A pandemic inside a pandemic. Silent, almost invisible and hidden within the walls of homes which have become even more dangerous than the threat of the virus.
While the world ground to a halt during the first lockdown, violence against women increased quietly but significantly inside those domestic boundaries which served as protection for many women but for others was instead a prison that exacerbated the violent behaviour of their partners. "Because that's what it is: domestic violence within an intimate relationship which has left everyone in shock,” says Marcella Pirrone, a lawyer at the D.i.Re network and president of WAVE - Women Against Violence Europe, the European network of anti-violence centres that brings together 1 organizations in 46 countries. “All of a sudden we had to try and find new ways to organize ourselves in a society which had suddenly vanished. And women in danger had to make a choice between fear of the virus and fear of violence.”
A UN report in June had already found that enforced quarantine had caused an increase in the abuse of the most vulnerable: women and minors. The situation worsened further thanks to the pressure of economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic. The result was increased domestic tension, with women whose movements were limited being faced with greater difficulties in asking for help and organising an escape. The alarm was raised worldwide: according to the UN, at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence are expected this year (data collated by the UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, in collaboration with Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University and Victoria University), a hypothesis that would mean a 20% increase in cases in the first three months of lockdown in all 193 member states of the United Nations. Initial national statistics corroborate the data. In Italy for example, a National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) study of calls to the 1552 anti-violence phone line found a 73% increase in requests for help during the lockdown compared to the same period last year. “It was almost impossible to collect data at the time,” continues Pirrone. “We were in the middle of the emergency, in total chaos, and all our efforts were concentrated on finding new ways to help women. The anti-violence centres immediately raised the alarm to counter the wave of violence which seemed inevitable in that moment. From there we initiated a dialogue with the institutions and the police, and some emergency rules were brought in which allowed any woman who was a victim of violence to go to a hospital or a women's shelter. And the ways shelters could communicate with them also changed: online, less traceable, 24 hours a day.”
In Casal di Principe, a small town in the southern Italian region of Campania, there's a women's shelter called Casa Lorena. Founded in 2012 inside a building confiscated from the Camorra thanks to an initiative of the Agrorinasce Consortium and the E.V.A. Cooperative, each year it welcomes an average of 60 women, some of them resident and others external users. To date this year, the number has already risen to 78, but over 20 people have been unable to access the facility due to the reduction in places necessitated by anti-Covid measures. "In March, at the beginning of the first lockdown, requests for help suddenly dropped,” says Concetta Schiavone, psychologist at Casa Lorena. “It was because of fear about the external situation, which no one knew how to handle. But a few days later, the women came back, urgently requesting accommodation. They'd begun to experience the whole cycle of violence in a single day: violence, then the violent man's apology, and then more violence.” So at Casa Lorena, together with all the shelters managed by the E.V.A Cooperative which assists about 1,200 women, the care workers and psychotherapists immediately set about devising new ways to help women in difficulty: encrypted Whatsapp groups, Skype calls, and extra efforts to accommodate them without risking contagion while at the same time guaranteeing their progress along the delicate path which leads to the end of a violent relationship. "It's a process based on trust and empathy between women,” continues Dr. Schiavone. “Each woman who comes to Casa Lorena chooses which care worker they want to follow her case on the basis of the affinities they develop during the first week of meetings. And they decide all the subsequent steps together: whether to separate or not, how to file a complaint, what to do with the children. This method based on female relationships is fundamental for initiating a process of awareness and freeing oneself from the sense of guilt that traps many victims of violence, as well as a series of psychological hurdles related to admitting to being a victim.”
There is also another practical problem for women who are trying to break away from abusive partners: many of them don't have a job and are therefore not self-sufficient. Especially in areas like Casal di Principe, where female employment is minimal. This makes leaving even more complicated. “That's always the problem - the lack of personal and structural resources,” comments Marcella Pirrone. “Women have less opportunity to plan: escaping from a violent situation means planning a series of changes, but if you are at home, your children are at home with you, your job is uncertain, how can you? It's another hurdle you have to face. The truth is that we are now paying the price for the structural issues which are aggravating the situation in this emergency.” With much of Europe back in lockdown, these concerns have returned to the fore in shelters and and among women. But with some differences: for example, women who were uncertain what to do during the first lockdown but who, in the light of past experience, are now more determined to ask for help are returning to Casa Lorena. These signs of greater awareness and a willingness to react more rapidly nevertheless continue to come up against a series of structural inadequacies, though.
The president of Wave summarises them as follows: “The anti-violence shelters have very few resources and many of the staff are not professionals but volunteers, who must therefore be trained. The Italian government actually blocked funds for women's shelters in 2019, but these funds will apparently be arriving in March 2021. Organizations are better prepared now than eight months ago, but is there actually more awareness of the problem? There is in words, but not in deeds. If we're continuing to see women trapped by the responsibilities of caring for the home and the family, it's clear no meaningful progress has been made.”
So what can be done to prevent another wave of violence? “Now more than ever we need to be present and to propose creative solutions. Not only in the way we spread our message, but also by carrying out interviews in unconventional ways and at times suited to the situations of the individual women. Women's shelters all over Europe are already doing a great job of networking and sharing best practices. At Wave we are carrying out lobbying work with politicians at a European level: the Next Generation EU must not lose sight of social issues in play. The lives of women in danger must not be forgotten.”