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When Beer Breeds Violence, Oktoberfest's Help Center For Women

A waitress at Munich's Oktoberfest
A waitress at Munich's Oktoberfest
Sabine Buchwald

MUNICH — Munich's Oktoberfest has an ugly side. Alexandra Stigger is all too familiar with it but says it's nevertheless a great celebration. Stigger, 29, is a Munich native who grew up attending it every year, and now she works there — not in one of the beer tents but in a service center where the Red Cross, a lost-and-found and the women's support center where Stigger works are housed.

Known as the "security point," the name is meant to speak to foreign visitors who don't know about existing help centers in Munich. First created for the 2003 Oktoberfest, the security point's financing comes from the Munich government and a growing number of sponsors. As a social worker who specializes in trauma therapy, Stigger joined the team in 2012 and now coordinates security point staff and acts as spokeswoman.

Stigger is the schedule planner for the center, where some of the staff are young women majoring in social work. A social worker and five to eight helpers work as teams. More teams are on duty on Fridays and Saturdays than on weekdays.

It's when the tents are full, the beer flowing, when most incidents happen, requiring the point's five qualified social workers and 45 female volunteers to spring into action. These vary from fighting couples, to emotional breakdowns and to women simply being overwhelmed by the hubbub. Women who have lost their handbags are also helped here.

Last year, the service point helped 156 women and girls, which may not sound like a lot in view of Oktoberfest's 6.4 million visitors. Stigger suspects that a great many more women could have used help but didn't know there was any.

When women have too much to drink, lose their money, or their cell phone batteries die, they may suddenly feel very alone amid the mass of revelers. This also applies to men, "but shame tolerance levels are much higher in men than they are in women," Stigger says. Foreign women who may not be able to locate their group or manage to elbow through the crowds to get back to it may be particularly affected. Stigger says many Oktoberfest visitors underestimate the situation, especially first-timers.

"Typical clients at the service point are tourists who haven't yet booked a hotel room in Munich," Stigger says. "This may make the women more vulnerable."

Stigger and her colleagues don't take the attitude that women who need their services are to blame. In fact, "We believe that a woman should be able to walk through the festival naked and not be molested," Stigger says. What an idea, especially given just how uninhibited the atmosphere can be particularly on Saturday nights. But Stigger is dead serious when she repeats that predators are responsible for their behavior, not whatever they consider to be the trigger.

Violence amid revelry

Four women who visited the security point last year had suffered serious sexual assaults. Stigger accompanied one rape victim, a visitor from abroad, to the hospital and stayed with her until it was confirmed that that she could fly home to her family. The service point's main aim is to impart a "feeling of security," Stigger says.

Every year they make sure the center is cozy, with armchairs and plants, that there are changes of clothing available, and also something to eat. Just spending some time here is enough for many women to recover their strength. And for some, the opportunity to clear their head, recharge their cell phones and get in touch with their friends is all they need.

Stigger is also concerned for the security of the staffers. Two are usually sent out together when they drive a woman home, to her hotel or the railroad station mission if she has nowhere else to go, for example. This individual treatment is time-intensive, but no one wishes to leave clients to their own devices. If there isn't so much to do, then teams of two go out and patrol the more dangerous areas on the festival grounds.

A grassy hill that is a sled run in winter is one of these places. During Oktoberfest some men try to sleep off their drunkenness here. But it's not a safe place for tired women. Stigger relates how she found one female American soldier here suffering from traumatic memories of her tour of duty, which was apparently awakened by the festival's intense sensory experience. Through gentle questioning, she was able to get the woman back to the present and reoriented, Stigger says.

But right now her main priority is the security point and the "Sichere Wiesn" (Secure Wiesn — Wiesn being another German word for Oktoberfest) campaign that has a free app, "Wiesn Protect." It was downloaded 19,000 times in 2013.

Every year the services become better known and accepted, Stigger says. Women should feel safe knowing help is available if need be, and importantly, that feelings of shame are just not part of the equation.

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