An ominous silence: Domestic violence charities fear for victims

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.

Liana 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.

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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