“It’s a very bad feeling, I haven’t gotten over it. You are not safe anywhere. You feel that nobody understands you, nobody wants to deal with you, nobody cares about your problem. Did you get away? Good. You didn’t? God rest her soul, we’ll cry about it on the news and that’s the end of it. One victim, then another, and another, and on and on. I have to admit to you that if I hadn’t left, I might have been one of them.”
This is how Eleni says she feels when she hears about each new femicide in the news. Divorced and the mother of a young child, she is a survivor of abuse. First, gross economic abuse in her marriage and then serious physical abuse at the hands of a colleague who insisted that he be her partner. Wearing the mask of someone who would help her through a difficult financial period, he approached her and then, when she refused to have a relationship with him, began stalking her as in a horror movie, going so far as to attack her in her home.
That first time she ended up badly beaten in hospital, where she was urged by the staff to go to the police and press charges against him. Before she was able to do so, he visited her again at her home. And that is when “the terrible ordeal began”, she explains to MIIR. “I would call the police to my house, have them remove him, and then he would come back two days later. Broken cell phones, changing SIM cards, having no contact with anyone. Closed shutters, not being able to go to the supermarket or to work or anywhere, because he was stalking me, he would come to my house, anywhere I went.“
Eleni – who hides her real name for her safety, as the perpetrator is still at large and looking for her – lived through a six-month nightmare in which her stalker imposed a reign of terror on her in her home, self-servingly playing the role of her partner, controlling every aspect of her life by means of threats and physical violence.
In desperation, she began to secretly look for a way to escape with her young child: “I found closed doors everywhere. When I called a women’s support line, I was told: ‘You need to get an injunction and then we will put you on a list that says you have indeed been abused. There is a long wait. Only then can we deal with the question of your escape.’ Yes, I said, but if I press charges and police officers come, then who will save me from him after that? ‘Look’, they said, ‘there is nothing else that can be done’. I also approached the church, the attitude was the same, even worse… ‘It’s not their business… They can’t do anything’“.
Eleni is a prime example of a woman who, while completely isolated, with no support network, lost her independence overnight at the hands of an abusive man. Similar incidents of physical, sexual, economic and psychological violence were experienced by thousands of women in Europe during the pandemic. During that period there was an increase in violence against women in a number of European countries, as we reported in the first part of MIIR’s cross-border investigation with the European Data Journalism Network in collaboration with 18 news organisations, including iMEdD Lab, Deutsche Welle, El Confidencial, Civio, and OBC Transeuropa.
Based on the data gathered by participating newsrooms, Greece showed the highest increase in femicides (187.5%), with 8 femicides officially recorded in 2020 and 23 in 2021.
This was the largest increase for 2021 among the countries for which enough data was available (Cyprus, Hungary, Italy, Serbia, Serbia, Slovenia, Sweden), in order to calculate this indicator on the basis of the index of femicides maintained by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). When comparing the two years of the pandemic with 2019, the result is a significant increase in officially recorded femicides in Greece, Slovenia, Germany and Italy.
In Greece, the pandemic period was also marked by a frightening 110,2% increase in victims of physical violence in 2020 and 90,4% in 2021. Specifically, in 2020 there were 3,609 victims of physical violence recorded, rising to 6,873 in 2021. During this same period, the victims of psychological violence increased from 2,906 to 5,350, and those of sexual violence from 69 to 141.
Speaking to MIIR, Cristina Fabre Rosell, Gender-based Violence Team Leader at the European Institute for Gender Equality, reminds that this form of violence “has its roots in gender inequalities and power imbalances in relationships. Femicide is the most extreme form of this power-based violence and remains one of the most widespread human-rights violations”. In a recent report , EIGE presented its Gender Equality Index for 2022. In this ranking Greece has consistently ranked last. Despite an improvement over the last decade, Greece remains a laggard among EU countries, at 15.2 points below the European average.
The Gender Equality Index also takes into account the handling of violence against women in the EU member states. During the pandemic, countries with higher positions in the index seemed better prepared to manage the extraordinary circumstances that exacerbated the risk for women.
“Very few member states – Ireland, Spain and Lithuania – adopted a comprehensive national policy or action plan to address the potential for violence by intimate partners in the context of Covid-19. Spain, for example, had a good contingency plan with many measures for intimate-partner violence, and also for several vulnerable groups such as women in prostitution or homeless women. Three other member states – the Czech Republic, Latvia and Poland – provided specific guidelines. In most states the measures that were strengthened were support lines or mobile apps for contacting the police, but not any increase in the provision of shelters,” explains Fabre Rosell.
Data collected for the MIIR data investigation reveal a pan-European increase in calls from victims of domestic violence or third parties to national support lines, such as the SOS 15900 hotline in Greece. The largest increase in calls occurred in the first year of the pandemic in Cyprus, with Italy, Greece and Austria just behind.
