Tackling domestic violence: ‘If you ask the right questions at the right time, you will save lives’
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With one of Europe’s highest domestic violence rates, France has a dismal record when it comes to listening to the victims of abuse and affording them protection. As it prepares to unveil measures to end the scourge, the French government is under intense pressure to set the record straight.
For years, Julie Douib endured her partner’s abuse in silence, quietly putting up with the regular beatings, threats and ritual humiliations in an increasingly desperate bid to protect herself and her two children.
“He made her believe she had to give up her friends, that there was no point in her working or seeing her family,” her father recalls. “It got to a stage where she was afraid for her life and her children’s – and that’s why she kept accepting it.”
When Douib finally mustered the strength to break up with her tormentor, he vowed to kill her, disfigure her and make her life a misery. She reported him to the police, several times, and pressed charges – to no avail. Adding insult to injury, a judge gave her estranged partner custody of the children pending an investigation by social workers.
“She told the police he had a gun,” her mother adds. “At one point she asked them, ‘Does he have to kill me for you to take me seriously?’”
On March 3, Douib’s former partner walked up to her apartment in Corsica and shot her twice, first in the arm and then in the chest as she sought to flee.
The 34-year-old became the thirty-first woman in France to be murdered by her partner, current or past, since the start of the year, a grisly tally that has now risen to well over one hundred. Her case is symptomatic of many of the failings that make this one of the worst-performing countries in Europe when it comes to protecting women from gender-based violence.
‘Daddy killed mummy’
On average, one woman dies every three days in France as a result of domestic violence. Government officials say 121 women were killed last year. Statistics compiled by AFP, following a case-by-case study, put the number of victims so far this year at 116, though some advocacy groups give a higher figure.
Seeking to draw attention to this scourge, activists have glued posters with the names of the dead onto to the walls of Paris and other French cities. Signs reading “She leaves him, he kills her” or “Daddy killed mummy with knives” have become commonplace in the French capital, as has the word “femicide” to refer to misogynist killings by men.
“We’ve been seeing the same figures year after year, but they were just numbers that nobody noticed,” says Natacha Henry, a gender-based violence expert and author of “To hit is not to love”. “At least now they have a name, an identity, because feminist campaigners have had enough.”
Henry and other members of the Psytel collective argue that the real number of victims is a lot higher. If one adds the women who committed suicide, or killed their partners in self-defence, as a result of domestic violence, as well as the children, relatives, new partners and even police officers caught in the violence, then the figure for last year is 433 dead, she explains.
Vowing to tackle the problem head-on, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has convened a major conference on violence against women grouping dozens of ministers, judges, police officers, victims’ relatives and representatives of feminist groups. Its results are to be unveiled on Monday, November 25.
“For centuries, women have been buried under our indifference, denial, carelessness, age-old machismo and incapacity to look this horror in the face,” said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe as he opened the consultation on September 3.
Philippe announced plans to create 1,000 new places in shelters for victims of domestic violence and expand the use of electronic bracelets to prevent offenders approaching their victims, adding that further measures would be announced at the close of the conference.
The minister of gender equality, Marlène Schiappa, has promised “strong announcements”. But her pledge of €1 million to help groups working in the field has angered activists, who say a budget of €1 billion is needed to combat widespread violence against women.
“The budget devoted to women’s rights is completely ridiculous: just 0.01 percent” of public spending, said Clémentine Autain, a prominent feminist and MP for the left-wing La France Insoumise party. “We can’t do anything with that.”
From harassment to murder
At the very least, the government’s conference is a chance to “inform the press and the rest of the public that there’s something going on and that we should all be working to change it,” says Henry. She doesn’t expect many new ideas to emerge from the discussions, other than “what we’ve been saying for years and years: that we need to train frontline professionals – and for that, we need money.”
One way or another, gender-based violence ends up costing the French state a lot more than what advocacy groups are asking for, Henry argues, citing recent studies by Psytel.
“Every year domestic violence costs the state €3.6 billion,” she explained, pointing to medical, policing and legal bills, on top of the cost of providing social services and looking after the children of victims. “Instead of spending that money when it’s too late, they should spend it before tragedy occurs.”
Putting the emphasis on prevention will require improved cooperation between social services, police and the justice system. Crucially, it involves training workers in all departments to identify and address domestic abuse before it escalates into deadly violence
“If you ask the right questions at the right time, you will save lives,” Henry adds.
A key to preventing physical violence is addressing the psychological violence that underpins it, says Helene de Ponsay, the deputy head of the National Union for Families of Femicide Victims (UNFVF), whose own sister was murdered by her partner in May of this year.
