Violence against women in times of confinement in Algeria

Living in confinement is often a traumatic experience. Living in confinement in times of pandemic, uncertainty, protean crisis is very difficult and anxiety-provoking. So, what can we say about the experience of confinement or semi-confinement when we are women and we are already victims of conjugal and/or intra-family violence? What can we say when we are in front of our executioner 24 hours a day?

Often wife, husband, children, mother-in-law, father-in-law and sometimes even brother-in-law and sister-in-law live together in a small and precarious space. Everything is suddenly exacerbated because one has lost the small job that used to support the family, because there is no more financial income and one has to survive in spite of everything, because one lives on charity and solidarity with others, because one cannot project oneself and the near future is bleak? Tension, conflicts, one word too much, insults, spitting, shouting, screaming, slapping, hitting, strangulation, stabbing, murder.

Yes, violence kills!

Confinement is favourable to the aggressor because the victim is isolated, and we know that in the cycle of conjugal violence, the isolation of the victim is a first step that allows for better control of the victim and therefore makes him/her suffer violence without witnesses. The silence of the female victim of violence, the state of terror and astonishment in which she finds herself are also part of this pattern of violence. In fact, very often confinement is an aggravating factor and can endanger women because they are among those who are vulnerable because of the status conferred on them by a society firmly rooted in a patriarchal system. It is therefore not surprising to see an increase in acts of violence perpetrated by spouses or other family members against women in times of confinement around the world.

Lack of figures

The figures recorded until recently in various countries are alarming. According to UN sources, there has been a 20% increase in violence against women in the United States, 75% in Australia, 37% in South Africa, 25% in Great Britain, 32% in France, 38% in Turkey, 50% in India, etc...

What about Algeria? Unfortunately we do not have any figures in the current context because in order to have statistics that would allow us to assess the situation, to set up care and prevention mechanisms, there should have been a political will on the part of the institutions to take emergency measures to protect women. While the figures are important for establishing a genuine policy to prevent violence against women, the fact remains that the experiences of women and their testimonies speak volumes about the seriousness of the problem. On the other hand, we know very well that in times of crisis of any kind, women will be the first victims. We also know that confinement is an aggravating factor.

The figures published annually by the National Security Directorate (DGSN) and the police are worrisome, especially since they represent only the tip of the iceberg, since they refer only to complaints from victims. Many women who are victims of conjugal and domestic violence do not dare to file a complaint because they are not supported in their efforts, discouraged by those around them, sometimes even by the police who remind them that the aggressor is the father of their children, their son or their brother.

The figures published by the DGSN indicate that for the year 2019 there were a total of 7,083 complaints of violence against women, the most significant violence being physical violence (5,133 cases). While the institutions have tried to produce the gender statistics necessary for a genuine national prevention policy, which we hope to see, we believe that these figures do not really reflect reality. On the other hand, we have noted that since 2012, figures on feminicides have not been published.

However, the document produced by the Centre d’information sur les droits de l’enfant et de la femme (CIDDEF) this year, "Women in Figures", refers to "39 cases of homicides and intentional assault and battery resulting in death", which we believe to be under-reporting. Today, young committed feminists are trying to collect cases of feminicide through information given by the media and social networks. Thus, they report 16 feminicides since the beginning of the year. We do not have any statistics in relation to the specific context of the pandemic and containment, but we do have some sporadic figures collected by women's rights associations and feminist activists. This activist work functions as a warning system.

It is clear that it is difficult to assess the current situation because no emergency mechanism has been put in place by the institutions, which would allow us to make visible the experiences of women, their terror of their torturers, their injuries, their psychological trauma that leaves indelible marks on them and their children, the secondary victims of the aggressors.

The toll-free number of the Ministry of Solidarity does not work; moreover, this is one of the demands of feminists, namely the setting up of a functional toll-free number in each wilaya that women victims of violence could call in order to be listened to, supported, oriented and taken care of by professional listeners. The shelters, which are too few (five at the national level), are clearly insufficient and often difficult to access because of their administrative procedures. It should be noted that these centres take in women without their children, which is nonsense. The objective conditions of the pandemic and the semi-confinement have blatantly revealed the problems already existing.

