Portraits de femmes by Jeanne Damas

Hello, my name is Sarah, I'm a writer and founder of the "125 et après?" charity, which works to combat violence against women. I've also created a test that you can take to see if what you're experiencing at home could be dangerous. Take heart, you're not alone.

Interview with Sarah by Jeanne Damas

The President tested it all summer. She saw the tool's impact and asked me to present it to healthcare professionals at the Restart event. I saw that it spoke to doctors, so I sent it to the council of the order of doctors. The vice-president of the order and president of the CNVIF told me how valuable the tool was, and guaranteed me her support. Today, we're finalizing the communication kit - with portraits of women by Carole Rocher. Ten profiles of anonymous women who have experienced violence, but above all who have survived it. The series is full of hope and is called "la vie sera belle" (life will be beautiful). We've also created a podcast with Mamouz on misconceptions about violence. Five episodes, five themes, one for each misconception! This content will be amplified by the brands we work with.

JD - Yes, your test is invaluable for combating preconceived ideas. Someone I know did it after leaving a toxic relationship: she wouldn't have considered herself a victim of violence, even though she ticked all the boxes.

The important thing is to tell yourself that you won't be a victim for the rest of your life. It was a reality at one point, but you can move on. I worked on the test with Ghada, with doctors, with lawyers and with UNFF. I realized that filing a complaint was a real ordeal. It takes an average of 3.5 hours to file a complaint.

JD - Yes, I remember a testimony from a French rape victim in Australia who realized just how much the police were trained to deal with this kind of information.

When I give training courses to police officers I tell them: "Put yourself in the shoes of this woman for five minutes, who's been wondering for 6 months how she's going to get here". Sometimes she has her children with her, and they ask her name and address, without any further consideration: it's humiliating. Who can we entrust the children to after spending 2 hours in a waiting room? I'm trying to develop a pilot project with the Prefect of the Val d'Oise, called Les chambres à soi (Rooms to yourself). This would be a 10 to 12 m2 space in police stations, for families who have been victims of violence. Inside, there would be everything needed to change clothes, freshen up, children's clothes, toys, a sleeping area and a telephone. Here again, a number of partner brands would contribute to make the place welcoming. It's not up to the police to do this - they don't have the time or resources. But civil society can help change these situations. We're testing it first in rural areas.

JD - I get the impression that you're looking for really concrete solutions. We can talk about it, reiterate the figures, but beyond that: what do we do?

Yes, there are some simple things we can do. To give a personal example: when I ran away in the middle of the night, I went to my parents' house in Paris' 19th arrondissement. The police station is a 5-minute walk from their house. I was so shocked and distraught after filing the complaint that I couldn't make the short journey, so my father had to come and pick me up by car. But what if I hadn't had my parents around? It takes an average of 24 hours to find emergency accommodation at La Maison des Femmes.
The other day, a friend of mine witnessed a violent scene in the street, a woman being beaten up. She filed a complaint, but then what? Where do you go? My girlfriend paid for a hotel room for this unknown woman. Self-catering rooms avoid these situations. To limit travel, take the time to bounce back, warn your loved ones...

JD - Your commitment is all the more practical because it comes from your own experience.

I escaped with my 16-month-old baby one June night in 2020, shortly after an unbearable lockdown. I was able to move back in with my parents: a pretty strange time, being in your teenage bedroom with your baby, confronted head-on with everything that was screwing up in my life. With this time away, I realized that I had accepted as normal things that weren't normal at all. When I arrived at the police station, I wanted to declare that I had left home, so as not to be accused of kidnapping my daughter. As I testified, the police told me how serious the facts were. They decided to file a complaint rather than a simple report. I was stunned to read the words "victim of domestic violence". A year earlier, our case had been reported and I had been told about a social investigation that could have taken away custody of our daughter. The experience had terrified me: I was afraid to speak out. The fact that the police decided to register a complaint completely eased my guilt. I was contacted by social workers, by the police station psychologist... I felt that it didn't concern me, that they were doing too much. My father's a doctor, my mother's a teacher, I'm a writer: with a certain lack of humility, I didn't see myself as a victim. I began to wonder who the women were that were dying from men's violence. I found news stories that sought extenuating circumstances for the aggressors, or that ironized the way they died. But also the counts from the various charities. 82, 83, 120.

JD - No faces, no stories?

Yes, it's a double blow for families. Their loved ones reduced to a number... And no prevention, because nobody identifies with a news item or a number. That's what makes it possible to stereotype victims. Women who are weak, in a precarious situation, sometimes with an immigrant background, in cramped accommodation, who don't necessarily speak French well, which could make it difficult to lodge a complaint. These patterns are wrong. We need statistics: a woman dies every two and a half days, that's a reality. But I also want to tell the story of the women behind the figures: the mother, the daughter, the sister. It was also a way of feeling less alone, of discovering that these women were like me. I thought that my rather privileged, cultured background protected me from that. Preconceived ideas blew up in my face. There's no such thing as a weak woman: femicide doesn't happen in everyday life, but when a woman decides to leave and stop being the object of her attacker's presumed possession. They had all filed a complaint, all decided to get out of the situation. Divorce papers, a new relationship... Freedom is a trigger for femicide.
Another interesting finding: we always talk about physical violence, whereas in 60% of cases, the women had never been touched before the day they died. Psychological violence, on the other hand, is systematic. It affects 1 in 5 women's lives.

JD - That's what the test says: even if you're not a victim of violence, you can still pinpoint situations or mechanisms that aren't working.

