Behind the numbers, the facts. A story of violence in a familial household from a child’s perspective.
By Sarah Mottet
Content warning: this article contains descriptions of violence against and abuse of women and children. Please take caution in reading the article.
The 25th of November
Since 1981, women’s rights activists have dedicated the 25th of November to fighting gender-based violence. Feminists selected this date in honor of Maria Teresa Mirabal, Patria Mercedes Mirabal, Belgica Adela Mirabal, three political activists in the Dominican Republic who were brutally murdered in 1960 by order of the country’s leader at that time, Rafael Trujillo. In addition, this day aims at raising awareness about what kind of violence women are experiencing every day and everywhere around the world. In order to raise awareness, this story will go through the numbers and facts we hear daily.
Additionally, I will tell a story, among many others that exist, to reflect on these numbers. Of course, every story and situation is unique and should be considered as so. However, it is crucial and necessary to acknowledge what is happening behind these numbers.
Government policies: an example of France and the Netherlands
For the past decade, let’s say we have witnessed many government policies and funding for the fight against violence that women experience, whether it is sexual, emotional, psychological, or physical. This article will focus on the example of two European countries, the Netherlands and France. There’s no denying that these two countries are pretty advanced in terms of gender equality in comparison to other countries, but it is still not enough.
A gender equality index is a tool that gives the EU and Member States a score from 1 to 100, 100 meaning total gender equality. For example, according to the 2022 data, the Netherlands got 77.3 out of 100, whereas France received a score of 75.1 (European Institute for Gender Equality). However, this index lacks important data on topics contributing to gender inequality like domestic violence. This means that the index does not paint a representative picture of gender inequality in the EU.
Indeed, the Netherlands seems like a progressive country: it is part of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which is the most far-reaching international instrument on this topic. Additionally, according to the government’s website, the Netherlands holds the world’s biggest fund, worth 510 million euros, for women’s rights which is used to support women’s organizations. However, even though the government accepts the theory of violence against women as a societal problem, it is insufficiently reflected in policy. Indeed, there is a lack of understanding of gender as a factor in domestic violence. The term femicide aims at describing the situation in which a woman is murdered because of the fact that she is a woman. Overall, there is an urgent need, not only in the Netherlands or France, to treat gender-based violence as a human rights issue.
The same is true for France, where president Macron claimed that the fight against violence against women would be the first pillar of the ‘Great Cause’ of his presidential mandate, while he nominated a man accused of rape as the Minister of the Interior. Additionally, the Minister of Justice is incapable, and the justice system is underfunded, which has a lot of consequences for victims of gender-based violence, who have to deal with an understaffed and overworked justice system.
Even though the following pages are not going to focus on this issue, it is essential to shed light on the problems surrounding the reporting of violence and abuse in the Netherlands and France. Firstly, the police, who are responsible for registering complaints in both countries, are often offensive to the victims. Moreover, the police and the judicial system rarely believe the victims and most judiciary procedures cost a lot of money for the victims. Because of these reasons, victims rarely follow up on their initial complaint. Indeed, in 2020 in France, only 0,6% of complaints for rape or attempted rapes would have resulted in a conviction (2019 “Living environment and safety” survey report). There’s no denying that the government needs to work on this issue so that women feel free to denounce the violence they are experiencing.
Speaking up and educating about these issues
“It’s nothing. Nothing happened.”
In France, every year from 2011 to 2018, 213 000 women between the ages of 18 to 75 years have been victims of physical or sexual violence either by their partners or ex-partners (2019 “Living environment and safety” survey report). Moreover, the last survey on femicides published in August 2022 by the Ministry of Interior reveals that these murders have increased by 20% between 2020 and 2021 (Le Monde). In 2022, violent misogynists have killed 124 French women. This is one woman’s life taken every three days.
These numbers and facts should not be normalized nor accepted. I grew up with the belief that I should never talk about all this. That it should just stay private. In a sense, it does belong to the private sphere, but in terms of lives being in danger, I really don’t believe it can stay private at some point. The real disturbing thing in this situation is that I’m the only one who opened up about what was happening. My mom never wants to talk about it because she feels shame and at the same time, she finds excuses for him because she keeps idealizing him as someone he is not, or at least someone he may use to be. It’s like this taboo situation that no one ever wants to talk about.
People often don’t understand the real risk behind not talking about this situation. Not denouncing this issue and acting like this doesn’t happen often leads to victims trying to excuse their partners’ behavior. They feel ashamed of speaking up about what happened because they know that most of the time, people or society, in general, won’t believe them and that nothing can change. Indeed, apart from raising awareness, speaking up about these issues also helps the victims themselves, who will feel more secure or just more willing to file a complaint against their partners. Additionally, there’s no denying that we have seen a rise in domestic violence these past few years because of the liberation of women’s speech.
