Paris, France – Sandrine Bouchait remembers the possessions laid out on the bed in her sister Ghylaine’s apartment. Ghylaine had put them there the night she had tried to leave her partner, Christophe.
Ghylaine had been wanting to leave for weeks, Sandrine says, but Christophe had been threatening suicide if she did. He had also been surveilling her movements, meeting her at work every night when she finished her shift.
On September 22, 2017, Ghylaine had had enough. She told their daughter to go and get ready while she packed up her own things in the bedroom she shared with Christophe in the fourth-floor apartment they owned in the southern suburbs of Paris.
As she was packing, Sandrine says Christophe, whose surname we are not publishing to protect the identity of his daughter, hit Ghylaine, knocking her to the ground. He took a bottle in which he had mixed petrol and water and doused her with the contents before setting her alight, Sandrine explains.
When the couple’s daughter saw the flames, she opened her window and called out to her neighbours for help. The fire began to spread. Ghylaine heard her neighbours trying to break down the door and shouted to the girl to run out as soon as it opened. The seven year old escaped suffering only smoke inhalation.
“In giving up her life, she saved her daughter’s,” Sandrine says. She has recounted this story many times to many journalists.
Throughout the telling of it, Sandrine is stoic, straightforward, methodical. But her voice cracks and tears begin to well as she explains what happened next.
Ghylaine was taken to hospital, but there was little the doctors could do for her – she suffered burns to 90 percent of her body. As she lay there, wrapped in bandages “like a mummy,” Sandrine says she told her sister that she could depart in peace, that she would look after her child. Two days later, Ghylaine died of her injuries.
She was 34 years old.
First and second mothers
Sandrine, 45, is the oldest of the four Bouchait siblings. She is the doer, the organised one – if someone needs help with life’s admin, it is Sandrine who steps in, says middle sister, Nadege Botza, 42.
A childcare worker and mother of two, Sandrine carries with her an unassailable air of authority and an occasional sense of exasperation at the inefficiency of others. This is offset by a profound and genuine warmth; Sandrine is someone you would instinctively trust with your children.
When Nadege, who works in a primary school, momentarily forgets how old her own daughter is, Sandrine rolls her eyes, laughs amiably and in a no-nonsense manner, informs us that she is seven.
The Bouchaits grew up in Boulogne-Billancourt, an inner-west suburb of Paris nestled between a deep bend in the Seine and the vast former hunting grounds of the Bois de Boulogne.
Ghylaine was the youngest sibling, born nine years after Sandrine, and six years after Nadege. They were always close, Sandrine says. The whole family, including their brother, remains so. To this day, most of them live in the same sprawling apartment complex that spans a block of the suburb where they grew up. Sandrine, her partner and children are on the third floor, while her mother and brother are on the ground level. Nadege, her husband and her three children live over the river in Sevres.
Ghylaine was the furthest away, 10km to the south in the suburb of Plessis-Robinson, “but still in the same département!” Sandrine points out keenly.
Despite being furthest apart in age, Sandrine and her youngest sister shared a special bond. “I was like a second mother to her,” she says. “She followed me everywhere.”
When she was 16 years old, Ghylaine was the first person to hold Sandrine’s oldest son in her arms. Sandrine and the boy’s father had separated while she was pregnant, so it was her youngest sister who accompanied her to the hospital when she went into labour.
“She was a second mother for him, just as I was for her,” Sandrine says.
Now, as she raises her sister’s child alongside her two sons, the cycle has repeated once more
The year France woke up
When Ghylaine was killed in 2017, Sandrine says femicide was still rarely discussed in France. Today, things are different.
It is possible that 2019 may be remembered as the year France woke up to the seriousness of its domestic violence problem. Pressured by activists such as the feminist campaign group Nous Toutes, the government held a national summit on the issue that ran from September through to November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Two days before the government released their findings, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Paris to protest against sexual and sexist violence, the largest such demonstration in French history, organisers said.
Sandrine and other relatives of women who had been killed by a current or former partner led the march, carrying photographs of their deceased loved ones in their hands.
“Today, anyone who says they don’t know about [femicide] must be living in a cave,” Sandrine says.
