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Voices from the Open Door - A Closer Look Into Lives Within a Kvindecenter in Denmark

Introduction

Our initial goal before conducting our research was to examine the differences that exist within the perception and treatment of Immigrant and Danish women within the Danish crisis centers, but upon doing our fieldwork, we stumbled upon something more interesting. We seemed to overlook the actual voices of these abused women, although they had always been there. We were looking at these women as a means toward proving our research and our own personal assumptions about the relations between different groups within crisis centers. Through listening to these women we found that their voices should have been the main purpose of our report from the beginning. Each story was a window which gave us the opportunity to look deeper into some of the complexities of two lives within a shelter. In order to be able to look into these specific cases we needed to learn more about the overall structure and organization of these crisis centers. Therefore we started our research at the national level, and worked our way through to the level of the individual life stories.  

Our research begins with Jytte Mejnholt, who is the head of Landsorganisationen for Kvindekrisecentre (LOKK) in Denmark. This association was founded in1987 to create a dialogue between all of the shelters within Denmark. There are only two shelters which are not affiliated with LOKK, these two shelters are headed by the Salvation Army. The shelter where we conducted the majority of our research was done in Den Åbne Dør (The Open Door) shelter in Vesterbro. This selection was based on time and accessibility, for the policy in most shelters made it difficult for us to gain access to the women. We were able to speak with staff at two different centers. We spoke with Linda, who is the head of staff at Lyngby Krisecenter and with Beate, who is part of the staff in Den Åbne Dør. Our research culminates with in depth interviews with a Danish and a Somali women who both reside in Den Åbne Dør.  

Jytte Mejnholt and Landsorganisationen for Kvindekrisecentre (Lokk)

Talking with an expert on the subject of domestic abuse helped to structure our research. Jytte Mejnholt, who is the head of Landsorganisationen for Kvindekrisecentre (LOKK), not only spoke about her organization, but she gave us an overview to how these crisis centers are run, and some useful statistics. The percentage of women that are non-Danish that live in the crisis centers in 1995 was 35%, and it 1999 it rose 2%. LOKK provides seminars once a year with the exception of two (one is Den Åbne Dør) that choose not to participate, and who do not agree with the politics of LOKK. Most crisis centers are funded by the counties which they reside in. The amount of funding for these centers varies according to each county. This decentralization can be detrimental to many of the crisis centers because some centers may go without enough funding for programs. 

One of the most obvious goals she envisions for her organization is for the violence against women to cease. She felt that the crisis centers are there to patch up a wound, like a band-aid, and they cannot always stop that wound from opening up again. Women are more likely to return to their abusive husbands or boyfriends, continuing the same cycle of violence. Except for Copenhagen, there is no treatment for men who are violent against women. Mejnholt notes that there is a lack of knowledge and courage among police, doctors and social workers against this type of violence. Although each of these professions are required to take courses on domestic violence, what worries her is that no one knows what is being taught in these classes. 

Another challenge that LOKK faces is the growing immigrant population. How can social workers help a woman they are not able to understand. What happens to these women, when a social worker does not check to see if they understand the information they are given? Aside from volunteers, social workers are the only people women can go to. They decide the fate of the household and the children in this particular setting. How can they be able to make such a decision when they lack a certain amount of knowledge of these particular immigrant groups? 

Mejnholt suggests that socialization learning is better then having immigrants in their own separate enclave. She said that when Muslim women come from their country they have no friends or family. Leaving their country may mean losing total contact with their entire family. In her opinion it is better for these women to learn from others how Danish society works. She also said that there is no difference in treatment between the Danish and immigrant women, the abuse is universal. She said that the difference lies in the needs of the Danish and non-Danish women. Often immigrant women struggle with the language and have a fear of leaving the household. In general, they are not familiar with the system, because their husband keeps them away from mainstream society. Danish women will have an easier time with the Danish system because they have been born into it, and are more familiar with it. A language barrier does not exist.  

According to Mejnholt, there exists a quota in some of the centers, controlling the amount of immigrant women. Her explanation for this was that it takes more time and energy to deal with immigrant women. Social workers will usually need a translator to interact with the immigrant women. Also most immigrant Muslims are on a special diet. That requires more resources and energy as well.

