Trapped at home: Domestic violence victims at high risk in coronavirus confinement
(Photo: Shutterstock)

For many French women and families suffering from domestic violence, being confined at home with an abusive partner due to the coronavirus is set to become a living nightmare.

Paris-based psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen recently recounted the plight of one woman stuck at home with a partner prone to violence.

“When her husband drinks, the effects are already terrible – she frequently suffers from psychological and physical violence," said Hirigoyen, who counsels a number of domestic violence victims. “But with the lockdown, that risk has increased. She just called me saying he went out to do some shopping and buy alcohol; she's terrified of when he returns."

France has been in lockdown since March 17 – a situation that could last for weeks and possibly months. It is an unprecedented scenario that could have enormous repercussions for the safety of those confined with an abusive partner.

Since the start of the lockdown, Hirigoyen has received several calls and messages from patients fearing for their safety.

“Domestic violence perpetrators are already fragile individuals who cannot bear frustration, so the confinement will only worsen the situation,” she told FRANCE 24.

Measures to address the problem

Domestic violence is a serious problem in France: It is estimated that a woman is murdered by a partner or ex-partner every two to three days. Last November, the government unveiled a series of nationwide measures in an attempt to address the issue.

Among the raft of recommendations were increasing school programs designed to raise awareness of gender-based violence; hiring more specialized social workers at police stations; and working with doctors to ease confidentiality rules so they can flag potential domestic abuse cases to authorities.

With the whole of France now on lockdown, activists, women’s groups and health workers need only look at what happened in China at the height of the coronavirus epidemic.

Attacks in China tripled in February compared to the same period the previous year, according to a former police officer from Hubei province who has founded an association combating domestic violence.

In a report earlier this month that looked at the impact of coronavirus on women, Human Rights Watch cited local Chinese media reports on the uptick in domestic abuse.

It noted the lockdown had triggered a “greater incidence of domestic violence for reasons including increased stress, cramped and difficult living conditions, and breakdowns in community support mechanisms”.

“Crises can often further limit women’s ability to get away from abuse, and place victims in an environment without appropriate access to services, such as a safe shelter away from abusers and accountability for abuse,” Human Rights Watch wrote.

>> Gender and the coronavirus: Why are more men dying than women?

A worrying silence

There was much concern among French NGOs working with sufferers of domestic abuse when the French government announced the lockdown.

“Times of crisis are always conducive to a rise in violence,” said Caroline De Haas, a member of the French feminist collective Nous Toutes (All of us).

“For those suffering at home, it can quickly go from psychological abuse to physical, sexual violence, and maybe even lead to femicide.”

In response, Marlène Schiappa, the French minister for gender equality, said the emergency hotline for victims (3919) would remain open during this period.

However, FRANCE 24's attempts to call the hotline this week were unsuccessful. Officials later told us that calls to the hotline are “in the process of being transferred to the numbers of other associations”.

Those working on the front line are extremely worried that their phones are not ringing.

“Since March 17, we have had practically no calls; usually it's four to seven calls per week," said Delphine Zoughebi, a lawyer in Paris who specializes in defending domestic violence victims.

Zoughebi said one client has not been in contact since the court summoned her abusive partner several days ago.

“The situation is very worrying, I know that spouses often look at their partners’ cell phones,” she said. “My client is a mother who lives with her child under the same roof as her spouse. For the last few days, she has been locked up with him.”

Urgent court hearings are still being held despite the lockdown, allowing judges to issue emergency protection orders so the accused is no longer permitted to live with the affected partner or the family. But these hearings are limited in number.

Nowhere to go

The question remains as to what options women have when everyone is under government order to stay home. As Pauline Baron from Nous Toutes explained: “Currently, they cannot go to a hotel, can’t take refuge with relatives; they really have no other solution.”

France is already lacking adequate emergency housing to accommodate these women and their families.  In 2018,  the country’s High Council for Gender Equality declared that 11,000 additional places were needed for emergency shelters. The government announced last November that just an additional 1,000 places would be created.

Zoughebi said there was one remaining line of defense that does not require additional government resources: “Solidarity between neighbors. If you hear furniture falling, chairs being thrown, angry shouting, you need to see what is happening or alert the police. That is the best thing to do in these times of confinement.”

“These women who often turn to associations to… seek help, are not able to, since so many of them are currently operating with far less staff. This situation could be catastrophic, so we must be vigilant,” she added.

France does not have to look far for a model of how to deal with domestic violence in the era of coronavirus. Neighboring Spain, the second European country to be hard hit by COVID-19 after Italy, has already implemented innovative measures to combat domestic violence. Madrid has established an instant messaging service with a geolocation function and offers an online chat room that provides immediate psychological support to victims.