But if awareness is at an all-time high, women are still being murdered at an alarming rate. By October this year, as many women had been killed by a current or former partner as in all of 2018 according to feminist collective Femicides by a Partner or Ex. The total for 2019 today stands at 148 compared to 120 in 2018 and 137 in 2017.
These numbers are updated in real-time throughout the year by anonymous volunteers from Femicides by a Partner or Ex, who scour media outlets across France to provide an updated tally of domestic violence deaths.
A founding member of the collective told Al Jazeera they had a grim series of Google alerts set up for every term they could think of relating to femicide – “woman slayed”, “body found”, “husband taken into custody” – as well as the euphemisms media organisations often use to describe or, in her view, downplay them – “family drama”, “crime of passion”, and so on.
When one of their search terms pings a report of a woman killed by a current or former partner, they publish the details on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, updating the yearly tally as they go.
Lawyer and domestic violence specialist Catherine Le Margueresse says this simple act of counting the dead women has played a huge part in the changing conversation about femicide in France.
“Every time a woman is killed, we know about it right away,” she explains. “Before, once a year in November we had one study that was released by the Ministry of Interior which said we had 110, 120 or 130 women killed [the previous] year.”
“Now we know from January to December how many women are killed.”
The collective has also provided families like the Bouchaits with an opportunity to connect with other people who have lost a loved one to femicide, and to turn their collective grief into political action.
The life of the party
Sandrine and Ghylaine Bouchait used to speak on the phone every morning. They would discuss their children, their plans, their jobs as they made their way to work.
Ghylaine was like any other woman her age, Sandrine says. “She was a very happy young woman, very bubbly, very funny. She loved life. She had a lot of friends.”
Among the family, she was always playing the clown. When they would watch movies together, she would try to repeat back the actors’ lines, getting them hopelessly wrong. “We’d die laughing,” Sandrine says, laughing at the memory.
“My little sister was the life of the party,” adds Nadege.
On her phone, she flicks through selfies the two of them took together, in which they are trying out a series of ridiculous poses – their tongues poked out, their hands clamped over their eyes, nose and mouth, imitating the facehugger in Alien. “This one’s my favourite,” she says, lingering on a picture of the two of them with their eyes wide open and mouths agape in faux-shock.
A few months before her death, Ghylaine had started work in a bakery in Plessis-Robinson. It was a perfect job for someone with her energy who liked to be around people, Sandrine says.
It was there that she struck up a friendly relationship with a client; a relationship that later became romantic. One that made her realise that there was something very wrong at home with Christophe.
United by grief
In 2017, Femicides by a Partner or Ex counted Ghylaine as the 96th woman killed in an episode of domestic violence that year.
But it was only in May this year that Sandrine came across the collective’s entry for her sister. She had been reading through the media reports about Ghylaine’s murder online, having recently realised that her niece would soon be old enough to find these articles for herself. She wanted to flag any false information that needed to be corrected ahead of time.
Femicides by a Partner or Ex had written that Christophe had attempted suicide after attacking Ghlyaine. Her family disputes this – they say he accidentally got petrol on himself during the attack, and when he opened a window, the fire jumped onto his clothes, resulting in burns to 70 percent of his body. He was in a coma for three months. The lawyer representing Christophe in his upcoming trial declined to comment for this story.
When Sandrine asked the collective to change her sister’s entry, they introduced her to a private Facebook group composed of other families who had lost someone to femicide.
Sandrine, who was in the middle of preparing for Christophe’s trial for Ghylaine’s murder in January 2020, said she realised she could help those families who were newly grieving the loss of a loved one – people like Helene de Ponsay.
Helene and her older sister, scientific consultant Marie-Alice Dibon, look startlingly alike.
They used to have fun with it, says Helene, 50. “As we grew older, we looked more and more alike and we played on that with people. It was very funny,” she says.
“But now it’s a heavy burden to look so much like her, when she’s not here anymore.”
Marie-Alice, 53, became the 51st femicide recorded in 2019 when her body was found in a suitcase floating in the River Oise in Paris’s northwestern suburb of Neuville-sur-Oise in April. Media reports said she had been drugged and suffocated. Two weeks later, her partner and suspected killer, Luciano Meridda, 66, was hit by a truck in central Italy in a presumed suicide.