The principles of domination are embedded in the conventions of our society. It will take many more years before we stop educating little girls to be princesses waiting to be saved, and little boys to be princes who must save them. In fairy tales, they fight dragons, but also families and stepmothers, and end up isolating the princess and taking her away. And when the princess becomes queen, she prevents other women from becoming queen: the glory of being chosen, without any sisterhood. Femicide is an intimate problem, as well as a societal one. We all have a role to play and preconceptions to forget. I've learned that the police station most frequently contacted about domestic violence in Paris is that of the 18th arrondissement.

JD - Dominance is also linked to a sense of power.

Yes, but there's a double blow for poorer people: it's humiliating to think that violence is due to complex financial situations or cramped housing. In the end, violence is linked to just one thing: the fact of being a woman.

JD - Or a child too?

Of course. In fact, I've seen that 30% of children who witness violence become perpetrators, and 30% become victims. We're all affected. Yesterday, women were told to leave at the first slap. I'd say leave at the first frightening word. The slap is too late. We also live in a society that has difficulty rehabilitating victims.

JD - What about violent men? If the woman leaves him, he can start all over again with another woman. There are also actions to be taken with aggressors, aren't there?

Behind every violent man, there's a mother who's messed up a bit. I did an interview with Boris Cyrulnik on the origins of violence. If little boys are more violent than little girls from an early age, it's linked to centuries of constructive violence.

JD - Yes, even when we're very aware of these mechanisms, we can let slip a "he's so strong" to our little boy that we wouldn't say to a little girl.

Exactly. And awareness is a recent phenomenon. Boris Cyrulnik explained to me that there are indeed sadistic little boys, just as there are sadistic little girls. What we need to look at are the others: those who are constructed by society. The taboo on mental disorders is also important: most aggressors have experienced childhood trauma or psychosis. This was the case with my partner at the time. We have to stop saying that going to the shrink is for crazy people. And understanding the causes is not an excuse. You're not responsible for your illness, but for not taking care of yourself.

JD - When you left the situation you were in, was the law on your side? Did your partner admit to the violence?

When I left, my daughter's father suffered a psychological breakdown. He was in a day hospital, with fairly heavy psychiatric treatment, which he has accepted up to now. This meant that he was already able to talk to his daughter. When you break the link between a child and a parent, gaps can appear... It's not necessarily the best solution to break contact. I was told, "Go and see a family court judge, your daughter will only be able to see her father twice a month in a designated place". I didn't want that at all, to punish my child. The link with her father shouldn't be a gray room, in the presence of a stranger, with no emotional connection. How would that condition his future loving relationships? As long as he's not violent with her, I have no proof that cutting ties is the best thing. In any case, we're always forced to make do, follow our instincts and remain vigilant. In my opinion, true happiness is about balancing risk.

JD - How did you come up with the idea for the test? While you were writing your book?

I wondered what tools women had at their disposal to realize that they were under someone's control. A bruise on the face, that's clear. But sexual violence, material violence, economic violence, administrative violence, psychological violence... A man who hits a wall hasn't hit his wife, but it generates fear, a bruise on the soul. Not being able to spend your money, being dependent. I read and reread my complaint, the term victim of violence"... I felt the need to take back my life. There are several stages to this, including accepting the fact that, in that moment, you are a victim. I wanted to find a way to take people by the hand who are wondering about what they're going through, and who don't necessarily have the right words for it. And that, once the diagnosis has been made, they should have a process to follow. The violentometer already provides a scale for violence, but it's not linked to the relationship with danger. You can be in the red and not die, or in light orange and die. And there's no solution behind it: I'm a victim of violence, what's next? My tool proposes a diagnosis, the unwinding of misconceptions, and then five steps you can take on your own, right away, to change your narrative."

JD - What are these five steps?

The first three are the most important. The first is self-observation: this is what has worked for me, and for the women I've been able to help. Take notes, write down insults so you don't forget. It's easy for a man to deny it, or use anger as an excuse. Or to say that "I'm going to kill you" wasn't meant literally... But nobody has to hear that. Writing or taking a voice memo allows you to realize, to reread. After three weeks, women file a complaint. The next step is to repair yourself: the hold you have on someone affects your ability to connect with your emotions and yourself. You doubt your tastes and feelings. You have to reconnect all that. This can be done by exercising and feeling your body, mediating, reading a book or watching a film and asking yourself what you thought about it without the other person's approval. Third step: getting ready. You have to prepare to leave: identity papers, property deeds, family record book, children's cuddly toys, a family ring that brings you back to who you are. You need the minimum administrative requirements, cash to avoid being traced, all stored in a ready-to-go bag. When you have to come back because you were ill-prepared, you expose yourself to problems. Either you fall back into it, or you have a painful argument, or you get killed. That bag is like a desert island: the minimum you need to get going again.

JD - Is the family ring, or the symbolic object that brings you back to yourself, to give you strength too?

Yes, that's also how I envisioned the book 125 et des milliers. It may be corny to put it like that, but I have the impression that these 125 women are watching over us like lucky stars. Readers have told me they've gone to the police with the book in hand. Violence drains us, and we need to refill ourselves with something positive. Violence is rooted in narcissistic failings and low self-esteem, which generally begin in childhood. When a friend or colleague says, "But you can see that things aren't going well", she continues to dig into the breach. You have to fill the gap with love, and rebuild your reserves of courage. Say "you're wonderful, I trust you, you're an extraordinary person". The last two steps are, of course, to leave and lodge a complaint.

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