Mejnholt wants to create networks across countries, to create a flowing system of information about domestic violence, such as videos which teach about domestic violence. In order to put into practice these ideas, however, there is a dire need for funding, which seems to be one of the biggest challenge of them all.   

Centers

Until twenty years ago wife beating was not considered an issue of general societal concern, it was a private and personal matter specific to the woman. It was the women's responsibility to deal with the problem as part of the marital relationship within the boundaries of the individual household. The shelter movement was started by feminist women as an attempt to make wife abuse a visible problem and bring it onto the socio-political agenda. The movement is based on a feminist ideology where wife abuse is seen as the extreme reflection of unequal gender (power) relations within society. Patriarchal societal structures need to be changed since they work to maintain the suppression of women that in certain cases results in wife beating. There are a variety of different approaches to explaining the underlying causes of wife abuse. Evan Stark argues that battering reflects the erosion of male authority and power both at the domestic and the societal level. Therefore battered women are not passive and dependent but often women who have struggled to overcome their subordinate position. Wife beating needs to be de-individualized as a problem since it is not specific to the woman but instead reflects overall structures and unequal power relations within society. This approach was part of the overall policy of the shelter movement from the outset. They argue that they do not wish to treat the women seeking help as "sick" people needing cure. The "sickness", they wish to point out, is in the way society is structured. The shelters work on a "Help towards self-help" principle which means that living together collectively and sharing of experiences will create awareness raising and strengthen the women. Most of the centers do not offer counseling within the center since the principle is to learn from other women in similar situations. 

The shelters throughout Denmark differ greatly from each other in their practices, organizational structures and the manner in which they are funded. In this sense, shelters in Denmark should not be viewed as a homogeneous group, and the research of a few centers should not be considered as representative for all centers. The use of volunteer workers as opposed to paid labor (professionals) is currently a major debate amongst the different centers. It can be argued that the use of professional paid labor creates a hierarchy within the center and that this may possibly change the ideology of "one woman helping another woman" to a situation where the woman becomes the client of the center. This clientification of the women within a shelter can turn them into passive recipients of help/treatment, and away from the principle of active self-help. A woman from Syria says the following about her experience from a collective style shelter." I enjoyed the common eating facilities and the "hygge" (coziness) of the common room in the evenings." In the more professional shelters she said that there was not much communication between her and the workers there. According to Linda, the head of staff at Lyngby krisecenter, employing professionals in shelter work is necessary because the women are traumatized and therefore need help and support from professionals i.e. social workers, psychologist etc. This is contrary to the recruitment policies of the majority of crisis centers within Denmark where there is an extensive use of volunteer workers. 

There is no general consensus concerning immigrant women and quotas in the different centers. Each center has a different approach concerning quotas. In Denmark it is not allowed to use quotas controlling the amount of women with a non-Danish ethnic background in a center.  Despite this fact, since the amount of centers does not meet the demand, a certain process of selection must take place.  According to Linda at Lyngby crisis center quotas are not used but selection is based upon the composition of the contemporary group of women within the center. In practice this means that if there are 2 Pakistan women living in the center the third one will be rejected. This means that selection is based on ethnicity and there is not equal access for all women into the center. In Den Åbne Dør, ethnicity is not taken into consideration. This is reflected in the composition of the group when we visited the center. There is one Danish woman, three Somali women, one woman from Iran and one from China. There is only one woman with a non-Danish ethnic background who is able to speak Danish. Kvindecentret Røntofte has a rule to have only one "not-Danish-speaking" woman at the shelter at a time. Jytte Mejnholt argues: "Anyone can imagine, it is difficult to talk about one's inner feelings in a foreign language. It is just as difficult to offer the right help". The main reason for restrictive polices on non-Danish speaking women is a lack of resources. According to Beate, in Den Åbne Dør the language barrier does result in some misunderstandings and it is necessary to use a translator during conversation. Beate herself is a woman of non-Danish origin and she considers this an advantage since she has a good understanding of what it feels like to live in an alien society. She can serve as an example of successful integration into the Danish labor market and as a positive role model for the women. 