Helene last saw her sister at her 50th birthday party, a few weeks before Marie-Alice was killed. “So this is how I’m entering my fifties,” she says, wearily.
Helene says she was trying to navigate the bewildering aftermath of her sister’s death – and the fact that no one would be held accountable – when she saw that the case had been recorded by Femicides by a Partner or Ex.
“They were the only ones who had actually written his name,” she says, referring to Luciano. Until then, in all the reporting on her sister’s death, she says no media organisation had identified the person responsible. “They had found his name somehow and they had written it, which for me was extremely important.”
But the collective had also gotten something wrong. They had said that Luciano had beaten Marie-Alice while they were together, which Helene said was not true. She got in touch to ask them to change their entry for her sister, and she too was invited to the private group.
Helene says that before she joined the group, she felt like she was walking through a desert, alone with her grief and incomprehension. After she joined, she was able to talk to people who understood only too well how she felt.
“Even though I was afraid to be in touch with people who were so traumatised, I realised that in fact it was doing me a lot of good to exchange with them,” she says.
On November 23, Helene walked with Sandrine Bouchait, Nadege Botza and dozens of other family members of femicide victims at the front of the march.
The picture of a smiling Marie-Alice she held in her hands could just as easily have been a picture of herself.
A man with two faces
Ghylaine met Christophe in 2007. They moved in together soon after and had a daughter in 2010.
“He seemed normal,” Sandrine says. “I trusted him.”
But Christophe was a different person behind closed doors.
“He had two faces,” she says. “He had a face for when he was with people, and a face for when he was at home.”
Ghylaine told her sisters that he made her clean the house in a certain way and controlled what she ate, demanding to know what she had consumed recently and telling her she could not gain weight. “It was never compliments with him, it was always reproaches,” Sandrine says.
I did not measure the importance of what she was saying to me. It was only after that I thought, 'She was trying to tell us something, but we didn't see it.' If I had known, I would have told my sister to be careful, to leave, but I couldn't see it. I couldn't see it at all.
He was fiercely jealous, “even of us,” Nadege explains. It turns out Ghylaine’s phone conversations were short for a reason. Otherwise Christophe would start asking questions, demanding she hang up, Nadege says.
And while the sisters all spoke on the phone every day, it was usually when Christophe was not at home. Both Sandrine and Nadege say their sister would end calls suddenly with a quick whisper if she heard her partner returning.
The sisters say they see now that when Ghylaine told them about things like this, they should have been warning signs.
“I did not measure the importance of what she was saying to me,” Sandrine reflects. “It was only after that I thought, ‘She was trying to tell us something, but we didn’t see it.'”
Two years after she lost her sister, she still sounds shocked at how quickly things deteriorated.
“If I had known, I would have told my sister to be careful, to leave, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see it at all.”
From private group to political force
For a while, the Facebook support group for family members of femicide was simply that: somewhere grieving relatives could go to connect over the death of a loved one.
“It was very, very calm,” a volunteer from Femicides by a Partner or Ex, an anonymous collective, explains to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. That was until Sandrine and Helene joined. “When [they] arrived … it was like a storm.”
It is clear from the first instant you meet Sandrine and Helene that they are driven by an inexorable force.
“I’m someone who decides, who moves, who does things,” Sandrine says. “I don’t wait around.”
Helene puts it this way: “I have this thing: in my life, everything I do has to make sense.”
“When something like that happens which just doesn’t make any sense, which is totally insane… the only way I have found to make some sense of it is to fight for this cause and to make sure that Marie-Alice has not been killed for nothing, that her assassination would help prevent this from happening again to other women.”
So when, in July, France’s gender equality minister Marlene Schiappa announced that there would be a national inquiry into domestic violence, the newly energised Facebook group saw an opportunity to turn their informal online gathering into a political force that could be heard at the highest level. They began to talk about forming an official organisation, one that would become the National Union for Families of Femicide (UNFF).
After some internal discussion, it was decided that Sandrine would be the president and Helene the vice-president.
“It was just a matter of the right chemistry, the right people at the right time meeting at a point in their life where they were feeling strong about trying to change things, and feeling strong about what we could bring to families,” Helene says.
