An ominous silence: Domestic violence charities fear for victims

In Italy, therapists say lockdown makes victims harder to reach at a time when their need for help is greater than ever.

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Maria* crept out of her apartment, under the guise of throwing out the rubbish, and locked herself in her car.

Still shaking, she dialled 1522, a national helpline for victims of family violence which redirected Maria to the first available psychologist.

Eliana D’Ascoli, from the southern Italian city of Foggia, answered her call.

“Thank you for being there,” Maria told her. For 14 years, D’Ascoli has been there, speaking to victims of domestic violence and offering them the “moment of relief” she believes they are looking for.

Maria’s husband had just beaten her for not setting the table “properly”. His violence was nothing new. But the beatings were becoming more frequent – and more severe – now that they were in lockdown together.

“It’s a nightmare, it’s like living in a cage,” Maria told D’Ascoli.

D’Ascoli listened as she talked through her emotions, described the guilt she felt, explained how something as simple as forgetting a napkin could be enough to set him off, how he told her constantly how stupid she was.

As Maria spoke, her voice became lighter, and that alone was enough to remind D’Ascoli why she does this job.

Helping women is a “mission” to her, one she has pursued since 2006, when she first started as an intern at Telefono Rosa, the Rome-based association that runs the 1522 hotline.

Among other things, Telefono Rosa provides legal and psychological support, shelter and training for female victims of domestic violence.

When Italy went into a nationwide lockdown on March 9, D’Ascoli began working from home, answering calls from women like Maria on her mobile phone.

The silence

As people around the world battle the boredom of quarantine, for people experiencing domestic violence, staying at home represents an entirely different kind of battle – sometimes one just to stay alive.

Social workers who deal with the repercussions of domestic violence fear rates will be soaring as people are forced to stay at home with their abuser while access to informal support systems – friends, extended family, work colleagues – is removed and options for seeking help seem ever more remote and dangerous.

Gabriella Carnieri Moscatelli, the president of Telefono Rosa, explains that after holidays – when families are typically expected to spend more time together – calls to the 1522 hotline usually increase by 30 percent.

During the first two weeks of the lockdown Telefono Rosa registered a 47.7 percent drop in calls, compared to the same period last year.

“This silence does not mean that there is no violence, but that women can’t find a way to reach us,” explained Antonella Veltri, the president of the NGO Donne in Rete against Violence (D.i.Re), which coordinates support centres for female victims of domestic violence and their children across the country.

“We are very concerned,” she added. 

D.i.Re’s latest report reveals that between March 2 and April 5, more than 2,800 women contacted one of its centres, a 75 percent increase compared to the monthly average in 2018. However, only 28 percent were getting in touch for the first time, compared to 78 percent in 2018.

The lockdown prompted NGOs across the country to adopt new strategies, such as offering psychological and legal assistance via text message and having psychologists work double shifts, to ensure counselling was available 24 hours a day.

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The government has also launched a campaign to promote the 1522 number via its social media channels as well as promoting it in pharmacies, one of the few public spaces still open.

“Throwing [out] the garbage, grocery shopping, going to the pharmacy … we are trying to send the message that each of these activities can be an escamotage [ploy] to exit the apartment and get in contact with us,” Veltri said.

Every 15 minutes

In Italy, 6.8 million women aged 16-70 have experienced a form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to data compiled by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT).

According to the latest report by the Italian state police, 82 percent of the violence committed against women in 2019 took place within the home. In the month of March last year, there was a report of gender violence against a woman every 15 minutes.

Of course, such numbers are only the tip of the iceberg as the vast majority of victims do not report their abusers. According to the 2018 ISTAT report prepared for the parliamentary inquiry committee on gender violence, only 11.4 percent of Italian women took legal action after being the victim of violence.

In 2018, of the 142 femicides, 85 percent were committed by a family member and 75 percent by a partner. A similar pattern is emerging this year. There have been seven femicides in Italy since the beginning of March – all but one by a family member or partner.

One of the victims was Lorenza Quaranta, a 27-year-old medical student from the southern city of Messina who was strangled by her boyfriend, who accused her of infecting him with coronavirus.

Time bombs

The first thing Giovanna* did was to apologise for calling back late. She had phoned 1522 earlier and was immediately given D’Ascoli’s number. But it was four hours until she could call her.

Her father had disconnected the phone and internet after flying into a rage and physically assaulting Giovanna and her mother.

“Only today after two weeks locked in one space with my father, did I realise that he is a violent man,” Giovanna explained as D’Ascoli struggled to make out what she was saying over the noise of the television she had turned up loud so that her father would not hear her.

Many of the calls to the helpline described similar scenarios: pre-existing tensions exacerbated by the sudden removal of escape valves in the form of work, school, friends and extended family.

“There is no doubt that in situations that are already inclined to violence, if you add limited space, no privacy, … children confined at home with no friends and the anxiety of losing your job … well, these are time bombs,” explained Chiara Saraceno, a sociologist.

“People who were already used to exerting violence will find new excuses to do it.”

