Casas de acogida: supporting abused women
Perrine Delangle - 08/05/2008
Sadly enough, in times of peace, marital violence is the most current form of abuse against women.
In Spain, those who denounce it and decide to leave their homes can be hosted by foster homes, the so-called casas de acogida , which offer protection and support women in solving their personal, social, legal and emotional problems. Fully assisted by this system, they are given space to rebuild themselves… An interview with experts of the field in Catalonia.
70 women were killed in 2007 in Spain under the blows of their partner, husband or boyfriend.(1) In Catalonia, more than 18.000 charges were laid by women for mistreatment in specialised courts. This is a dreary reality. A veritable plague; women’s associations have mobilised themselves for years before the government started to recognise this problem. In 2004, it actually made it into a priority and the “integral law against gender violence” was approved. This is one of the most progressive laws in Europe in this field.(2) The definition “gender violence” was established during the debates on marital violence. While quite on the opposite, France tends to consider this issue as part of the private sphere of the couple, the Spanish meaning aims at relating this violence to a cultural context, therefore placing it at the core of the social problems relevant to the public sphere. “Gender violence” includes all the types of violence - physical, psychological and sexual – inherent to a couple, including the threat of such actions, constraint or the arbitrary deprivation of freedom.
Foster homes: the casas de acogida
In Catalonia, the women who decide to break the cycle of marital violence can be hosted in casas de acogida , which are defined as “a residential service, aimed at offering a temporary shelter for women and their children who have suffered marital violence and have had to abandon their homes without having personal or economic means”.(3) These homes belong to the Catalan administration and are often managed by NGOs. Women are sent there by the social services and Women’s Aid Services, sometimes by hospitals. The administration accommodates them according to the places available, though the main criterion is to first move them away from their usual place of residence. The addresses are kept secret in order to protect the women who seek shelter there and are sometimes threatened to death. Under these conditions, it is not easy to meet with the social workers of this sector… but I finally managed to meet and interview Montse Omenat and Rosa Martinez thanks to a go-between. Art-therapist and director, they both work in a casa de acogida near Barcelona. Living in close contact with women who have escaped from such despicable violence, they speak calmly with a mixed air of modesty and confidence. They conceive their work as the collaboration to a slow process of deconstruction and reconstruction that these women will have to carry out.
Inner conflicts and mixed tensions: the extent of the difficulties to overcome
Placed in stressing and conflicting psychological situations, struggling between love and hate, the decision to leave is often difficult for these victims, all the more so knowing that this escape will entail all sorts of problems. Once the decision is taken, they arrive to the foster home and have to face a situation of great vulnerability. As explains Rosa Martinez, “at the beginning, these women can arrive in a state of shock or recovering from the hospital, disturbed, nervous, anxious and full of uncertainties. They have left everything, their district, their neighbours, friends, home and work, to seek shelter in a place where they don’t know anyone. (…) It’s very difficult emotionally. They sometimes need to overcome long periods of suffering and violence and they need time to face all this. (…) They live an inner conflict and have a pressing need to get things going again”.
They have to adapt to a new life and new faces, to accept what they’ve lost, and at the same time start everything over again, having to simultaneously face all their problems: “first there’s the adaptation phase, where they discover and recover themselves. We offer them some space and time to start doing it. It’s only afterwards, once they start feeling a bit better, that we start asking them what they want to do professionally, if they want to do some training… After that, it depends on the women, some react more quickly than others”. The injuries of the past, the solitude of the present and the dread of the future all add up with the problems of everyday life in this new living space they’ll share for several months. The foster home groups 8 to 9 women with their children and, as underlines Montse Omenat, “these 8 to 9 women have different manners, they come from different social backgrounds, with children of different ages, and live different histories and sufferings, sometimes even the culture is different”. Simple problems, especially tensions can mark any cohabitation…the difference is that in this case you don’t really choose it. In their social relations they have to unlearn violence since, though they have been victims to it, they also learned it and interiorised it as one of the only possible modes of social interaction. This is also Rosa’s work, “to teach them to negotiate, make agreements, compromises, to set their conditions and respect those of others; sometimes it’s hard for them, because we attend them and we give them clues and to them being watched by a professional is also a constant source of pressure”. Likewise, the relationships with the children are very often conflicting and strongly marked by the abuse learned by all the members of the family. In addition, the mother-child relationship is deeply altered as, adds Rosa: “The fact that the mothers were constantly devalued and humiliated in front of their children has made them lose all authority, and it’s difficult as a mother to work on that again and to accept the suggestions of the team”.
A place for total recovery
To meet all these issues, the Casa offers a comprehensive support ranging on all the aspects of life; legal, economic, professional, educational, psychological and emotional. Rosa Martinez specifies: “we support these women under all aspects and starting from all their needs. The Casa accompanies them and gives them information and suggestions on the path they’re taking, which, ultimately, means to start a new life elsewhere with all the problems this entails (baby sitting, health problems, administrative issues, loss of revenue, etc)”. The Casa therefore provides a lawyer who explains, and teaches the women the phases of the legal procedure; a social assistant; two psychologists for the women and children, 6 or 7 educators, an employment counsellor, an art therapist who regularly comes during 12 week periods, according to the contributions. Rosa Martinez, the director, acts as the link to all of them. Women here aren’t treated like children but are considered “competent victims”. The team focuses on their capacities and strength, starting from the one that made them escape, and trusts them to have enough resources to allow them to keep going further.