As a child, you often have your perception of what is average or not based on the education you had and the household you grew up in. So, for example, I grew up in a violent home at my mom’s with her and her husband but also at my dad’s, where it wasn’t violent at all. So, I knew these fierce arguments weren’t usual, but no one was open about this.
During middle school and high school, I was often sleep-deprived due to arguments and shouting all evening at home. He would just start screaming and arguing with my mom completely drunk. My little sister was crying all the time when hearing this so she would just come and sleep in my room. It’s the only way she could get some sleep. My brother was a very good sleeper so he would not wake up most of the time. When he did, he would come into my room. We were sleeping with my door locked. Just in case you know. And you just stay up all night trying to hear any noise that could be a sign of violence or something. It seems unbelievable to think that you can’t even feel safe in your own house. When living in this kind of environment, you get scared about even coming home. You get that anxious feeling that never stops until the next morning when you go back to school.
Once, after a very violent evening at home, I got to school, I was sleep deprived and just in a bad state. Before going to class, my favorite supervisor saw me and told me to just stay at the infirmary instead. I just talked with him for two hours and as we were talking, I eventually told him what had happened the day before. He asked me if there was anything he could do. But I didn’t want him to do anything really, but he did tell the ‘big’ supervisor. He said that if something like this was happening again, I should go and talk to them directly. I would have never got there by myself to tell such things.
As a child, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between what is expected from what is not. Many studies show that in families with a lot of violence in the couple, this violence will also reflect on the children. Indeed, according to a survey conducted by Harvard, children who witness or are victims of all sorts of violence (emotional, physical, and so on) risk higher health problems as adults like depression, anxiety, or PTSD (Harvard study project on violence exposure and its effects on the brain’s development). They tried to understand how exposure to violence influences brain regions involved in emotional learning and emotion regulation. It simply shows the importance of protecting children as well. Therefore, I genuinely believe there’s a need to discuss these issues in middle or high school. Tell children this is a safe place, and they can seek help from supervisors, psychologists, or even teachers.
Support and believe victims
“This number is for emergencies”
In France, on the 14th of March 2007, an association created a particular number for the victims of domestic violence, the 3919. This number is not an emergency one but more of a listening and support number you can call to report sexist and sexual violence. That way, victims are heard. This creation was a real improvement in supporting women victims of violence. Furthermore, in August 2021, this number became accessible 24h/7. The National Women’s Solidarity Federation analyzed the line’s data for 2021. It showed that the number of calls increased by 14% compared to 2019 due to the liberation of women’s speech but, above all, because of the lockdowns, during which women and children experienced way more violence. For 2023, the MPs voted to grant this association group which created the line, double its previous budget, which makes a total of 5,9 million euros. This budget will significantly help. However, as helpful as this number is, this is not a number for emergencies. Indeed, in case of emergency, you need to call either the 17 (police), the 15 (SAMU, a hospital service which organizes the treatment of emergencies outside the hospital), the 18 (firefighters), or even the 115. These numbers all guarantee a direct intervention for emergencies.
Right after one very violent episode, we had to call the 15, the SAMU because of the emergency of the situation, and because medical aid and surgery was needed. The SAMU picked up, we told them what had happened, the violence, the blood, and the fact that three children were present at the scene and that they saw what happened. Every detail of the situation. The (I suppose) woman on the phone replied, quote:
“Sorry, but this number is for emergencies.” End of the quote. We called the firefighters instead who came right away, without giving them as many details.
Most websites dedicated to fight violence against women advise you to call the 15, as if it was the number and the people you can rely on at any moment for any medical emergency. I will never ever call them myself again in my entire life. It is really hard to contain the anger and the sadness that I feel when talking about this. This number is the first that came to our minds. After seeing something this traumatic and when the person on the phone is telling you that they’re not going to come to save you, it’s just awful and unbelievable. And after that, people truly believe that women are safe, heard and understood.
Disclaimer: there’s no denying that this number is beneficial every day for many people in France. They truly intervene to save our lives, and we should be grateful for them. This story doesn’t aim at making a generality and criticizing what they are doing for people every day. I guess it might have just been the wrong person or time. However, it is true that violence against women is sometimes not taken seriously. Having disputes or arguments in marriage or any other relationship is quite normal and healthy. However, it can’t be normalized when it becomes disrespectful and violent.
Support from those around you
“He seems so friendly”
As stated before, it is easier to hide such a thing, to hide what is happening in the private sphere. Of course, like any other situation, you choose not to talk about it, but it is necessary to do so.
