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Print edition : Mar 26, 2004

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An immigrant woman begs in a street in Barcelona, Spain. It is generally believed that domestic violence in Europe is limited to the poor and the uneducated and the immigrant communities. Actually the phenomenon cuts across barriers of class and region.-CESAR RANGEL/AP

An immigrant woman begs in a street in Barcelona, Spain. It is generally believed that domestic violence in Europe is limited to the poor and the uneducated and the immigrant communities. Actually the phenomenon cuts across barriers of class and region.-CESAR RANGEL/AP

IT could be a sprawling suburban home on the outskirts of Paris with children's swings and a slide in the back garden. There is no sign outside the door - no name or indication of any sort. So the elaborate security arrangements at the entrance are disconcerting. Over an interphone I am asked if I have an appointment and if so with whom. The tall garden gate operated by an electronic eye clicks shut behind me as I advance down a small flagged path to the front door.

Inside, posters and children's paintings fill the walls. But they fail to hide the drabness of the functional furniture or take away from the institutional mournfulness that hangs over the room. I am inside a shelter for victims of domestic violence, located to the north of Paris. The ground floor houses the office, the lounge, the dining room, the kitchen, a playroom and creche. Bedrooms are on the first and second floors and bathrooms at the end of the corridor.

I have been asked to withhold the victims' real names, the address and locality. "The security is absolutely necessary. We have had some frightful scenes in the past after the husbands of some of the women followed them here and destroyed everything in sight. The women who come here are absolutely terrified. This is the only place where they really feel secure and it is our duty to offer them protection," Isabelle, the director, tells me.

Amina is French, but of Algerian descent. She has a cut lip and huge angry bruises around her right eye. Maria, her arm in a sling, is Portuguese and in her mid-forties. Catherine or Cathy is white, French, young, with a two-year-old baby boy. While Selima is black and came here with her parents from Senegal. Her three-year-old daughter clings to her skirts; she has not spoken since her father savagely beat up her mother with an iron rod. He is now in prison awaiting trial.

I am allowed to listen to their discussions with social workers and psychologists, a rare concession, obtained after several weeks of negotiation. The director is kind, compassionate, but also firm. Deftly she makes them talk, teasing out individual stories that have remained dammed up behind walls of silence, shame, loneliness and bewilderment. There is amazingly little anger, just a tired, drained fatalism. And occasionally, as in the case of Cathy, a determination to start a new life.

Of the four, Cathy is the most outspoken. She has been at the shelter for the past two months. "My parents are supportive," she says. "But I cannot go back to them with my son. They cannot cope. Also my husband is so violent he will land up at their house. I have resigned my job and I am asking for a divorce. I want to move away from Paris, somewhere close to my parents' house. I have known Jean since we were at school. He started getting obsessively jealous. In the beginning I took that as a compliment, as proof of love. First it was bouts of anger with apologies. Then it reached a point when he was controlling what I wore, how I looked. If I wore a darker shade of lipstick than the pale pink he allowed, he would suspect me of flirting. The first time he hit me was because I smiled at the owner of the laundry downstairs while handing in our clothes. I thought the birth of our son would make things better. It only got worse. I forgave him because in other ways he is kind and he is a good father who loves our son. But I now realise I have to get out."

Isabelle concedes that Cathy's situation is better than that of Selima or Amina. "Cathy has support from her parents. Amina comes from a culture where leaving your husband is a matter of shame. Her parents have refused to take her in and she feels estranged and cut off from her community. Selima's problems are even greater. Her child is seriously traumatised. She is black and has very little education and her French is poor. Resettling her, helping her get a job, giving back what little confidence she had in herself will be difficult. Altogether, I would say that according to my experience, there is more violence in immigrant communities. But of course our centre is located in an area with large immigrant communities so my view is obviously coloured by what I see every day. Here we give them material help, social and psychological assistance as well as free legal aid," Isabelle explains.

DOMESTIC violence is recognised as a crime in France. The maximum punishment for violence by a spouse or partner resulting in the victim's inability to work for more than eight days is five years imprisonment and a fine of euro 76,000. Torture or barbarous acts resulting in unintended death are punishable by up to 20 years in prison while permanent maiming or mutilation can earn a violent husband up to 15 years in jail.

Guilt is a factor that is strongly linked to under-reporting of such crimes. "My client was punched and beaten in the presence of her children. Then her husband disfigured her with a cutter so no other man would look at her. He was condemned to 12 years in prison. I was stunned by the fact that not only did my client not blame him, but she blamed herself for having sent him to jail," says lawyer Christian Guitton.

Guilt also dogs highly educated, professional women. "Women who are with men in high-powered jobs blame themselves for having failed to help their partners deal better with job-related stress or childhood trauma. We receive many SOS messages from women doctors or lawyers who are battered by their husbands. When confronted, the husbands often say their wives are mad and have made things up," says Dr. Frank Perrin, who works as a medical volunteer.

French law provides protection through measures such as restraining orders and the government finances over 100 shelters for women seeking to escape an abusive environment. An estimated two million women in France are victims of domestic violence.

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