Deadly violence against women surges across Europe after lockdowns

Deadly violence against women surges across Europe as Covid restrictions are eased and abusers lose ‘control’ they had over their partners

  • In Spain, a woman has been killed every three days since end of state emergency
  • France and Belgium have also seen a spike in gender-based violence this year
  • Experts say aggressors fear women gaining more freedom after lockdowns 

Europe has seen a resurgence of deadly violence against women as abusers experience a ‘loss of the control’ they enjoyed throughout the coronavirus lockdowns.  

In Spain, for example, since the state of emergency ended in May, one woman has been killed every three days, compared with an average of one a week before.

In Belgium, 13 women have died from violence since the end of April compared with 24 in the whole of 2020, while in France, 56 have been killed so far this year compared with 46 for the same period a year earlier, NGO figures show.

Chahinez (left), a French mother-of-three, was burnt alive by her estranged husband, while Cristina Ramos (right) disappeared on a cycle ride in Spain in May

Many of their faces are making headlines and sparking protests, such as Chahinez, a French mother-of-three who was burnt alive by her estranged husband, or the five women killed in three weeks in spring in Sweden. 

‘With women gaining more freedom, the aggressors feel as if they’re losing control and react with more extreme violence,’ explained Victoria Rosell, head of the Spanish government’s taskforce against gender violence.

‘In the case of the increasing numbers we’ve seen in recent months, we’ve seen how easing the restrictions has exposed another underlying pandemic, that of male violence.’

In 2004, Spain approved Europe’s first law that specifically cracked down on domestic violence, making the victim’s gender an aggravating factor in cases of assault.

La Fondation des Femmes president Anne-Cécile Mailfert (pictured at a protest) has called on the government to act on the rise in gender violence 

And with the recent rise in deadly violence, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has reiterated his desire to put an end to this ‘misogynist scourge’ once and for all. 

Throughout Europe, the lockdowns have made it harder to pick up on cases of domestic violence.

Forced to stay at home with their abusers, victims could only reach out for help with extreme discretion.

During Spain’s three-month lockdown at the start of the pandemic, appeals for help rose by 58 per cent compared to the same period in 2019 with online – or ‘silent’ – appeals soaring by 458 per cent, equality ministry figures show.

‘This shows how women were not even able to make a phone call from home,’ said Rosell.

Prosecutors say that Chahinez from Bordeaux was gunned down by her ex husband and set alight in the street.

Her killer, known as Mounir B, had recently been released from prison for domestic violence ben when Chahinez told police in March this year that he had attacked her after his release, authorities were unable to find him. 

The Women’s Foundation in France has questioned why Mounir B was not wearing an electronic tag after being freed from prison.

Flowers are placed at the scene where Chahinez was shot in the legs and burned to death in Bordeaux

The group’s president Anne-Cécile Mailfert told France Info that only 40 electronic bracelets were distributed last year, despite the government’s pledge to use the tags to enforce restraining orders.

The same was true in Italy and Germany, with calls to domestic violence hotlines peaking in April and May 2020, while in the UK, the NGO Refuge said calls almost doubled between spring 2020 and February 2021.

To provide a lifeline to women at risk, different counties came up with innovative ways to call for help, such as Italy where women could call a police emergency number and say: ‘I’d like to order a margarita pizza’ which would alert the operator to send a patrol.

In Spain, women could alert the authorities by going into a chemist, one of the few shops open during the lockdown, and requesting ‘a purple mask’.

Although the number of calls for help rose, both the number of complaints and murders fell during the lockdowns, explained Angeles Carmona, head of Spain’s Observatory for Domestic and Gender-based Violence. 

In France, Italy and Spain, the number of women killed by their partner or ex-partner fell last year to 90, 67 and 45 respectively, while in Belgium it remained unchanged at 24.

But the numbers don’t surprise Angeles Jaime de Pablo, head of Themis, a Spanish organisation of women jurists, who says the combination of working from home and the lack of social contact created the ‘ideal conditions for exercising the violence of control’.

And in that light, the recent increase in deadly violence was ‘foreseeable’, she told AFP.

Under normal circumstances, such violence is often triggered by a divorce or separation, or when an ex-partner starts a new relationship – situations which have been largely put on hold during the lockdown.

‘Once the state of emergency and the lockdowns ended, many victims took things into their own hands and decided to leave,’ explained Carmen Ruiz Repullo, a sociologist who specialises in gender violence.

‘And that’s where the risk is much higher and you start seeing these murders.’

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