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Print edition : Mar 26, 2004 T+T-

Domestic violence is widespread in Europe and cuts across barriers of wealth, educational levels and social status; it is not just a bane of women of lower strata in "less civilised" societies. VAIJU NARAVANE writes on the most under-reported crime on the continent, after a visit to major cities in France, Spain and Switzerland.

Domestic violence is widespread in Europe and cuts across barriers of wealth, educational levels and social status; it is not just a bane of women of lower strata in "less civilised" societies. VAIJU NARAVANE writes on the most under-reported crime on the continent, after a visit to major cities in France, Spain and Switzerland.

SHE was the symbol of emancipated womanhood, he the voice of a disenchanted generation. Together they could have become an example of freedom, creativity, intelligence and well-channelled anger in an era when role models are difficult to come by. Instead, she died in a hotel room in far-away Lithuania where she was working, her brains turned to mush under his relentless assault, while he stands accused of first degree murder, his career finished, his life in ruins.

She was Marie Trintrignant, stage and film actress, mother of four and the daughter of respected French actor Jean-Louis Trintrignant. He is Bertrand Cantat, "committed" singer espousing the cause of the Mexican Chiapas, of a free Tibet, of Jose Bove, the French anti-globalisation activist and the leader of a rock band, Noir Desir, the records of which sell by the million. They were crazily, passionately in love, consumed by mutual jealousy and possessiveness. On July 26, 2003, following a lovers' tiff born of a paranoid hostility towards the father of her sons, Bertrand Cantat repeatedly struck Marie Trintrignant, dealing huge, heavy blows to her face and head. The 41-year-old actress slipped into a coma from which she never recovered.

"It is not a death I would wish upon anyone. But the case of Marie Trintrignant finally placed the spotlight on one of the most taboo subjects in Western democracies, that of domestic violence. We have a supposedly free press, a police and justice system reputed to be among the best in the world, several social and societal safety nets meant to protect our citizens. And yet, violence against women is unabated in France, with an average of six women per month dying as a result. The unfortunate and much-publicised case of Marie Trintrignant has also highlighted the fact that violence against women is not restricted to a "lower social milieu" as many would have us believe. It affects every class of woman - the poor and under-educated as much as the rich and professionally qualified," said Lilliane Daligand, Professor of Forensic Medicine and Director VIFF-SOS Femmes, a French association against marital violence.

Strangely, the European press, which has devoted reams of paper - and rightly so - to dowry deaths in India and to the trafficking and enslavement of women in countries in eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, appears reluctant to speak out on the question of violence against women in its own backyard.

In Europe, a continent that incessantly chants the mantra of democracy and human rights, pointing fingers at societies described as "less civilised", even "barbarous", the statistics are truly appalling.

In Spain, some 100 women are killed each year by abusive spouses or boyfriends and there are over 30,000 complaints of physical violence. In France, six women die each month at the hands of men who profess to love them. In Switzerland, one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, where "direct democracy" rules supreme, the number of women who suffer physical and psychological abuse tops 20 per cent, while in Britain, where attacks on partners account for a quarter of all violent crime, one woman is killed by a partner every three days and one in every four women experiences domestic violence.

These figures might sound piffling when compared to the estimated 7,000 dowry-related deaths or the 1,40,000 cases of sexual and other physical violence against women in India every year. The perspective, however, rights itself when one considers the fact that the entire population of Western Europe is 375 million as against India's one billion plus. Spain has 37 million inhabitants, France 62 million, while Switzerland is home to a mere 7.2 million people. All these are modern, industrialised democracies with a literacy rate of 100 per cent, not underdeveloped societies plagued by superstition and illiteracy. So why has democracy with its underlying principles of the Enlightenment failed to curb violence against women in the West?

"It is not a question of democracy, education, freedom or civic sense. Which is why the statistics for wife-beating are about the same in the developed and the developing world. It is fallacious to think that there is a link between democracy, prosperity, education levels and domestic violence," counters Elizabeth Rod-Grange, a Swiss sociologist and activist with Solidarite Femme, a women's rights group that runs shelters for battered women in Geneva.