Domestic abuse can take multiple – and often overlapping – forms, including physical, psychological and sexual violence, as well as economic control.

In its latest survey published in 2018, D.i.Re analysed the cases of 20,137 women who used their centres across the country. Its findings showed that the most recurrent form of abuse was psychological (73.6 percent), followed by physical violence (62.1 percent), economic control (30.7 percent), stalking (16.1 percent) and sexual violence (13.5 percent).

She must ‘vanish’

Ending an abusive relationship often requires a great deal of planning.

D’Ascoli described advising women to stuff their belongings into rubbish bags and to leave under the pretence of throwing the rubbish out.

Once out of the perpetrator’s reach, any previously scheduled plan, like a doctor’s appointment, has to be cancelled, she explained, to avoid their abuser being able to locate them.

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“They have to vanish into thin air,” said D’Ascoli, adding that the first advice she always gives abused women is to get hold of identification documents before they leave.

That is not always easy, especially for foreign women whose husbands may have possession of their documents.

While the majority of victims of domestic violence in Italy are Italian women, 19.8 percent are foreign. The proportion reverses when looking at femicide, where non-Italian women represent 67 percent of all cases, according to a police report.

For a non-Italian woman who does not have a residence permit and is fleeing an abuser, the law grants a two-year permit on humanitarian grounds, which can be extended. The state also guarantees three months’ fully paid leave for any female victim of gender violence in order to allow enough time for a judge to ban a perpetrator from approaching the victim’s workplace.

D’Ascoli believes that victims of abuse will be less likely to try to flee during the coronavirus pandemic.

“With everything that is happening outside, women do not find the strength to question their condition and flee home,” she said.

“What they are looking for is mostly psychological support to open up a space to breathe. The phone call becomes a way to spill the beans and feel less lonely.”

Despite the difficulty of getting in touch, some, like Giovanna and Maria, find a way; others call just to send a signal.

“No thank you, we are not interested.” That was what psychologist Alessandra Barone heard when she answered a call to Telefono Donna, a Milan-based association helping female victims of violence.

That was all the woman said before ending the call.

Operators have to be particularly receptive to hidden messages in calls, Barone explained.

When she feels someone is trying to get a message to her but cannot talk freely, she will try to monitor their situation – calling back from an anonymous number, pretending to be a salesperson or to have dialled the wrong number if someone else answers the call. If she speaks to the victim, she will ask questions that only require a “yes” or “no” answer.

“We basically start an alternative path of support compared to the traditional one,” Barone said.

The spiral

“Please, I need you to help me understand what I’m doing wrong that makes him so angry,” D’Ascoli recalled one woman asking her several years ago.

The woman was in her 50s, and had been subjected to physical, psychological and financial abuse for 20 years.

“This is a classic dynamic, where the woman is convinced that the man’s anger is triggered by her own faults. And this is because her self-esteem has been destroyed to the point that she believes that her way of cooking, eating, thinking, everything she does, is wrong,” D’Ascoli explained.

This erosion of self esteem can be a gradual process that is woven through the various stages and types of abuse – from the verbal, emotional and financial to the physical, she added.

D’Ascoli described a typical pattern of abuse.

At first, the abuser creates an atmosphere filled with tension and negativity. This may be by smashing a door or staring at his victim.

Then the attack takes place. This might be a beating, rape, an act of humiliation or a threat to take away her children. In the case of financial control, the outburst might take the form of the abuser tightening their grip on the victim’s financial resources, perhaps by revoking a credit card.

A period of remorse often follows. “They [will] say they won’t … [behave] like this anymore,” said D’Ascoli. “But then they also tell the victim that they should have not provoked them in the first place.”

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A period of relative serenity may follow, but the cycle soon begins again – becoming more intense with each turn as the time between outbursts shortens.

The further into that spiral a woman is, typically the lower her self esteem, D’Ascoli said.

She is concerned that the stress, uncertainty and anxiety triggered by the pandemic and lockdown could amplify and accelerate cycles of abuse.

Three weeks ago, she received a call from a worried father who could not find his 20-year-old daughter. She had returned to her abuser, against whom she had already filed a lawsuit after he put her in hospital three times. “I missed him too much,” she told her father. 

From childhood to adulthood

D’Ascoli recalled one counselling session from 2010.

The woman was seeking refuge. As she was talking to D’Ascoli, her two-year-old son entered the room and began searching for sweets in his mother’s bag. When he could not find any, he kicked his mother in the shin and spat in her face.

“This is what the father teaches him,” the woman said.

“It’s simply a tragedy,” said D’Ascoli.

According to data from ISTAT, 22 percent of men who witnessed their father being violent towards their mother will become abusers themselves. If he, himself was abused as a child, that rises to 35.7 percent (if his mother was the one to abuse him) and to 30.5 percent (if it was his father).

Sixty-four percent of women who witnessed their mother being abused or who were abused themselves as children will be victims of domestic violence as adults.

