On lockdown with an abuser: When staying home brings threat of violence

Why We Wrote This

Stay-at-home orders are meant to keep people safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. But how do you protect people who live with their abusers?

Colette Davidson
City-wide, activist-sponsored graffiti meant to draw attention to domestic violence is seen on a wall in the 19th arrondissement of Paris on April 8th, 2020. The graffiti reads “Domestic violence: 80% of complaints are not investigated.”

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It’s a trend seen across Europe since lockdowns began to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Britain’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen a 25% rise in calls and online reporting of domestic abuse, while Spain’s emergency number for domestic violence noted 18% more calls during the first two weeks of lockdown than the same period one month prior.

The lockdown has particularly highlighted the vulnerability of many women in France – where in recent years, one woman has been killed due to domestic violence every three days. French police recorded a 36% jump in reports of domestic abuse in Paris during the first week after France went into lockdown on March 17 and a 32% rise elsewhere in France.

Amid the uptick in reports, the French government ramped up its efforts. Following on the heels of a Spanish program, the French government announced that French women should utilize their local pharmacies to discreetly report abuse.

The French government will also open around 20 pop-up counseling centers in stores across Paris and in the northern city of Lille, where women can drop in while shopping. It has designated 1 million euros to help domestic abuse organizations, and said it will pay for up to 20,000 hotel rooms for victims.

Jill Bourdais has run a bi-weekly support group for survivors of domestic violence since 2011, and usually receives around five calls per week from her clients. 

But since France’s coronavirus lockdown began, the Paris-based clinical psychologist has gotten fewer calls and emails than ever. She says she hasn’t received a single call since March 27.

“If [women] are not currently living with their abuser and they’re not calling me, maybe there’s no real damage,” says Ms. Bourdais. “But if they’re not calling me and they live with an abuser; it’s too risky … they have much less freedom to reach out.”

The phenomenon that Ms. Bourdais observed is not unique. Many rights groups, as well as France’s free domestic abuse hotline, have noted a reduction in the number of calls they receive since France went into lockdown on March 17 – showing how difficult it is for victims to reach out for advice or resources when trapped inside with their aggressors. Meanwhile, the number of couples who've reached the breaking point has gone up; French police recorded a 36% jump in reports of domestic abuse in Paris during the first week and a 32% rise elsewhere in France.

It’s a trend seen across Europe since lockdowns began. Britain’s National Domestic Abuse helpline has seen a 25% rise in calls and online reporting, while Spain’s emergency number for domestic violence noted 18% more calls during the first two weeks of lockdown than the same period one month prior. The numbers prompted United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to tweet on Apr. 5: “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

The lockdown has highlighted the vulnerability of many women in France – where in recent years, one woman has been killed due to domestic violence every three days. And as a result, it could change just how high a priority domestic abuse is for the state.

“There’s been a real awareness since the #MeToo movement that this type of violence is not a private affair, that it’s unacceptable and a real societal problem,” says Olivia Mons, the spokesperson for victims’ rights group France Victimes. “But the state still needs to work on better coordination between different actors and invest more money to help victims – it’s a very good investment for the victim and the state.”

A serious problem even before the pandemic

France has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Europe, according to EU figures from 2017. Each year, around 200,000 women suffer physical or sexual abuse by a partner. In 2019, 149 women died at the hands of their partners – up from 121 the year before – and 950 violent partners were held in police custody.

Responding to increasing public pressure, the French government unveiled a nationwide action plan, dubbed “Grenelle,” against domestic violence in September 2019, promising more wide-scale use of electronic bracelets for offenders and the creation of 1,000 places in shelters for victims.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Domestic violence has been a major issue in France even before the pandemic, as this Nov. 23, 2019 demonstration against femicide and violence against women in Paris indicates.

And amid the pandemic lockdown, the government ramped up its efforts further. Following on the heels of a Spanish program where women can speak the code words “mask 19” in pharmacies to indicate they have suffered domestic abuse, the French government announced that French women should utilize their local pharmacies for similar reporting.

The French government will also open around 20 pop-up counseling centers in stores across Paris and in the northern city of Lille, where women can drop in while shopping. It has designated 1 million euros to help domestic abuse organizations, and said it will pay for up to 20,000 hotel rooms for victims.

But the measures haven’t gone far enough, say campaigners. In 2018, France’s High Council for Gender Equality said that 11,000 additional places in shelters were in fact needed, and rights groups say that at least 500 million euros must be dedicated to the cause.

Many anti-domestic abuse groups say too often, it’s the woman who must change her daily life to accommodate her abuser, and not the other way around. The Observatory for Violence Against Women for the Seine-Saint-Denis region, just outside Paris, announced at the end of March that it would work with a local tribunal to finance hotel rooms during the lockdown period – not for female victims, but for their violent offenders.

“When women leave for a hotel, often with their children, they don’t have their beds, their toys, they can’t cook. It’s unbearable,” says Ernestine Ronai, the director of the Observatory for Violence Against Women for the Seine-Saint-Denis region. “The violent man is the one who absolutely needs to leave.”

Campaigners also say that the French justice system favors offenders instead of victims of abuse. A November 2019 report by weekly Le Journal du Dimanche showed that officials did not follow through on domestic violence complaints 80% of the time.

Eléonore, a Toulouse-based woman who asked that her last name not be printed, says she was raped by her boyfriend in Paris in September 2016. With the help of friends, she finally reported the incident to police, only to have the situation turned around on her. The officer who took her case pressured Eléonore to sign a main courante, which records an offense but doesn’t take the complaint any further. He convinced her that doing otherwise would have grave consequences for her partner.

“They put the blame on me, saying that my boyfriend was just expressing desire and pleasure to see me,” says Eléonore, whose boyfriend had just returned from a long trip when the event took place. “I wasn’t allowed to have any emotions about it.”

Eléonore tried to take her case to another police station, but despite her efforts the case was never pursued and her boyfriend never received any punishment.

Neighbors and police

As French people are increasingly confined to their homes during lockdown, solidarity between neighbors has taken on greater importance – whether it’s to lend a helping hand or simply wave across an apartment complex. For domestic violence victims, neighbors can save lives.

Kate LeBlanc says she called the police last August when she heard a couple yelling in a neighboring building, in the Paris suburb of Puteaux. Although the police showed up in five minutes, Ms. LeBlanc says she’s not sure if they would be as reactive now, amid the pressures of the current lockdown situation. More police have been tasked to patrol the streets for potential rule-breakers, and answering house calls entails a public health risk.

“I would call the police as quickly now, but I’m not sure what kind of response I would get,” says Ms. LeBlanc. “I could speculate that it wouldn’t be as quick.”

Ms. Mons, of France Victimes, says that even if the police are under “extreme pressure,” victims shouldn’t hesitate to contact them about domestic abuse incidents. France Victimes has trained police forces in how to handle complaints and the official directive is to be especially proactive when it comes to such domestic violence.

France must go further, she says, to dedicate resources and money to help victims – in order to take the burden off the health and social services sectors now and in the future. But she adds that the #MeToo movement, coupled with France’s Grenelle action plan, have better prepared France to handle domestic abuse complaints during the lockdown period, which could potentially last beyond these early days in confinement.

It is news such as this that makes Eléonore, in Toulouse, consider whether she should reopen her rape case. But this time, she says, she would bring a lawsuit against not only the officer who dismissed her case the second time back in 2017, but against the French state.

“In my head, it’s still a possibility but I haven’t made up my mind about it,” says Eléonore. “I do have hope that things have changed since then.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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