On September 3, the day the inquiry opened, Sandrine stood up and told Ghylaine’s story to an audience including Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. At the end of the day, she says she signed up to receive news from two working groups that formed part of the inquiry. She never heard anything back.
It was then that she realised that the inquiry might not have the results that families had hoped for, she says, so she pushed even harder to form an organisation that could help them.
Representatives from the department for gender equality did not return Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Threats of suicide
Sandrine says it is no surprise that Ghylaine fell for one of her customers at the bakery. “He was kind to her,” she says, when all she heard at home were complaints and reproaches.
Towards the end of August 2017, Ghylaine told her family that she had met someone else, and she was planning to leave Christophe. She said she would wait until their daughter was back in school before making the move.
But on September 5, Christophe received an anonymous text message informing him that Ghylaine was seeing someone else, Sandrine says. He began threatening to kill himself if she left.
We told him not to do anything stupid. We said, 'Think of your daughter, think of your parents'.
“So, my Ghylaine, she didn’t know where she was any more. She said, ‘If I leave, he’ll kill himself and it will be my fault,'” Sandrine explains. “At the same time, she didn’t want to stay because she was no longer happy.”
“She was completely thrown.”
Sandrine and her partner spoke to Christophe on Ghylaine’s behalf, told him that breaking up was not the end of the world. Sandrine told Christophe about how she had separated from her partner while she was pregnant. She said that she had been OK, that life goes on, that he would find someone new, just as she had.
“We told him not to do anything stupid,” she says. “We said, ‘Think of your daughter, think of your parents.'”
He said they were right. But he also said he was going to win Ghylaine back.
Throughout this time, Ghylaine’s family was most concerned about Christophe. No one, Ghylaine included, thought that she was the one in danger, Sandrine says. “I’m sure of that,” she emphasises the point.
So when on September 23 Sandrine received a Facebook message from Christophe’s brother saying something bad had happened, she assumed he had gone through with his threats and killed himself. It did not occur to anyone that something could have happened to Ghylaine.
“I never thought he would hurt my sister,” she says, emphatically.
The public face of femicide
The National Union for Families of Femicide was registered as an official organisation on October 5, half-way through the government’s inquiry into domestic violence. Sandrine says they wanted to be ready to respond when the results were announced on November 25.
In a matter of weeks, they became the public face of femicide in France, appearing in newspapers, on television and at the head of the march on November 23.
Helene calls the group of families “the tip of the iceberg” of the problem of domestic violence in France.
At least 219,000 French women each year suffer some form of violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the National Observatory for Violence Against Women.
Just one in five victims report their abuser to the police. But that rarely leads to a conviction. A report released by the justice department this year showed that 80 percent of complaints of domestic violence were dropped by public prosecutors in 2015-16. The same study showed that two-thirds of femicide victims had already suffered violence from the partners who eventually killed them.
Sylvaine Grevin’s sister Benedicte Belair was one such victim.
If Sandrine and Helene did not realise their sisters were in danger from their partners, Benedicte’s family had no doubt.
Benedicte’s partner was convicted of domestic violence and given a suspended sentence for breaking her arm in 2012.
“The whole family knew, we did everything so she could leave,” Sylvaine says. But the couple always got back together in the end.
“We told her, ‘This is impossible, you’ll end up dead’.”
In 2017 Sylvaine received a call from Benedicte, who said her partner was badly beating her. Sylvaine informed the police, who went to the apartment the couple shared in the northeast of France. Benedicte’s partner said she had fallen. The police took some photos of her face and left, Sylvaine says.
Ten days later, Benedicte was found dead in her apartment with a horrifying array of injuries, including a traumatic head wound and three broken ribs. The police ruled the death an accidental fall, but the case has since been reopened.
Like Sandrine and Helene, Sylvaine has turned her grief and fury at the loss of her sister into political action. Since her sister’s death, she has been organising marches, petitioning officials and judges to reopen an inquiry into how she died and hosting forums where victims of domestic violence can testify about their experiences. She joined the Facebook group in September and was one of the family members leading the march on November 23.
“Syvlaine, Sandrine and me, we’re the incarnation of sororité – we’re just living it,” Helene says. “Yes, we are all sisters of people who are dead but we also feel like sisters among each other.”