According to Greece’s deputy minister for labour and social affairs, Maria Syrengela, phone calls about incidents of domestic violence almost quadrupled during lockdowns. She interprets this as an indication that “many of the victims are no longer afraid to speak out and disclose incidents of violence, as they know that both society and the state are by their side.” In this context she mentions that the General Secretariat for Demographic Policy & Gender Equality operates a network of 44 counselling centres and 19 shelters.
The minister says that “never has a woman victim of violence who had to be removed from an abusive environment, been left outside the government structures“. According to official figures, the total availability in the shelters is about 400 beds. Data provided by the General Secretariat for Demography and Family Policy and Gender Equality shows that 244 women were accommodated in 2020, 218 in 2021, and 200 in 2022 (from January to October).
Dr Kiki Petroulaki, psychologist and chair of the board of the European Anti-Violence Network, explains that things are not that simple. For a woman in danger to be protected, it is not enough for her to just speak out. She needs to have her needs addressed seriously, both at the moment she calls for help and during the next steps. “If she is in danger when she calls, they will tell her to call the police. It’s fine if she ends up at the police station alone, but if she has a child, two children – where will she sleep at night? She will go back again. If she’s looking for shelter, she’ll be told the nearest counselling centre to get an appointment. At the shelter she can stay for three months with the possibility of extending to three more. Usually at the time the request is made, she is told the process she needs to follow, what medical tests she and her children need to do, and, if these appear alright, they will then look into which shelter in Greece might have a place. Women with children who are interested in a shelter are put off as soon as they hear about the time limit. Because if you have children and no job or support network, the three months and six months are prohibitive. If you leave the shelter after three or six months, what do you do then? Do you go back to where you were? This is something that deters too many women.”
Escape and the day after, for victims of violence
For Eleni, salvation came when she managed to get in touch with the European Anti-Violence Network, which still supports her with counselling in cooperation with “the Smile of the Child” ngo. This enabled her to find more permanent accommodation, where she currently stays with her young child. “After all this abuse, you feel as if you are reborn. The door to the new home was a security door, and it made me feel so safe”, says Eleni.
Today, however, she remains unemployed. Finding a job is not easy with a young child. Her single-parent family relies on the help of ngo’s to make ends meet. Help from the state is meagre: “I get an allowance. It used to be €300 for six months – €200 for the adult and €100 for the child. That’s what it was during the pandemic. And now it has become €80 and €80 respectively, a total of €160. It’s not enough.”
As Kiki Petroulaki explains, without consistent and adequate financial support it is extremely difficult for women – especially when they have children – to escape the abusive environment they find themselves in. Especially since the child benefit for single-parent families in Greece was recently reduced significantly. “This is a major problem. The welfare state considers that a mother with one child can live on €300 per month and, therefore, any additional income, from any source, is deducted on her next application so that her annual income does not exceed €3,600 – and that’s if the mother meets the strict conditions to be eligible for the official minimum guaranteed income.”
“Female victims of domestic violence need a holistic framework of protection. These are women who have usually been trapped for a long time in a cycle of violence and abuse and need a more systematic and sensitised approach,” says Chara Chioni-Chotouman, a lawyer at the Diotima Centre for Gender Rights and Equality, which offers legal and psycho-social support, as well as job counselling for women who are trying to escape abuse and reclaim their autonomy by entering the workforce.
Just a few weeks ago the GREVIO committee completed an official visit to Athens. This committee represents the independent authority that monitors the implementation of the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women. The visit was in the framework of its first assessment carried out in Greece and its results and recommendations are expected in the coming months. The government presented Greece’s initiatives to address violence against women, while the members of the committee also met with representatives of women’s organisations and other NGOs. There they discussed the incomplete implementation of the Istanbul Convention, and main problems which include: the increase in domestic violence and femicides, the inadequate support network for women victims of abuse, as well as the lack of a targeted support network for the most vulnerable women (such as disabled, Roma, LGBT, and migrant women) and for children. They also talked about issues arising from Greece’s Family Law Reform Act on children and abused women, and the need for systematic training to prevent gender-based violence and to better protect victims.
There are still many steps to be taken in order to achieve a safer institutional framework for the prevention of violence against women and the support of victims. In the meantime, solutions must be found for women like Eleni, who managed to find a way out. “I never expected in my life that a front door could bring out so many emotions. Knowing you’re going to a safe home gives you great strength. It’s what you need. You feel that you’re not alone.”
* Read part 1: “Femicides: the undeclared war on women in Europe”.
* Read part 3: “The undeclared war on women in Europe: A systemic failure to prevent femicides”