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RIGHTS-FRANCE: Domestic Violence – Everybody’s Business

PARIS, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - Several people are gathered outside a window, staring wide-eyed at a scene within. They watch as a man brutally beats a woman, pounding her face with his fists, kicking her. No one says anything, until an onlooker screams agonisingly: “stop”.

This is a short black-and-white film made by French director Olivier Dahan that has been showing on television and in theatres here ahead of the Nov. 25 International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women.

Created for Amnesty International (AI), the film highlights the increase in reported cases of domestic violence in France over the past years and is being used to raise awareness of the issue. Its message: “Don’t remain silent in the face of conjugal violence”.

According to the interior ministry, one woman is killed every three days in France as a consequence of such violence. The problem is “major because of the impact on the foundations of society”, the ministry says.

In 2008, a national police study showed that 156 women were murdered by their partner or ex-partner, while 27 men were killed in comparable circumstances. Eleven of the women who killed their partners had themselves been victims of domestic violence, the authorities say. In addition, nine children were also murdered by their fathers.

The deaths represent 16 percent of the national total of homicides. The victims died from blows, strangulation, and knife and gunshot wounds. Two had been raped, according to the report. The overall figures were slightly down from 2007 (which saw 166 women killed in domestic violence) but up from 2006 (with 135 such murders).

“The statistics are shocking, but what destroys women is also emotional and psychological violence,” says Yves Lambert, director of SOS Femmes, an organisation that provides assistance and shelter to victims of domestic violence. “We cannot only talk about physical violence because there are other kinds of violence that many women suffer.”

Overall, reported cases of domestic violence have increased by about 30 percent, which may be due to greater awareness. More than 47,500 cases were reported in 2007 and surveys indicate that two million French women experience domestic violence at some point.

Lambert told IPS that SOS Femmes receives 20,000 e-mails each year, mostly from women seeking help. It is one of the few associations to provide counseling via the Internet, and it also runs an actual shelter for women who need to escape from abusive partners.

The group would like to see more emphasis placed on the subtler forms of violence, such as insults, threats, intimidation and belittlement, Lambert said, explaining that he thought the Amnesty ads and some government clips rely too much on shock value to get their message across.

AI says the aim of its film and campaign is to “make everyone more conscious of the reality of this problem in France, and of the role of each individual as well as the government in finding a solution.”

Dahan, the director known for his successful biopic of singer Edith Piaf, “La Vie en Rose”, chose to use silent-film techniques to amplify the “horror of silence that too often surrounds cases of domestic violence and to stress the importance of daring to stay ‘stop'”, AI said a statement.

AI wants the French public to petition the government to do more. The interior ministry has launched training programmes for officials who deal with domestic violence and it also runs help-lines, and on Wednesday, a government protocol will be signed on the “prevention and fight” against conjugal violence. But women rights groups say the fundamental position of women in France needs to be examined.

While French president Nicolas Sarkozy made international headlines by saying the burqa was not welcome on French soil because it represents the “subjugation of women”, groups such as Human Rights Watch point out that women traditionally have not fully benefited from the national ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Women here make up only about 10 percent of parliamentarians, and are paid 25 percent less than men in comparable jobs (compared with nine percent less in Denmark and 35 percent less in Britain), according to figures from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.

In addition, only 6.3 percent “of the management of the 5,000 leading companies in France are women”, the ministry said in a feature. Women hold nearly 60 percent of jobs in the public sector, but only about 10 percent of them reach the top levels of the administration.

Against this backdrop, the increase in sexual violence is also a major concern; the French statistical agency INSEE has reported that an estimated one in 10 women was a victim of sexual assault or harassment from 2007 to 2008, double the number from ten years ago.

Most of these crimes go unreported, like cases of domestic violence.

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