Reclaiming their memories
Christophe will go on trial for the aggravated murder of Ghylaine on January 9, 2020. Nadege says it is a day she has been waiting for since her younger sister died.
“That was my first question when I was questioned by the police inspector,” she says. “I asked, ‘When will the trial be?'”
For Sandrine, the most important thing is that they secure a guilty verdict. No amount of prison time will bring Ghylaine back, so she just wants public accountability for her sister’s death, she says. But Nadege says the potential sentence will be just as important as the potential verdict for her and their mother.
Neither Sandrine nor Nadege know what form their grief will take on the other side of the trial. But both sisters say they want it to be over so they can return to their happy memories of Ghylaine.
Now, when they think of their sister, they think of Christophe.
“I never want to think of him again,” Nadege says firmly, sitting with her sister in The Café des Arts, a longstanding locals’ haunt in Boulogne-Billancourt. “That’s my primary goal.”
One Bataclan a year
On November 23, Prime Minister Philippe presented the results of the government’s inquiry into conjugal violence.
He announced the creation of two centres for male domestic violence offenders in each region of France, as well as 80 new domestic violence specialist positions nationwide. Perpetrators of femicide will automatically have parental authority suspended and doctor-patient confidentiality will be lifted if a woman is perceived to be in danger of death at the hands of a current or former partner.
The government had previously announced that perpetrators would wear electronic bracelets, have any firearms confiscated and that more emergency beds would be opened in shelters for women fleeing domestic violence.
What the government did not announce, either before or after the inquiry, was what the UNFF had lobbied for the hardest: financial and psychological support for family members of femicide victims.
Sandrine says when Ghylaine’s daughter came to live with her, she arrived with nothing but the pair of pyjamas she was wearing the night she escaped from the apartment. Everything else had burned.
“We had to manage buying a bed, clothes, toys, everything,” she says. The girl also goes to weekly counselling sessions.
Sandrine is calling for a model similar to that provided to families of the victims of the terror attacks that shook Paris in 2015. On November 15 that year, 131 people were killed, 90 of whom were attending a concert at the Bataclan music venue. Families have since received compensation from the government.
“We live through an attack every year – it’s about the same number of deaths. But we receive nothing,” she says.
Sylvaine was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from dealing with her sister’s death – particularly from reading the autopsy and viewing the crime scene photos. “Victims’ families are absolutely not cared for when their relatives’ deaths are announced, nor afterwards,” she says.
As well as being an emotionally desperate time, Helene says the aftermath of a femicide can also be financially ruinous for a family.
“You have to pay for the funeral, you have to pay for the lawyer, you have to pay for many things,” she says. Some family members even have to clean up the crime scenes where their relatives were killed, she adds, a process that as well as being traumatic can be very expensive.
Overall, she is more positive about the results of the inquiry than Sandrine, but on this question they are united.
“What has been announced is not going to provide support to the victims’ families. And on that we will keep fighting.”
A lifetime of grief
Sandrine Bouchait – the doer, the mover, the storm in the Facebook group – has a seemingly indefatigable capacity to help other family members deal with the practical side of their recovery.
She is happy to recommend lawyers, to help families sort out child care, to appear in the media to argue their cases. Almost every day, she helps triage the cases of new members by phone.
But there is one question she will not handle: how to get over the murder of a loved one. “In that case, I can’t help.”
She says her answer is not useful for people whose grief is fresh. “The sorrow is always there and we will never recover,” she says. “It’s just that we learn to live with this pain.”
But, ever practical, she says it is better to keep that to herself than pass it on. “Helene deals with this really well, so I leave it to others.”
Helene may be better at handling the question, but she says the same thing about grieving for her sister. “I’m going to be mourning for the rest of my life,” she says, matter of factly.
Nonetheless, she does find solace in helping others get through their emotional recovery.
“I think Marie-Alice is here somewhere, because she was a very strong woman and I think she’s definitely giving me the energy to do it,” she says.
All of the sisters say something similar about the sibling they lost to femicide.
At the end of our time together, I ask Sandrine what Ghylaine would think of all she has done since her death.
“I think she’d be proud of me,” she says. “I dare to hope she’d be proud.”