Germany's Federal Minister of Family Affairs has launched a new telephone hotline service for abused and battered women. But the hotline cannot replace havens such as women's shelters.
There is no one common story to the women who find themselves in a shelter. Perhaps it was a neighbor who heard a man abusing one of them and called the police. Law enforcement officials would then take the woman to a safe house, keeping her new address secret.
Or, another scenario: a woman just released from the hospital is taken to a shelter before her husband has the chance to put her in the hospital once more. Or a kindergarten calls up because one of the teachers notices that a child is traumatized.
Security and counseling
"The ways they get here are very diverse," Elsa Bleeck tells DW.
The quiet woman has worked for almost 25 years at "Frauen helfen Frauen," or "Women helping women." The association runs a counseling center in Bonn for victims of domestic violence as well as a women's shelter. The shelter has 22 beds and is set inconspicuously amongst a row of houses. Women can move in with their children and stay as long as they need. For those who seek refuge, anonymity can be vital. Some have escaped pathologically jealous husbands. The shelter's existence is only known by staff and residents.
"A woman doesn't need a black eye to come to us," says Bleeck. "It is enough when a man bulliesher, or prevents her from doing something, or controls her. That is a form of psychological violence."
Germany's Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Kristina Schröder of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), recently launched a new telephone hotline service. Women affected by sexual or domestic violence can contact the hotline, which is manned around the clock. "We offer a low-threshold, free service, which is accessible anytime, anywhere," Schröder told the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper in an interview.
The Internet forum "gewaltlos.de", run by the Catholic Women's Welfare Service, has an even lower threshold. Women and girls in need of assistance can simply log into the chat service anonymously and address the counselors directly. For most young women, it is difficult to put experiences of abuse and harassment into words. But that is where the chat room format proves useful, says co-founder Angelika Wiedenau.
"It's simply easier to write your problems away," she told DW. "Besides, you don't have to reply immediately and can take your time to reflect on the issues."
Nevertheless, the goal of "gewaltlos.de" is ultimately to provide women with a contact person in real life.
No full protection
Counselor Elsa Bleeck believes there is more to women's shelters than just hotlines and chat rooms. "It's also about establishing interpersonal contact and providing women with a safe environment," she told DW. "Telephone counseling can never replace a safe house, where you can sleep peacefully at night and take your children if you're in danger."
Outside the protected space of the shelters, happiness, Bleek believes, is fragile. Asked about what affected her most deeply during her 25-year career, Bleeck says, "It stays with you forever when a woman doesn't make it."
Calmly and steadily, Bleeck speaks of the unthinkable. "Since I started working here, three women have been killed by their spouses during their stay in the shelter."
She points out that the attacks did not take place in the safe house but outside, where the women were beyond her protection.
Starting a new life
Bleeck now feels determined. She does not want to emphasize the worst cases but rather promote the positive developments at work. "Children who've been staying for a couple of months in shelters realize they don't have to be afraid anymore," she says. "They don't need to ask themselves whether someone is coming through that door to terrify them. It brings me joy to see how children thrive and leave the shelter in better shape."
This positive transformation is also true for the adult residents. "People who stay here have had horrible experiences. But they also realize that life can be very different once these issues are no longer present," says Bleeck, with a smile on her face.
"It is a good feeling to accompany these women along the way."