When Staying at Home is a Danger for Non-French Women

When Staying at Home is a Danger for Non-French Women

non-French women
© Women for Women France

“Stay home, stay safe,” we are repeatedly told. But for too many women, staying home isn’t safe. In the first week alone since the country went into lockdown on March 17 in response to the COVID19 crisis, reports of domestic violence in Paris increased by 36% in the Paris region, and 32% in the other regions of France.

Calls to a children’s abuse helpline have increased by 20%.

Among the most vulnerable are women who do not speak French. Often isolated, far from family support, unable to communicate with authorities, they have nowhere to turn.

A campaign to reach out to these women in their own languages has been launched by Women for Women France, with the help of celebrities to amplify the message. Franco-British actor and singer Jane Birkin, and actress Ariane Ascaride who is of Italian descent, were the first to record these video messages telling women where they can seek assistance. Actress Rachida Brakni, who is married to the actor and ex-footballer Eric Cantona, recorded the clip in Arabic.

This week Madrid-born actress Victoria Avril recorded her message in Spanish, joined by Dave, the 70’s Dutch singer. Dave is the first man to join the stellar lineup. Messages in other languages will soon follow. Videos in 11 different languages have now been recorded.

Their wide-ranging victim outreach program is using native-language radio, television, community internet sites and associations, as well as social media, to tell women in their own language to telephone 17 where an interpreter can assist them. Women for Women France is asking everyone to share the videos.

The charity was set up 18-months ago by Australian Sarah McGrath, in response to a recognized problem that non-French women living in France are in an extremely vulnerable situation regarding domestic abuse. Women for Women France quickly gained support from the city of Paris, consulates, and existing immigrant and women’s rights organizations in France and Europe.

“Living through and trying to survive domestic violence is an awful, traumatic, confusing experience already for French victims”. – Sarah McGrath.

© Claudia Wolff/Unsplash

Getting out of a dangerous situation is extremely difficult

For non-French women facing abuse, the problem is compounded by potential language difficulties, economic and administrative dependence, fear of visa problems and separation from their children if they leave their violent partner. There is an even greater lack of knowledge about where to seek help to navigate the very complex French system regarding victim rights, family law and child custody procedures to name a few.

As soon as France went into lockdown, Women for Women France decided to launch this victim outreach campaign. Even though funding is still needed, the association wanted to help non-French women learn how to seek assistance, removing the fear no one would come to help them during lockdown, or speak their language.

Domestic abuse knows no borders

Laura is a successful biochemist who was able to get a seat on one of the last aircrafts leaving New York before lockdown to re-join her parents in Paris. A Christmas argument about something small had escalated to the point where her husband put his hands around her neck. Weeks later, again after an argument, he tried to push her outside their apartment, and threatened to throw her out the window.

“Who knows what would have happened had I stayed,” she said. “I couldn’t have gone to the police because I had no bruises and it was his word against mine. I would have been trapped with someone who was drinking and violent…I had to get out,” she confided to Women for Women France.

Another young woman in France said she was pushed onto a bed and a bucket of cold water was thrown over her and her toddler.

“I couldn’t escape. How could I in a 20-square-meter apartment?”

The mother and child were forced to stay in the wet bed while the abusive father hurled insults at them.

Not all the violence is physical. Andrea, a young Australian mother living in Paris, had kept close contact with her many friends around the world and in Paris. Her French-Italian husband, overhearing her discussing the cracks in their marriage, was furious. She told the friend he threatened to throw her computer and telephone out the window. Since then, her friends have not heard from her. Her telephone does not answer.

British helplines say they are getting calls from career women and stay-at-home moms, wives of politicians and surgeons, and asylum-seekers reliant on food banks. In Australia, there has been a 70% increase in Internet searches on domestic violence.

Sarah McGrath saw the necessity to reach these vulnerable women in their maternal languages, to encourage victims to seek help and reaffirm that their partner does not have the right to abuse them in any way. The work of Women for Women France also says to these victims they are not forgotten, that French society cares about them too.

It’s estimated there are 9.5 million – that is 14.6% – people of non-French origin living in France.  By far the majority of immigrants (43%) come from Africa. Europeans make up 37%, followed by Asia (including Turkey) at 14% and 6% are from America and Pacific nations.

However, half of all women who were placed in secure housing by the Féderation National Solidarité Femmes (FNSF) in 2017 were non-French nationals.  It is estimated that 223,000 women aged 18 to 75 are victims of serious domestic violence each year, a figure some specialists say is under-estimated. 140,000 children live in a household where their mother is a victim of violence.

UN chief António Guterres is calling for measures to address a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” directed towards women and girls, linked to lockdowns imposed by governments responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information about support for English-speakers in the Paris area, read our interview with Jill Bourdais of Domestic Violence Help Paris.

Drastic consequences of confinement

Emmanuel Crane, a Franco-American anthropologist who has studied domestic violence, says the stresses of the COVID 19 lockdown exacerbates many problems that already existed between couples. “You may have married for life. But not to be locked up day after day, week after week, 24 hours a day, with no end in sight. Lack of privacy, economic problems, fear of the future…this weighs on both. Frustration builds. Heavy drinking can escalate problems. Men could previously work out their frustrations in the gym or similar – but that is impossible now.”

Crane says the situation is explosive and a lot of work is going to be needed when it is over.

Stepping up to help victims of domestic violence

France has recognized the problem, and has set up special help lines. However, the language barrier is a big obstacle for non-French women.

© Women for Women France

To tackle this crisis, Sarah McGrath and her team have fast-tracked their community outreach with a multi-language campaign informing non-French speaking women where they can seek help in their own language.

Thanks to Women for Women France, basic but vital written information on emergency services is available in multiple languages during this period of confinement, tailored for those who may not speak any French.

The message is simple and direct:

  • No one has the right to harm you in any way, or for any reason, under any circumstances.
  • If you experience domestic violence during this period, the police will still come.
  • Dial the number 17 where an interpreter will be assigned to your call. Or you can request urgent police assistance discreetly by texting that you are in danger – with your address – to 114.
  • You can also chat with the police in your own language at:
    www.arretonslesviolences.gouv.fr. Click on “Signaler en ligne”, and enter your postcode before chatting.
  • If you speak French, the national domestic violence helpline can also be reached on 3919.

There are solutions to protect you and your children. You are not alone.


    • The author recognizes that violence against women is a very serious issue in France, which is why she wrote the post to bring attention to the associations that are now helping non-French women learn about finding assistance. Announces as to where to call or go to escape domestic violence are now available in different languages thanks to the efforts of international women giving their time and voices.

  1. Hello everyonne I just came accross your wonderful initiative while looking for a safe place for women abuse. So is Any contact to reach as I got a concept I d like to put in place for emergencu safer life for women and some teenagers girls


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