According to Beate there is no sense of sisterhood among the women in Den Åbne Dør. Fights and conflicts are part of everyday life at the center. The women do not necessarily only socialize with women from their own ethnic group. The Somali women do have a strong sense of sisterhood in Den Åbne Dør and seem to help each other more extensively then the women in general do. According to Beate in her experience the most pronounced difference between the Danish and non-Danish women in the center is that the immigrant women generally have a larger network and receive more visitors. The Danish women are generally more lonely and have a very limited network if any at all. The Danish women more often come from a background where they themselves grew up in institutions like the crisis center. They are familiar with the rhetoric of the institutions, they know the rules of the game so to speak, and therefore know how to behave in order to get what they want. The immigrant women usually do not have an extensive experience with crisis centers and are therefore often more insecure about how to act. 

Beate doesn't support the idea of crisis centers exclusively for immigrant women, but on the other hand, she recognizes that coexistence of different ethnic groups within a center can cause problems. It is more important to focus on the women's potential and what they can learn from one another. According to Beate the Danish women have a lot to learn from the immigrant women on the social front. They need to learn to take better care of one another, to think in a more collective instead of in an individualistic way. According to Beate the immigrant women can learn from the Danish women to take more active part in playing with the children and take the children on trips, to the ZOO, etc.

It is very difficult to generalize since every woman has her own personal story and experiences. Within Danish society today there is a tendency to focus on ethnicity as the most important factor in the construction of identity, and to reduce everything to a cause of ethnicity. The following two stories from two battered women reveals that ethnicity is just one small part of a very complex equation.

C's Story

C will turn 27 next month. Without her short brown hair, and her pleasant manner, it would probably be hard to tell otherwise. She has been through a lot and the traces of time seemed to have made their mark on her even at so young an age. C is the mother of three small children, two boys from her first marriage and one girl from her second. Prior to living in the crisis center, C lived in a shelter that housed both boys and girls for a few years when she was a teenager. She has relatively little contact with her mom, and her father is an amputee, whom the doctors say can die any minute if he doesn’t get the care that is needed. This was part of her story before knocking on Den Åbne Dør a couple of months ago.

C is a victim of domestic abuse, a problem that affects many households, but is not talked about, and has been sort of forgotten in the wave of other issues facing Denmark today. Her first husband physically abused her, and though you cannot see the physical scars anymore, as she described her story, you could not help but notice the tears that welled up in her eyes. Tears that never reached the surface, which shimmered in silence as she continued her story. Tears which probably showed their form as she watched her ex-husband shake one of her boys until he cried. She often fought back against her ex-husband, against the fists and uppercuts. C wants to look ahead towards the future, and not look backwards to things that are unchangeable. Her ex-husband is allowed to see the kids once or twice a month. She and her ex-husband have reconciled their differences and talk as friends for the kids’ sake. These are some of the events which led her to the crisis center and for C, this is something that propels her to look forward, and not wade in the murky waters of a past that cannot be reconciled.  

Our “interview” with C ended up to be more of a conversation piece as opposed to a traditional question and answer routine. She was eager to share her story with us. C rarely has the opportunity to share this story with people who are willing to listen. There is a certain amount of isolation that surrounds her.  C does not have a large network of friends and family outside of the center.  Apart from another Danish woman who used to live in the center, C does not seem to associate much with the women in the center. C would like to eat together with the women of the center, but for her the differences are too many. The most important people in her life are her children and she puts them first before anything. Her children receive counseling from the center. A psychologist talks to her children once or twice a month.

In the interview, we asked her about her feelings living in the crisis center in general. C described how the relations with the women that she lived with were not so good. One of the main problems that she suggested was cleaning. She said that the people who lived in the shelter did not have a definition of what clean meant. In the center they hold meetings for all the residents, and she did not understand why they wanted her to clean, when she had been doing so from the start. From her standpoint there were no outward signs of racial tension between her and the women in the shelter. What seemed to cause the problems was the lack of understanding between her and most of the women in the shelter. She did not agree with the way the other women in the shelter treated their children. In her eyes, the parents did not spend enough time with their children, and they were undisciplined. She did not like it when the children of the Somali woman touched her things, namely her cellular phone, and tried to play with it like a toy. Yet this same telephone she gave her daughter to play with. C said there is definitely a difference between the way Danish people handle their children as opposed to immigrant women.

