, there were crazy people there.”
The children were reintegrated into their family a year later – on no account did they want to be separated and they couldn’t be adopted by one couple. Dumitru and Maria (who meanwhile had given birth to Gabriel) attended the Save the Children courses for parental skills and took all the legal steps to get their children back. The villagers say they went to all the trouble only to grab their children’s benefits, as Dumitru drinks and smokes his children’s money away.
“I wanted very much to finish school and my greatest desire was that my family wouldn’t be as it has been so far,” says Alexandra. She interrupted her studies when they took her to the care centre and she didn’t want to repeat her grade, as she refused to have classmates younger than her. Now she’s happy to be back with all her brothers and sisters; she bathes them, cooks for them and gets them ready for school. Sometimes she goes to work the fields by day and buys food with the money she earns.
Things have calmed down in the Ioniță family compared to previous years, but Dumitru still beats Maria sometimes, when he gets drunk. As his neighbours know he is jealous, they sometimes call him up to mock at him, and tell him that Maria cheats on him, so Dumitru gets back home very furious.
“Like father, like son”
“The boys witnessing such violent scenes turn into future aggressors,” says Liliana Tănase, social assistant with the Mironeasa town hall. “If my father acted like that, that means I should do the same. We even have concrete cases: Ioniță’s eldest son called me up to reproach to me that I had taken his mother to the hospital again: ‘He only beat her a little, she’s fine, they just fight and beat each other like that sometimes’.”
On paper, the two social assistants of the Mironeasa town hall monitor 20 cases of domestic violence, but in fact the number is double. “Cases of domestic violence are not frequent, however, a few affect both children and wives, the poor women end up sleeping in the garden,” says Liliana Tudose. “Men come home drunk and they simply pick on their wives, without any reason, and children witness all this.”
“Aggressive behaviour is learned,” believes Diana Stănculeanu, a psychologist with the Save the Children organisation. “Most of the children will perpetuate the parent model, as we do what we have lived, what comes easy to us. Hence girls develop the risk of becoming victims of domestic violence: as they were beaten at home by their fathers, they will choose as partners men who will treat them the same.”
Such a case occurred in the Mironeasa school, where a girl told her teachers that she and her younger brothers had to stand in front of their father to protect their mother. “The girl married when she was 14 to escape the atmosphere in her family and, from what I understand, she wasn’t very lucky either,” says Cristina Botezatu, principal of the secondary school in Mironeasa.
“I made you, I’ll kill you”
I google cases of domestic violence occurred in Mironeasa. The list of local articles about “terrible murders” reveals that several villagers solved their problems with the pole or the shovel. Last year a man tried to kill his brother with a vine prop, and another one stabbed his woman because she had left him. In 2012, a 22-year old young woman killed her mother’s concubine, and a couple of years ago a client stabbed the owner of the bar where he had drunk on credit. In the neighbouring village, Cioca-Boca, where children from Mironeasa go to highschool, a man beat his concubine and then left her to freeze to death in the snow.
The murder in the “house with flowers”, where a 22-year old woman killed her mother’s concubine, was committed in front of the family’s seven or eight children, says Liliana Tănase, social assistant. “Violence leads to violence by imitation,” believes anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu. “It can lead to a sort of competition of violence, as proof of manhood.”
Women don’t leave their violent men because they fear the villagers’ gossip, or because they have many children and nowhere to take them. And when a man beats his wife, none of the neighbours intervenes. “We have a saying: ‘It’s my woman, my children, I do whatever I want with them’,” says Liliana Tudose. “The neighbours don’t realize that this woman leads a miserable life – it’s his woman.” In a rural patriarchal society, interfering in a man’s family or household is an intrusion, explains anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu.
“In our turn, as rural, post-rural society we have this type of patriarchal mentality, that what I do within the four walls of my house is my business and only my business. Both legally and morally in this type of society interfering in a family is an intrusion. I repeat: not only morally, but also legally. How could I have legal access to make therapy with a family? Though I have all the proofs that something wrong is going on there. Morally, the society still doesn’t accept this: he did this in his house, you cannot interfere. The idea that one cannot interfere in someone else’s house is clearly related to a certain set of values, a certain mentality, and legally it also proves difficult. That’s the cause, it’s there we should intervene. So far the intervention in the public space is possible only collaterally.” Vintilă Mihăilescu
The local social assistants don’t have too many solutions for helping these women: if they take them to a shelter, they go back home after their children; if they call on the police to fine the aggressive man, he pays the fine from the children’s benefits. Furthermore, says Liliana Tănase, bureaucracy complicates their work. “A father, left alone after his wife left him, beats his child, in my opinion, as a form of revenge,”, she says. “The child is obviously beaten, he has bruises, he can make depositions and we’ve taken pictures of him. Despite this, it’s not sufficient, he needs a medical certificate.”
“Beating a child is like a curative herb”
Though studies reveal that violence occurs in all social layers, they are more frequent in economically disadvantaged families. “The adults in these families, apart from the stress of raising a child, face many other difficulties, such as unemployment, alcohol consumption, raising their children without a partner,” says Diana Stănculeanu, a psychologist with the Save the Children organization. “There are many risk factors due to which a parent’s patience and equilibrium are put to the test and are quicker to degenerate into violence than in a family of educated parents.”
Many times, the children in Mironeasa hide the fact that they are beaten at home, says physician Oana Miron, who sometimes sees her little patients bruised and injured. “Children hide abuse as they are aware that if social assistance or the police go to their homes, they will still bear the same fate, or even worse,” says Cristina Botezatu, head of the school.
“Poverty leads to violence, and violence in turn leads to poverty,” believes anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu. The largest problem of the community is the lack of money, leading implicitly to all the other problems. “A poor man drowns his worries in alcohol,” says Cristina Botezatu. “When he leaves the pub he often goes home, beats his wife and that’s it, he’s got food to put on the table and clothes to dress his children.”
Problems caused by domestic violence show best at school, where children “lose their temper out of the blue, swear and are rude to each other,” says Cristina Botezatu. “I gathered all the children from lower and higher grades as well and I asked them which problems come up among them. They told us that they swear each other and pick fights to solve certain conflicts. I asked them what measures we should take to make them stop beating or swearing at each other. And then a child said in a loud voice, and everybody agreed: ‘You should first of all beat us and then we’ll see’.”
Photographer Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu travel by caravan, trying to grasp the colours of the communities they come across on their way, in Romania and abroad. In order to afford the privilege of long-term documentation on a subject, they need your support. You can subscribe to postcards or buy limited-edition prints here.
Translated by Magda Achim. Translation edited by Anca Bărbulescu and Anca Fronescu.