„Fighting is a sign a love” is a popular joke that marked the upbringing of many young people in Serbia. It is then not surprising to see the findings of a research carried out by the Autonomous Women's Centre (AWC) which show that high school students today have a distorted image on what constitutes partnership violence.
Although majority of young people (81%) oppose the idea that it is sometimes justifiable for a young man to hit his female partner, they do not see a slap on the face as a problem: one in four young males in Serbia do not identify a slap across the face as violence, an attitude shared by one in ten young females in Serbia.
Sanja Pavlović, peer coordinator at AWC explains: „In our society, violence is generally normalized; we live in a society where parents still use violent methods on their children. In that sense, our perception is distorted, we cannot even recognize any more what violence is and what it isn't".
A research conducted during 2016 on a sample of 415 young people in 20 schools across Serbia, as part of the campaign "I’m allowed to say no. Love is not violence", shows that boys are more prone to physical violence against their partners, and that girls are less willing to tolerate violence, since in most cases they are the victims of physical assaults.
Reasons why one in ten young males support the standpoint that there are situations in which it is justifiable to hit a female partner, and why one in 33 girls agrees with that, can be found in the upbringing and education of young people who primarily adopt the pattern of violent behavior from their parents. Considering that every other woman in Serbia has been subjected to some type of psychological violence, and every third women to physical violence by their intimate partners, it is evident what kind of behavioral patterns boys and girls are exposed to growing up.
A slap across the face is often rationalized by using an excuse that it happened only once and never again. Girls therefore see this type of violence as being a part of the partnership relation. When a girl confides in her mother about a violent boyfriend, one of the answers she might get is: "Just take it, I've gone through that, your grandmother had gone through that, it's not that terrible…"
"The main impression is that there is quite a lot of violence in their partner relationships and that young people are no exception to adults. They go through the same mechanisms and the same patterns of violence", Pavlović stressed.
The activists of the AWC see media as one of the culprits for the high tolerance for violence, producing a daily dosage of brutality and details of violent acts which effect the perception of victim among young people. Despite frequent media reports on violence against women today, and messages that violence is unacceptable, sensationalism and tabloid headlines, as well as texts full of prejudice and stereotypes are actually sending a wrong image of how violence can and should be perceived.
"She is not a victim of violence if not fully covered in bruises, completely in tears, unraveled… So, if we do not see a typical model of a victim, she is not a victim of violence. And that is why young people do not understand what a slap across the face represents", Pavlović added.
One of the unsettling results of this research is that every third young person, regardless of gender, feels that a girl who is wearing a tight shirt and a short skirt is to be blamed if someone attacked her.
The attitude of the AWC is that this finding points to the essence of the patriarchate, that is, that girls are not only likely to lay the responsibility on other girls for an act of violence, but are also likely to blame themselves. That is why the responsibility is seldom laid on the perpetrator of violence, and the focus is placed on the victim who had somehow inspired the act and is therefore responsible.
„This is the moment which reveals just how insecure girls are, how social interaction has taught them to always question themselves and that they can never be good enough because no matter what they do they are somehow responsible for what is happening to them" Pavlović said.
Media headlines such as "Bloody revenge of an abandoned husband", "He couldn't live after the break up", "He couldn't watch her go with another", are actually attempts by some media to justify the acts of the perpetrators. Many such messages find their way to young people who then transfer this way of thinking to their partner relationships.
As part of this project, the Autonomous Women's Center is organizing three-day workshops in high schools across Serbia, during which they discuss partnership relations with young people, primarily girls, and encourage them to distinguish between forms of violence and learn how to stand up against it.
One of the observed problems is that young people do not see their schools or professors as safe places or persons which provide protection. Research data show that 89% of young people feel that neither schools nor teaching staff are concerned with their safety. As much as 93.7 % feel the same about the police. If they experience partnership violence, girls most often confide in female friends, but are unable to find a way out of that situation.
"There was one case where a girl told a head teacher about harassment, to which she replied - You will leave this school next year and I must stay here until retirement! If this type of answer is representative of the entire school, how can we expect our children to turn to anyone else", Pavlović warned.
To reduce violence in youth interpersonal relations schools must adapt their curriculum and become a safe place for young people, and the society as a whole (including media) must empower young girls to say NO and teach them that love is not violence. It goes without saying that girls and boys must be thought from a young age that the popular saying "Fighting is a sign of love" is not true.