Art-therapy. An alternative to words
Montse Omenat gives her support through art-therapy. Little known and still ill-considered, art-therapy is all the same an excellent instrument as “when you experience violence, words don’t always come easily and run up against strong resistances. Art-therapy acts as an alternative language which is very valuable in this sort of context”. Mediating through art allows these women to express complex, mixed and sometimes contradictory feelings, sensations and emotions, more easily. Anger, happiness, fear, resentment, guilt find a way to express themselves through the materials, sometimes to even explode since, underlines Montse “these women have been long forced to repress their feelings and emotions. Fear made them lose the habit of expression.” The language of art therefore emerges where words hurt too much or just can’t be found. In the case of immigrant women who don’t always know Spanish or Catalan, it sometimes represents the only mean to allow the team to reach them. It also dissolves all doubts and mistrust towards institutions:”It’s also like a metaphor, specifies Montse. They can speak of very painful things through a character they’ve created. What’s more, these women don’t have any confidence in themselves and very little self-esteem; the violence and psychological conditioning they‘ve suffered has damaged them psychologically. The man who abused them convinced them that they’re worthless, useless beings who can’t do anything right, so by creating they realise that they actually can do something, create something beautiful and that they are resourceful. This often surprises them“(4).
Today women suffer more than before
We already know that violence is increasing instead of diminishing. Is this the effect of the increase of self-awareness or an actual increase of cases of violence? Each one interprets these figures in his own way. When we ask our experts what evolutions they have witnessed, they reply that the situations they face today are harsher than some years ago. Women who come today are more bruised, have many difficulties and the traces of the violence they suffered are deeper. According to Rosa, this is due to the fact that there is more social assistance present for abused women, many more means to escape this violence and leave without the need to go through a Casa de acogida . So some women find others ways according to the means they have available. “The women who resort to a Casa , says Rosa, are those who have less personal resources, who aren’t as aware of the alternative methods and who have more trouble in taking clear decisions. The overall situation hasn’t changed in itself, but it’s the kind of women who come.
Now we find ourselves facing the most extreme cases, women who are more battered at all levels, with an accumulation of all sorts of problems”, Montse fully shares Rosa’s opinion, and adds that “these women are more disintegrated, vulnerable and uprooted than before”. We tend to think that personal resources have a lot to do with the social context, but their annihilation actually seems to be more the effect of the psychological abuse they have suffered. The available data and all the studies carried out prove that there is no typical profile for mistreated women. These can be of all ages, level of studies, professional category and our experts confirm this analysis. “We had two women who had never worked and others who have an education, we hosted women aged 65 and others who were 18-19”, says Rosa. To her, both cases are positive since “it means that the younger women detected violence very soon and the older ones were capable of leaving even after 20 years of abuse”. The most vulnerable ones however still are immigrant women who are numerous and, further to the problems we already mentioned, also suffer from a sever uprooting, a limited knowledge of the language and institutions, the pressure of their community, the feeling of guilt, the fear of expulsion…
A problem linked to gender and to our cultural heritage
In conclusion, despite this particularly progressive law and the resources that have been made available by the Spanish and Catalan governments, Montse feels that the action still focuses on the consequences of violence rather than on its causes. “We’re firemen, we turn off fires, take charge of these women but don’t change anything at the core”. Rosa shares this view and tells us of her worst frustration: the general precariousness of women. “Even if they manage to come out of it, to find a job, a house, to conciliate family life with work…the situation goes further than the particular situation of these women and it’s not easy to accept”.
By this they show us how modest they are though totally convinced of their actions. Rosa states: “even when some of them interrupt the process and go back to their husband, we tell ourselves that somehow we managed to communicate with them, that we passed something on and therefore it was not a total failure”. To these two women, gender abuse is undeniably a gender problem, understood as a socio-cultural category which implies differences and inequalities of social, economic, cultural and professional nature… Still much work has to be done and we’re a long way from the radical elimination of the structural, social and mental schemes that are a consequence of this male chauvinist and patriarchal society.
1) Data of the Instituto de las Mujeres
2) At legal and penal level, specific courts have been created and legal means have been provided to judges. Emergency foster homes and “total recovery” centres were created for the victims and their children. Free legal assistance is provided to these women who can also avail themselves of specific rights on employment. A State Secretariat against gender violence, as well as an Observatorio nacional de la violencia de genero have also been established. The law also prescribes prevention and awareness actions at a large scale, agreements with the medias on the treatment of information pertaining to male violence.
3) Proyecto CADM, 2005
4) To know more on this subject, read the article by Montse Omenat, “Arteterapia con mujeres que han sufrido violencia de género: Valor y uso del objeto artistico” in «Arteterapia. Dinamicas entre creacion y procesos terapéuticos» . Collective work headed by Francisco J. Coll Espinosa. Servicio de Publicaciones de la universidad de Murcia. 2006