“It is absolutely essential that psychological abuses, which are at the root of all other violence, be listened to and taken into account,” she told AFP, pointing to cases, like that of her sister Marie-Alice, in which the man “does not have a history of physical violence but nevertheless goes from psychological violence to death and murder”.
De Ponsay noted that abusive partners were able to exploit emotional or psychological vulnerabilities in their victims, such as a lack of self-confidence. She added: “The strength of the perverse man is to know how to detect this flaw and seize on it, to reassure the woman, to offer her a kind of security at the start, a kind of emotional comfort so to better establish his hold, and then begin to start possessing, controlling and isolating."
‘Presumption of lies’
Ghylaine Bouchait was 34 when she was murdered by her partner in September 2017, following years of psychological torment.
“He was a manipulator who had a very strong psychological hold on the household,” her sister Sandrine recalls.
“The psychological hold was so strong she didn’t try to get help,” adds her sibling Nadège.
After meeting another man, who was kind to her, Bouchait decided to confront her abusive partner and tell him she was leaving – but he wouldn’t let her go. Instead, he beat her so hard her face was partly caved in, and then doused her body in petrol and set her on fire, in front of their seven-year-old child.
“The women who are victims of violence must speak out,” says Sandrine. “Tell your families, tell someone, just get out of there. Don’t let them [the violent men] control you.”
While it is hard enough for victims to break out of their isolation and go public about their ordeal, it is often equally difficult to find people who are capable of listening, understanding and acting thereupon.
Nathalie Tomasini, a lawyer who works with victims of domestic abuse, has stressed the many obstacles his clients face when seeking help from the authorities.
“It’s incredible that even today, my clients still have a very difficult time filing a complaint. First of all, because they are weakened by what they have experienced,” she told AFP. “And then when they file a complaint for domestic violence, they are suspected of wanting to deprive the father of his children and obtain damages. There is a presumption of lies.”
She added: “Every day I observe dysfunctions at all stages of a victim’s journey, from police to the justice system.”
Earlier this month, the Justice Ministry released a report acknowledging the authorities’ systematic failure to prevent domestic killings. It found that 41 percent of “conjugal homicide” victims had previously reported incidents of domestic violence, and that 80 percent of complaints sent to prosecutors were not investigated.
“Clearly, our system is failing to protect women,” Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet acknowledged.
Police inaction also made headlines in September after Macron visited a hotline call centre dedicated to reports of violence against women, and listened in on a call with a 57-year-old woman whose husband had threatened to kill her. He heard a police officer on the other end tell the woman that he couldn't help her.
Fabienne Boulard, a major in the French police, told the Associated Press that many officers respond appropriately to reports of domestic violence – but that others simply don’t recognise domestic violence or know how to intervene.
Earlier this month, Boulard led the first supplementary training on domestic violence for police in the Paris suburb of Les Mureaux. Activists are hoping such schemes, which are currently run on a voluntary basis, become compulsory across France.
‘Is this the husband you want to be?’
Feminist campaigners have long urged the French government to draw inspiration from reforms in Spain, where a groundbreaking 2004 law on gender-based violence has helped curb the violence by addressing the problem in social, educational and correctional terms.
Spain has notably set up dedicated police units and special courts, bringing the number of victims of femicide down from 71 in 2003 to 50 last year.
But in a reminder of the entrenched patriarchal culture that continues to oppress women, those efforts have faced a backlash in the shape of the far-right Vox party and its atavistic brand of macho chauvinism, which emerged as Spain’s third-largest political force after national elections earlier this month.
Ultimately, stamping out gender-based violence requires tackling the “toxic masculinity” that is still deeply rooted in mentalities, says Henry.
“We need to be asking the men, ‘Is this the father you want to be? Is this the husband you want to be? Is this who you are, a person who harasses night and day? Is your self-esteem so low it depends on breaking someone else’s?’” she adds.
In 2017, some 87,000 women and girls were murdered worldwide, most of them by someone in their inner circle, according to a 2018 UN report that highlighted the effects of gender inequality and violence.
These killings, the report said, do "not usually result from random or spontaneous acts, but rather from the culmination of prior gender-based violence. Jealousy and fear of abandonment are among the motives."
In societies still permeated with gender inequality, it is crucial to end the “culture of male control and domination over their partners, whereby they feel entitled to behave in such a way,” says Henry. “We need a very strong message to come across, that this will no longer be allowed to happen.”