PARIS - The women arrive to safety stranded and shell shocked, very often clutching children. They are rescued after messages sneaked out in texts, emails and on Instagram, or reports of angry arguments or blows. Other victims manage to slip out to alert a local pharmacist, using a new code word for their predicament.
Across Europe, a toxic mix of coronavirus-triggered lockdowns and rising anxiety over the pandemic’s fallout is creating fertile ground for deepening domestic violence, experts say. Governments more focused on containing the pandemic were less prepared for this crisis.
Only now are authorities scrambling to respond — even as women’s groups say far more resources are needed to combat domestic abuse, now and in the future.
“Never before has there been a greater need to come out with innovative solutions, concerted efforts to keep women and children safe from violence,” said Marceline Naudi, president of GREVIO, the Council of Europe’s expert group on violence against women.
“Were countries prepared for the effect coronavirus would have in this area?” she added. “I would say probably not.” As the pandemic spreads globally, so too do fears the physical and verbal assaults will also tick upwards.
“Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes,” tweeted United Nations chief Antonio Guterres on Sunday, calling the rise in domestic violence “horrifying” and urging governments to include women’s protection in their coronavirus response plans.
Rising European numbers
In Europe, Denmark reports rising numbers of women seeking refuge in shelters, the Council of Europe says, and Spain reports a spike in calls to a dedicated abuse hotline. Meanwhile, Italy and France are registering an equally worrying drop in traditional hotline calls.
“It doesn’t mean there are fewer cases of domestic violence — quite the opposite,” said Anne-Cecile Mailfert, president of the Fondation des Femmes, an advocacy group fighting domestic violence in France. “It means women can no longer safely call in.”
Over the country’s first three weeks under coronavirus lockdown, French authorities announced a roughly one-third jump in domestic abuse cases—adding to an average 210,000 cases reported annually.
“I refuse to allow confinement to translate into impunity,” French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told local radio this week.
Yet experts believe such region-wide violence will likely continue or rise under lockdown. It is being fed by claustrophobic conditions in tiny urban apartments, where families are piled atop each other during confinement, but isolated, rural areas also pose danger.
“Neighbors there can’t hear and report what’s going on,” activist Mailfert said.
In recent days, the French government has rolled out extra measures to respond to the spike, including new ways for women to access legal and other support via emails and text messaging. It followed Spain in establishing a special codeword for victims to alert pharmacies, which pass the information on to police.
“We’re almost the only businesses open in France and we’re used to talking to our patients,” Jean-Marie Guillemin, who heads a local pharmacist board in the Haute-Garonne region told a local newspaper. “Everyone in the profession supports this.”
Other new measures include “popup” counseling centers and more financing for women’s services. Some, like establishing a first-ever French hotline for perpetrators of domestic violence, are controversial.
“It surprised me,” Mailfert said, noting abusers are often manipulative. “During this time of confinement, the most important thing to do is to separate people.”
More resources needed
France is not the only country coming up with innovative strategies. Italy has launched a new domestic violence alert App. The Belgian capital has opened a special hotel for victims.
But in all cases, experts say, available funds over the years do not match the size of the problem, and the COVID-19 crisis is no different.
“Generally funding for specialized women’s services is inadequate across the countries we monitor,” said the Council of Europe’s Naudi, of the organization’s 47-member states. “The services are insufficient, they don’t have enough funding — and the funding they do have is unstable.”
Still, some groups are capitalizing on the new resources now available, although these too can be tenuous.
In the Paris area, Brigitte Chabert, who heads women’s support association Du Côté des Femmes, says student housing emptied with the lockdown is being repurposed to shelter the new influx of victims. The rooms are available until July.
“We’re seeing victims of all kinds of violence — sexual, or linked to kids making too much noise, even partners who explode because the soup is too hot or too cold,” she said.
Two rooms in the student facility are dedicated for play and sports — with each broken family using them separately because of health safety concerns. Social workers are available for legal and psychological counseling.
“They arrive completely shattered,” Chabert said of the women. “They need time to pause, and to think about their next steps.”