"Domestic violence is a problem where one individual exercises power over another. The need to dominate and to beat the other into submission is born out of the concerned individual's personal history and experiences and has nothing whatsoever to do with his public facade. I know of high-level bank executives, professors, lawyers, even judges, who abuse and ill-treat their wives. These are persons who fully understand human rights and the democratic process. They are part of the ruling elite and are highly educated. In the West, because of legislation, democracy and progress, the woman now stands a better chance of redress or has more options and solutions available. But as far as the incidence is concerned the extent of the phenomenon is about the same. The under-reporting, as reflected by the media and police files, is linked to the fact that this form of violence is considered a matter of shame and therefore must be hidden," she explains.

"The real extent of the problem has been grossly underestimated. A study undertaken by the forensic services of the Paris hospital system indicates that over 60 women are killed annually by their partners in Paris alone. We have no idea of how many women are maimed or mutilated or how many endure years of terror," says Marie-Dominique de Suremain of the National Federation of Women's Solidarity.

Despite the attempts to build awareness through campaigns and publication of shocking statistics, domestic violence continues to be one of Europe's most under-reported crimes. Like incest and child abuse, conjugal violence and marital rape are subjects that have remained taboo and governments, despite intense lobbying by women's groups as well as tough legislation against offenders, have been tardy in addressing the issue both in terms of education and law enforcement.

Several false assumptions are made about domestic violence in Europe. One of them is that violence between spouses or other intimate partners is a private family affair that brooks no interference from the outside world. Policemen, judges, neighbours or office colleagues are often reluctant to take action - whether it is registering complaints, handing down sentences or calling the police. The societal costs from domestic violence are staggering to educational systems, legal systems, health systems, criminal justice systems, neighbourhoods and workplaces.

"Even if people know, even when they can hear the battered wife's terrified and often terrifying screams next door, neighbours do not call the police. What happens within the four walls of a home is considered private, sacrosanct. People feel guilty denouncing their neighbours. It is this attitude we have to change. Violence must no longer be tolerated," explains Elizabeth Rod-Grange.

Violence within a relationship is all about power, dominance and control. The purpose of domestic violence is not primarily to hurt or harm the victim. Rather, it is to gain or maintain power and control over the victim.

BY the barest definition, domestic violence occurs within a home. Beyond this, the term has a range of definitions that basically include direct physical violence ranging from murder and rape to unwanted physical contact; indirect physical violence, including destruction or throwing of objects; mental or emotional violence such as explicit or vague verbal threats of physical violence to the victim, the self, or others including children; and economic or social abuse that includes controlling the victim's money and other economic resources, preventing the victim from seeing friends and relatives, actively sabotaging the victim's social relationships or isolating the victim from social contacts.

The term "domestic violence" replaced "wife-beating" or "wife-battering" which came before. Sociologists and psychologists now refer to domestic violence as a pattern of behaviour that consists of three basic phases: the honeymoon phase, characterised by affection, apology, and promises to end the violence; the second phase marked by tension, fear and breakdown of communication; and the final phase, which culminates in successive acts of violence that gain in frequency and brutality.

It is widely assumed that alcohol or drugs cause domestic violence and that such acts are limited to the poor, the uneducated or undereducated, and often occur within immigrant communities. Domestic abuse cuts across barriers of wealth, educational levels, social background, religion and professions. This writer has met lawyers, social workers, teachers and bankers who have been victims of abuse. While alcohol or drug abuse could lead to a higher level of injury to women and children, not all batterers drink or abuse drugs nor do all those who drink or abuse drugs systematically beat their wives and children.

