March 8th is International Women’s Day, a time set aside to celebrate women and take action for equality. Yet for all the accomplishments women in France, from Simone de Beauvoir to Simone Veil, have achieved over the years, violence against women remains a major issue here.
Members of the expat community can be particularly vulnerable as French is not their first language and they may not be aware of the laws and resources in place. The French government recently announced 30 new measures to help combat gender-based violence, including the creation of a dedicated hotline, streamlining procedures for making formal complaints, and increasing the use of electronic bracelets to reinforce restraining orders. Yet with over 100 instances of domestic femicide since 2019, many feel it is not enough.
To find out more about the issues and what help is available, INSPIRELLE spoke with Jill Bourdais, a couple and family therapist who has been doing outreach for ten years. Jill currently runs the Domestic Violence Help Paris support group, which provides aid to Anglophone women dealing with partner abuse.
How did you first become involved in domestic violence issues?
I became interested in becoming active in domestic violence issues after hearing a talk that Paula Lucas, founder of what used to be called the American Domestic Violence Crisis Center (renamed Pathways to Safety), presented to AAWE back in 2011. Her courage in escaping a terrifyingly abusive husband while living in Dubai made me determined to help abused American women in France extricate themselves from their situations. I started by organizing a forum around that issue for the Anglophone community, and then, in my capacity as a psychotherapist, created a bi-monthly free support group which I still animate.
Well over 100 women from many different countries where English is widely used as a first or second language as well as women from all over France have contacted me, and a large majority of them have come to one or more group meetings.
Besides giving support and information, I also accompany victims to the police, attend their hearings, act as a translator, and even lend them money when needed. The women who attend give each other tips and encouragement, and have started a WhatsApp group where they can chat between meetings.
What are the different kinds of abusive situations you have come across in France?
Most of the women I receive have French partners, and in a certain number of cases, were brought in from Asian or Middle Eastern countries with no French, no money of their own, and expected to perform as unpaid domestic workers. But more commonly the women I meet have married, had children, and been subjected to increasing psychological, emotional, sexual and financial abuse which, in certain cases, is accompanied by being slapped, shoved, punched – even stifled. Short of the latter, danger signals are constant criticism and blame, insulting put-downs, assertions that she is crazy, blatant attempts to control friendships, outside contacts, and denial of requests to learn French or get a job – anything which would allow a woman to establish a modicum of autonomy.
What are the first steps to take in reaching out for help?
In terms of reaching out, sad to say, it’s almost better if the victims have been physically hurt and can show bruises to the authorities. The more subtle forms of abuse which gradually sap a woman’s psychological strength and self-esteem have gone unacknowledged until recently with the explosion of the #MeToo movement as well as concern over the number of intimate partner murders which take place here yearly. If a woman decides to press charges with the police, much depends on the training and sensitivity of a particular officer assigned to hear her complaint. Protective orders (ordonnances de protection) are sometimes hard to get but since January 2020 are mandated to be delivered within a maximum of 6 days. However, an abuser now knowing that he has been flagged by the law, can become even more aggressive in the interim.
What are some measures women can take if they are in an emotionally or physically violent situation?
Most problematic in Paris is the possibility of finding a shelter. Although the main hotline is widely promoted, calls to it rarely result in a solution unless the woman has obtained a protective order, in which case Social Services will take charge.
Women thinking of leaving home should prepare not only a suitcase with necessities and ALL her administrative documents but also have arranged temporary housing with a friend or family member.
At present, there is a big push toward forcing the abuser to leave the home but it is not yet routine.
What resources do you recommend for women experiencing domestic violence and those who want to support them?
The best thing to do when a woman wants assistance with domestic violence is first to establish a dossier via a social worker, found through the Mairie of her arrondissement. That will open many doors. The French government website has much useful information as does the Stop Violences website, although only in French. An association which some of my participants have found very useful is the Centre Colliard. Through the main French hotline 3919 and its associated Solidarité Femmes website, one can obtain information on helpful organizations throughout France. There is usually a listener who can speak English.