Standstill

What makes the lockdown more ominous is the fact that support systems for victims have also been weakened by it. These systems have a role to play throughout the often long and contorted process of a victim leaving their abuser – from the point where they first begin to identify the behaviour as abusive through to eventually taking legal action against them.

“When a woman comes to us and begins narrating what is happening at home, that is when she slowly starts to realise that what she is going through is actually a very dangerous situation,” explained Stefania Bartocetti, the founder of Telefono Donna.

“They are so used to resisting violence and bearing it as part of their daily routine that the risk factor does not exist to them.”

Bartocetti first counselled a victim of domestic violence in 1992. At the time, there was little discussion of domestic violence in Italy, she explained. Her phone has kept ringing in the almost 30 years since.

Today, the association has around 80 volunteers who support almost 400 victims of gender violence and seven shelters.

Helping people escape abusive relationships entails more than just psychological counselling, legal advice and emergency shelter – it also in some instances involves longer-term support in the form of training to enter the labour market, assistance in securing permanent accommodation and so on.

All of this is critical to ensuring that those who do take the often dangerous step of leaving an abuser, do not find themselves in a position where they feel forced to return.

“These are life-changing steps that require a supported months-long process to rebuild the women’s self esteem and to get them ready for a new life,” Bartocetti explained. “But [despite advice and support still being available by phone or online] this whole process came to a standstill [with the lockdown].”

It is not only the additional logistical challenges that discourage women from leaving their abusers during the crisis.

“[The coronavirus] becomes an excuse to redimension once again their own personal problems retracting into the domestic sphere where family, and not her own ambitions, comes first,” said Bartocetti.

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Gender roles and financial dependence

Sociologist Chiara Saraceno believes violence springs from societally defined gender roles.

“Everything is pegged to the identification with gender roles. If someone was raised with the idea that males should command and women must obey, then he will grow up feeling it’s his right to dominate, and she will assume that she has to endure,” she explained.

The lockdown – and subsequent economic fallout from the pandemic – is only likely to further reinforce rigid gender roles that confine women to the domestic sphere, she explained.

The gender pay gap in Italy is 5 percent according to ISTAT, but this data is misleading as it only considers full-time workers. If you add other indicators, such as part-time work and the employment rate, it rises to 43.7 percent, according to Eurostat.

In Italy, the female employment rate stands at 49.5 percent – the second-lowest in Europe, where the average is 63.3 percent.

A lack of economic resources can make it harder and more daunting for a woman to leave an abusive partner, Saraceno explained.

A family affair

Since the beginning of the lockdown, not a single domestic violence case has landed on Paola Di Nicola’s desk. She used to get at least three a week.

A judge from the court of Rome, Di Nicola started a cultural battle inside courtrooms in 2011 by being the first in Italy to add the feminine article in front of the noun ‘judge’ when signing her sentences.

“There are convicts who discussed my signature more than the punishment I had just given them,” Di Nicola said, highlighting how audacious the move was. Female judges were only allowed in Italy in 1963. Today there are 4,255 female judges, 56 percent of the total, and around 20 of them refer to themselves as “La giudice”.

Di Nicola started to follow domestic violence cases – alongside mafia and other organised crime cases that she had handled since the beginning of her career in 1996 – prompted by a desire to understand why such cases, while telling different stories, were “always following the same pattern,” she said.

What was also similar in most cases, she added, was the authorities’ lack of understanding.

A woman who has survived an abusive relationship could end up in a court with a judge questioning her behaviour, blaming the woman for her partner’s violence, Di Nicola explained. 

“A light punishment or acquittal creates distrust, forcing women back into the abyss,” she added.

A cultural and judicial shift needs to take place in Italy, the judge explained.

“As a state, we persecute the perpetrator, but we don’t safeguard the woman. We don’t have a protection programme like the one we grant to witnesses of the mafia, for example.” 

“This is not happening because violence against women is considered a minor crime, a family affair rather than one of the most serious forms of violence,” she said, adding that this is the case in courts across the world.

Funding for shelters

The only way to contain the impact of domestic violence under lockdown, Di Nicola believes, is by giving more funding to centres supporting the victims, as they are the only ones providing a safety net at the moment.

The government has made an exception to the lockdown for domestic violence victims escaping to a refuge. But most are full as they have been so depleted of funds over the years that they are ill-equipped to deal with ordinary circumstances, let alone extraordinary times like these, Veltri explained.

In 2017, the Ministry of Equal Opportunities allocated 12.7 million euros to centres and shelters, less than one euro per day for each of the 43,467 women who used the services of a support centre or shelter that year.

The funding is given to regional administrations to hand out. But in 2017, only 34 percent of the total budget reached the centres and shelters and in 2018 it was only 0.39 percent, according to Action Aid’s annual report.

To respond to the coronavirus crisis, on April 2, the Minister of Equal Opportunities, Elena Bonetti, signed a decree to speed up the delivery of 30 million euros that were allocated to support centres in 2019. The money has not yet arrived.

Di Nicola is expecting a flood of cases once the lockdown is lifted.

“Lawyers, judges, the authorities will have to be prepared … to face what will happen after the quarantine.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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