Swiss sociologist Lucienne Gillioz, author of a study entitled "Masculine Domination and Violence towards Women in the Swiss Family", told Frontline in an interview in Geneva: "Our study showed that every shade and class of woman was affected by domestic violence. On the basis of an extensive qualitative and quantitative study we were able to establish that more than one in five women is affected by physical and or sexual violence in her lifetime. More precisely, 12.6 per cent of women or more than one in eight suffer physical violence, while one in nine or 11.6 per cent had suffered sexual violence. As far as psychological violence is concerned, over 40.3 per cent of those questioned were affected."

Another age-old assumption is that battered women themselves provoke their abuse. Husbands are often heard as saying: "I do not really wish to hurt her. If she would only change, mend her ways or obey, I would not be obliged to raise my hand." In the past it was assumed that if the battered woman was more submissive or compliant her husband would stop beating her. The victim was identified as the problem, and therefore, if she would do something different, he would change.

Evidence of this mindset is still visible in Europe where, for example, forensic medical doctors have been known to downgrade their report on the severity of a woman's injuries if the doctor believes that the woman provoked the assault. Ironically, women living with abusers often find that becoming more submissive or compliant has the opposite effect. The violence towards them actually escalates. Basically, no matter what the victim does, the abuse continues and usually escalates over time. In Spain, the government was forced to act in the wake of several highly publicised cases of murder where the guilty husband's calculated brutality, callousness and misplaced machismo shocked the nation.

European experts believe that arrest and imprisonment is the most successful method to force violent men to stop abuse. They say that laws and procedures must be designed to take the burden of reporting and prosecuting the crime off the victim by giving the police a more active role in the process. Recently, Switzerland made domestic violence a cognisable offence whereby the state has to intervene and launch an investigation even if the victim herself has not filed a case or has retracted her complaint following a change of heart. A public outcry last year obliged the Spanish government to pass tough new legislation that forces an abusive husband to leave the conjugal home to his wife and children.

Usually it is the wife fleeing an abusive husband who has to seek shelter outside the home. This signifies enormous disruption, especially for young children. Now the court simply asks the erring husband to leave and places a restraining order on him if he takes recourse to intimidation or threats. Similar laws exist in most European states.

However, feminists point out that it is in the enforcement of existing laws that governments show their inefficiency, if not reluctance. Like elsewhere, domestic violence in Europe affects future generations. Children who are witnesses to abuse, even though they are not victims themselves, are 1,000 per cent more likely to be future abusers or victims. They are also six times more likely to commit suicide, 24 times more likely to commit a sexual assault, 50 per cent more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and 74 per cent more likely to commit crimes against others.

There is a degree of hostility in Europe towards feminist groups, with men's rights activists alleging that there is no conclusive proof that men are more abusive than women, or that men's abuse of women is worse than women's abuse of men. Such groups want resources for abused women to be made available to abused men too. Feminists involved in the movement have been resistant to discussing female-initiated violence. They see these arguments as tools to rationalise male violence against women, which, they say, is far more widespread.

The fact of the matter is that the use of violence or abuse, whether by men or women, is a problem that resides in the abuser. Only when domestic violence is treated as a violent crime, abusers are held accountable, and services are provided to keep women and children safe, will the violence end. The message that domestic violence is intolerable has not been sufficiently reinforced through the criminal justice system, media, religious institutions, educational institutions, economic and business settings and in families. National and local authorities must provide a comprehensive legal response to domestic violence, involving support for victims, treatment for abusers, legal remedies and judicial reforms.

Concepcion Freire San Jose, a lawyer and women's rights activist with Themis, an association of women lawyers, jurists and magistrates in Madrid, told Frontline: "Of course we have come a long way since the days under the Franco dictatorship when a woman was considered the possession of her father and later her husband, when she could not even open a bank account without his permission. Ours was an intensely feudal society and it will take time to change attitudes. That requires political will and this government lacks the will. The laws on paper look good. But the government has done very little by way of application. Its zero budget increase policy means that there is a permanent shortage of shelters and legal advice for battered women. Talk is cheap. Action costs money and we have seen very little of that indeed."