Through all of her experiences, there is a certain part of C that feels naive, that seems to feel vulnerable to the men who promise her the world, but seemingly contribute to the void. Den Åbne Dør seems to have contributed a lot to her well-being, a nice spacious room, an opportunity to stand on her two feet again. Den Åbne Dør does not interfere too much in her life. When asked why she did not choose to live with her brother, she laughed. We laughed understanding what family can be like sometimes. During the interview C offered us some iced-tea, and we were thankful for the few minutes of relief, as we went into the staff office to retrieve some glasses. During this break, we sat down and played with her baby girl. We made all sorts of funny faces, which made the child giggle and laugh. The baby soon became bored of us and started to cry for her mother. For a minute it was only us in the living room, the staff did not hear these cries beyond the two doors which separated us from them. In that instant we could hear the echoes of silence which surrounded us, the quietness which C has felt for a long time.  

C has many dreams that she shared with us during the interview. Her belief was that if you have a restaurant that served all types of food from different ethnic groups that would serve as a means of unification for all people regardless of their background. She had other dreams. Dreams of being an information consultant and an interior decorator. Dreams of becoming more then the mother of three beautiful babies and the former battered wife. 

D's Story

We found D in the common living room of the center surrounded by young children, and to our surprise a man was also present in the room. Later on we learnt that he was D's former abusive boyfriend and the father of her two children. She has no interest in seeing him anymore but he comes to the center to visit the children. D is a young woman 25 years old and a mother of two, she has currently been living in the center for two months. She migrated with her parents to Denmark from Somalia because of the civil war. Somalia will always be home to her and she thinks about returning every waking minute, but there is no future for the children in Somalia so she will probably stay in Denmark for their sake. 

Religion is a very important aspect of D's life and identity. She is Muslim the same as her parents and the other women from Somalia in Den Åbne Dør. It strikes us that she is wearing just regular jeans and a T-shirt. There is no veil concealing her hair, and she explains to us that she does not have to wear a veil amongst women. In general she finds it very hard to be a practicing Muslim in Denmark. D finds this to be the biggest barrier to integration and acceptance within Danish society. She has experienced being yelled at in public because of the way she dresses. D can remember one incident where somebody yelled: "Go home" as she was walking in the streets. D dresses as a Muslim and therefore people generally don't expect her to speak Danish and often get very surprised to discover that she masters the Danish language extremely well. 

We learned from Beate that a lot of the battered immigrant women do not speak Danish because their husbands have refused to let them attend language courses. D has a different explanation to this problem.  She explains that motherhood is so demanding for Somali women, they have little time to learn the Danish language. It is for this reason that men are obliged to speak on the women's behalf.   According to D, the inability to speak Danish has fostered the perception of the Somali women as stupid and lazy within the Danish population. D herself learned to speak Danish before she met her former boyfriend and before becoming a mother. 

This is not the first time D has lived in a crisis center. She has lived in Dannerhusset crisis center as well. When D was 19, due to differences between her and her father, she was forced to leave her home. Her father didn't abuse her, but later on her boyfriend did and this is how she ended up in Den Åbne Dør. D lived with the violence for 1 1/2 years but it was very difficult to leave her boyfriend. He often threatened to kidnap the children and bring them back to Somalia so she would never get a chance to see them again. She was obviously not comfortable talking about the abuse, but she did explain to us that the experience had made her afraid of commitment. According to D she will probably never be able to engage in a relationship with a man again. 

She only shares her story of the abuse and violence with the staff in Den Åbne Dør. Her parents refuse to listen to her problems because her father did not approve of her boyfriend in the first place. She can't confide in her friends either because she is afraid of gossip among the Somalis in Denmark. Her children do not receive counseling because according to D they have not suffered any damage and are doing fine. D herself does not receive counseling either because according to the Koran one has to accept the good and bad in life that is one’s destiny. One has to accept the good and the bad without trying to change it in any way, what ever happens is meant to be and is therefore right. She still loves her former boyfriend even though he abused her. 

Due to cultural differences, D explains that is difficult to be friends with Danes. One example of this is on a Saturday night she enjoys studying the Koran, where as a Danish woman might prefer to go out. D thinks that crisis centers exclusively for immigrant women is a good idea.