Female victims in times of confinement

In most cities in Algeria, a "curfew" has been decreed by the government, a curfew that revives traumas still buried in us from the civil war of the 1990s. Curfew times vary according to the health situation. In Algiers, for example, the population was banned from going out, first from 7pm to 7am, then from 3pm to 7am the next morning and now from 5pm to 7am.

This means that the men found themselves suddenly confined to the house, whereas this domestic space was frequented, for a large part of them, only for eating and sleeping. Traditionally the home is a female space, so women are forced to share this space with the men in the family for much of the day. This new situation creates immense tensions and very often leads to violence that is dangerous for women's safety. What was possible before the pandemic, i.e. to take temporary refuge with relatives or friends, is practically no longer possible.

It is difficult for the abused woman to leave the home because the perpetrator, who is often present, is constantly controlling her. For the same reasons, it is practically impossible for her to go to the police station to complain. As hospital structures are mobilised mainly to care for Covid-19 patients, and for fear of being contaminated, women victims of violence will not go to the forensic medicine service for a CBV (voluntary assault and battery) certificate either. The remedies they would normally have had are less accessible; many services are either at a standstill or working in slow motion. For example, all divorce cases, child custody cases, alimony cases, all criminal cases under the Penal Code have been at a standstill for almost two months. It is only in the last few days that the court has resumed functioning for civil cases.

"Listening Centre" - an association experience

Our association "Réseau Wassila" which deals with women victims of violence has, together with a few other associations, decided to maintain the activity of the Listening Centre to support women victims of violence and help them as much as possible; the listeners (a lawyer and a psychologist) work exceptionally from their homes. They note several difficulties in their work because of the confinement. The major problem is that women call less because they cannot talk, as the husband or another violent man in the family is at home almost all the time. One listener reported that one of the women victims had to lie and say that she was going out quickly to run errands so that she could talk on the phone and talk about her distress.

The listeners, more than usual, are obliged with the tacit agreement of the victim to pretend that they are friends when they feel that the victim cannot speak because she is terrified by the presence of her torturer. In addition to the problem of confinement, Ramadan also puts women in a whirlwind of household chores that do not allow them to emerge and think about themselves. It is the women who bear the domestic burdens, who take care of the children because they do not go to school, the husband and the whole family living under the same roof. The mental and emotional burden is very heavy, especially for those who are victims of conjugal and family violence.

The moment they steal to tell all the suffering that they experience daily to a caring listener who will not judge but will try to strengthen her self-esteem is invaluable to the female victim. But it is frustrating because certain steps cannot be taken because of the constraints of confinement except in certain cases of violence, such as the case of this young woman threatened with a knife by her brothers. The association helped the victim by contacting the police and writing a complaint to the Public Prosecutor of the court concerned; a follow-up could be ensured.

What we notice at the level of our association is that in the early days of the pandemic, there were no more calls to the Listening Centre than usual. However, in the last two weeks the number of calls has increased, especially calls for domestic violence (the aggressor is not only the spouse but another family member). It is also noticeable that more women are asking for information about their rights regarding divorce, child custody, alimony. This may concern women who have been abused by their spouse for many years and this confinement could be a trigger for them to make the decision to protect themselves and the children by leaving the abusive husband.

Women who have been in this spiral of violence for a long time and are now experiencing even more atrocious violence tell us that men use confinement and the pandemic as an excuse to justify their actions. It is also noted that during this period, many women call the crisis centre to report cases of women victims of violence they know or have heard about.

We can say today that confinement reveals family relationships, of the state of society with all its demons and particularly its violence against women, it also reveals the effects of gender and class inequalities. Unfortunately, the post-confinement period will bring to light the terrible damage caused by this conjugal and family violence.

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Louisa Ait Hamou is a feminist activist and member of Réseau Wassila, Algiers

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