I once explained someone close what was happening at some point, I never opened up before about what was happening, and I did not tell everything but just step up the atmosphere in some way. Some time, later, we were at my house, and they eventually met them. My mom and her husband. It can sometimes shock people the way that I describe some events and then how normal it seems when other people are around. After meeting them, they told me how hard it was to believe that this man could have done such things, that he actually seemed very nice and friendly. Of course, they believed me. However, looking at this person without knowing anything else, I understand how easy to believe that he’s kind and caring. Which he’s not obviously. Another disturbing thing is that as a child I used to almost see him as two different persons. The personality shift between the man he was with my mom and I, and where there were people around is mind blowing. My mom was like “see, he’s so kind and caring and happy” but that was a totally different story when nobody else except us were there. This shows the need to believe the victims when they have the ability and the courage to speak up. It’s not because you don’t see it that it doesn’t exist. Don’t ever think because you think you ‘know’ the person that you truly know who they are.
Victims need to be protected, listened to, and believed. There’s no denying that there’s still a lot to be done about this issue regarding education, but also government policies and platforms that need to be developed way more than they already are.
Women are experiencing violence in its most horrible forms, whether it is sexual, psychological, or physical. We need to protect our sisters, mothers, aunts, and daughters.
I spoke as a child who grew up in this violent environment, and I hope it helped people realize how hard it is to talk about it. Indeed, we often hear criticism about women who don’t talk about it or don’t leave their violent partners. So let’s imagine how hard it is that the person you love can hurt you in awful ways. But love doesn’t bruise, and it is time to speak up and denounce what is hidden and has been taboo for too long.
We believe you. Seek for help. You are not alone.
Resources in the Netherlands and France
Websites, numbers, information and places you can go to for help:
In the Netherlands:
For a list of organisations to contact and instructions on creating an emergency plan and reporting abuse, go here.
Veiligthuis (National Domestic Violence, Child Abuse & Elderly Abuse Hotline): tel. 0800 2000 (24/7 free number)
Blijf Groep (North Holland domestic violence shelter group): tel. 020 611 6022
Stichting Korrelatie (for help with relationship problems): tel. 0900 1450
The primary aid line for help after sexual violence: tel. 020 613 0245
For a list of organisations to contact, go here (in French)
Origin of the 25th of November https://www.un.org/en/observances/ending-violence-against-women-day/background#:~:text=Women’s%20rights%20activists%20have%20observed,Trujillo%20(1930%2D1961).
Important numbers on the violence against women (2022) https://www.noustoutes.org/comprendre-les-chiffres/ (in French)
Opinion on the Netherlands’ policy regarding the fight against the violence of women (2020) https://www.humanrightshere.com/post/tackling-violence-against-women-in-the-netherlands-some-thoughts-on-the-grevio-baseline-report-on-the-netherlands
Study on the effects of domestic violence on children https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/domestic-violence/effects-domestic-violence-children#:~:text=Children%20who%20witness%20or%20are,%2Desteem%2C%20and%20other%20problems.
Harvard study project on violence exposure and its effects on the brain’s development https://sdlab.fas.harvard.edu/violence-exposure-and-brain-development-children
“Living environment and safety” survey report (2019) https://www.interieur.gouv.fr/Interstats/L-enquete-Cadre-de-vie-et-securite-CVS/Rapport-d-enquete-Cadre-de-vie-et-securite-2019 (in French)
Cost of judiciary procedures (2022) https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2022/11/24/violences-sexistes-et-sexuelles-une-etude-de-la-fondation-des-femmes-denonce-le-cout-de-la-justice-pour-les-victimes_6151380_3224.html (in French)
Le Monde, the small number of convictions and its consequences (2022) https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2022/10/05/violences-sexistes-et-sexuelles-le-faible-nombre-de-condamnations-incite-a-trouver-de-nouvelles-facons-de-travailler_6144436_3232.html (in French)
Article on the creation of the 3919 number (2007) https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2007/03/14/creation-du-3919-numero-d-appel-unique-pour-les-victimes-de-violences-conjugales_882917_3224.html (in French)
List of emergency numbers to contact in case of violence exposure https://www.ain.fr/guide-telephone-urgence-ecoute-signalement-situation-enfants-adultes-en-difficulte/ (in French)
French association group who created the line 3919 to prevent violence against women https://www.solidaritefemmes.org/
Gender equality index for the Netherlands (2022) https://eige.europa.eu/gender-equality-index/2022/NL
Gender equality index for France (2022) https://eige.europa.eu/gender-equality-index/2022/domain/violence/FR
Le Monde, article about the rising numbers of femicides according to the numbers published by the Ministry of Interior (2022) https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2022/08/26/les-feminicides-en-hausse-de-20-en-2021-par-rapport-a-2020_6139137_3224.html (in French)