Many immigrant women are raised to have collective values. The notion of the individual is of minimal importance. It is the collective identity of the family, group and/or community that is valued on a higher scale. In Somalia, when a girl gets married she moves in with her husband’s family and contributes to that collective family. The encounter with the very individualistic Danish society was very difficult for D. She finds Denmark to be a very cold and lonely society because a large part of the population live alone. Two of her biggest fears are loneliness and managing an apartment with only her and her children. In order to cope with the difficulties of life after the center, Den Åbne Dør can offer to move some of the women into an apartment located in the same street as the center. In this way the women can slowly get used to being on their own. Since one apartment is not sufficient, Den Åbne Dør hopes to expand the number of apartments in order to help the women establish themselves in society.   

Conclusion

The day before we began our research, Tøger Seidenfaden, the editor-in-chief of Politiken, gave us some general advice on our subject matter. According to Tøger Seidenfaden, feminism is not considered a “hot” topic at the moment. What would make our topic more interesting would be if we added an immigrant twist to our paper. He commented that since Danish women are doing relatively well, focusing on non-Danish women is more relevant in light of the recent debates on immigration and integration. While Seidenfaden is correct in saying that women have made much progress in the last few decades, we feel it is dangerous to say that a problem is solved just because there are more Danish women in positions of power. We feel that if the problem of abuse among ALL women regardless of race, color or creed was no longer a relevant issue, there would no longer be a need for more shelters for battered women, as Jytte Mejnholt suggested in her interview. In many ways this reflects the patriarchal structures within society that dictate the political agenda. Similarly, the women that are abused are often silenced by their husbands, who control them psychologically, emotionally, and physically. Just focusing on the act of violence only scratches the surface of the many layers of gender inequality which exist.

The question of ethnicity for Mejnholt and Beate was emphasized as a factor structuring the lives within the crisis center, however talking to the two women within the center this factor was of lesser importance. What seemed the main cause of conflict within the center was the practice of daily cleaning which should not be attached to ethnicity. Living together in a small society of women will naturally cause conflicts on an every day basis, because the shelter is not a place that anyone wants to live in. The center is only designed for temporary usage, and this may affect the level of energy and commitment the women are willing to put into the relationships within the center. Both women expressed a desire to live independently where they would only have to consider their own needs and wishes. 

Ethnicity is more of an issue when you take into account language. As stated before, it takes a lot of energy and resources to have an interpreter present at all times. This may be a reason why there are so few interpreters in general. There should be an effort to put more funding into having language classes, not only for learning Danish but for learning the language of the “other” as well. This may improve the overall communication between women within the center and between the staff and the women. This would enable the staff to support the immigrant women in the same manner as the Danish women. 

Shelters exclusively for immigrant women would only make the process of re-establishing their position within society much harder. The composition of women living in a shelter needs to reflect the overall demographics of society. Furthermore, a multiethnic center can facilitate interpersonal relations and therefore be used as an opportunity to learn about different cultures. 

Loneliness is something that cuts across all ethnic barriers.  In a sense, while these centers help women to function on their own in society, there is no real remedy that can combat the fear and isolation factors that surround women once they decide to enter and ultimately leave crisis centers such as Den Åbne Dør. C and D were different in that D had a larger amount of people to draw upon while C had no real network. One solution for this type of isolation might be to create a network of personal relations with other women in the same situation to provide greater support. The centers could support the establishing of long term networks by setting up meetings for former residents. Participation would be strictly voluntary, taking into consideration that some women have a wish to leave their experiences of abuse and shelter life in the past. 

References

Interviews

Jytte Mejnholt, Head of Landsorganisationen for Kvindekrisecentre (LOKK).

Beate, part of the staffe in Den Åbne Dør center.

Linda, Head of staff in Lyngby krisecenter.

D, Resident in Den Åbne Dør.

C, Resident in Den Åbne Dør. 

Literature

Feder D. (1999) Women and Domestic Violence. The Harworth Press, New York.

Mejnholt J. (1986) Kvindecentre Røntofte. Helsingør.

Mogensen B. & Nielsen S. (2000) Solidaritet eller Klientgørelse ? En undersøgelse af Dannerhusets ideologi og struktur. Forlaget Sociologi. Gylling.

Nordic Council of Ministers (1998) Shelters for Battered Women and the Needs of Immigrant Women. TemaNord, København.

Stark E. & Flitcraft A. (1996) Women at Risk - Domestic Violence and Women's health. Sage Publications, London.

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Denmark Denmark 2001

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