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Early child abuse blamed for France's alarming femicide figures

This illustration photograph taken on September 2, 2019, shows a woman hiding her face in front of a man's fist in Nantes, replicating a supposed scene of domestic violence.
This illustration photograph taken on September 2, 2019, shows a woman hiding her face in front of a man's fist in Nantes, replicating a supposed scene of domestic violence. LOIC VENANCE / AFP

The French government has unveiled a raft of measures to curb domestic violence amid startlingly high rates of women killed by their partner or ex. Experts warn the response is missing the mark.

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Domestic violence "is a national public health problem", says Violaine Guérin, a gynaecologist and endocrinologist specialising in sexual violence, after France recorded its 101st victim.

The woman, in her 90s, was beaten to death with a cane by her husband.

The killing overshadowed the start of a three-month conference to address the alarming female murders, known as femicide or feminicide.

Last year, 121 women were killed in France by their partner or former partner, equating to one death every three days, according to the French interior ministry.

“Of course it’s very shocking," continues Guérin, who has treated dozens of patients suffering from past abuse.

"We speak in France about violence towards women but we don’t speak at all about violence towards children, which is a much bigger problem," she told RFI.

From child abuse to adult violence

For Guérin, early physical abuse may be driving the femicide figures.

"Violence breeds violence. If we succeed in eradicating violence against girls and boys in childhood, we will have an impact in preventing violence at an adult age," she reckons.

The national economic cost of sexual violence in France is estimated to be 10 billion euros per year.

"That's only the medical consequences. If you add the social consequences it comes to 100 billion euros per year," offers Guérin.

The huge amount is far more than the one billion requested by feminist groups. They were disappointed Tuesday at the government's failure to commit large sums of money to the fight against gender-based violence.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who launched Tuesday's domestic violence summit, pledged 5 million euros to the fight against femicide and vowed that the complaints procedure would be simplified.

Lack of implementation

The government also announced plans to create 1,000 new places for victims in emergency shelters, scrap child custody from abusers and allow battered women to file a criminal complaint from hospital.

Not everyone is convinced by this show of good faith.

"In France, we create laws and proposals but we have no budget and there's no implementation," comments Guérin.

French law for example provides for three hours of gender equality education a year, but experts say in practice this is rarely done.

"In January 2018, the European Commission convoked all countries to work on the European directive for sexual crimes against children and three countries were missing: Romania, Luxembourg and France," adds Guérin, who also runs an association called Stop aux violences sexuelles (End sexual violence).

"I personally met Marlène Schiappa [French gender equality minister] and we gave her a lot of information and our public health plan to prevent violence. Nothing has been implemented," she said.

Guérin's proposals include training midwives to detect signs of early abuse in future parents to prevent them passing on this violence to their children.

"We have to act first in prevention because it's very hard to cure people afterwards."

MeToo not enough

What is Guérin hoping to come out of the government's femicide conference?

"I'm not very optimistic," she admits, although appreciates that people are now talking about the issue.

While globally, the treatment of women has come under scrutiny through campaigns like the #MeToo movement, which has catalysed a change in attitudes towards sexual harassment, domestic violence has been overlooked.

The bruises of domestic abuse are less visible and often considered a private family issue. However, they are no more insignificant.

To change the way people think, change must first come from within, reckons Guérin.

"We have to develop respect for ourselves. Respect for other people and the planet."

When she sees climate activists such as Greta Thunberg "moving the planet for the climate", it gives her hope.

"Respect is the heart of the subject," Guérin said.

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