November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In Germany, women’s refuges can save lives — but are often overcrowded.
What would have become of Kassandra (not her real name) if she had not found shelter in a woman’s refuge back in 2010? Would she be this young, self-confident woman with two children who was able to pass her high school exams, do an apprenticeship and start studying? “Probably not,” says Kassandra with her contagious smile. “I am still very grateful.”
Every day in Germany, on average, a woman’s partner or ex-partner attempts to kill her. But in Kassandra’s case, it was her older brother who would hit her because he didn’t agree with her lifestyle. One day, it was too much, and she decided to flee secretly from her home in western Germany. She was 19 years old when she scraped together all her money, left behind her parents and younger siblings, got on a train and disembarked some hours later in a town with a women’s refuge center where there was room for her. It was the police that had advised her to call such a refuge.
‘I’d had enough’
“I couldn’t spend one second more with my family; I was trapped. I wanted freedom. I’d had enough,” she says. She wanted to get as far away from home as possible. “I didn’t have anything, no clothes, no food, nothing.” But fears for her future were soon removed. “Somebody from the women’s refuge, someone who had gone through the same suffering as me, and whom I’m still in contact with today, picked me up. I’ll never forget that day!”
Kassandra stayed at the women’s refuge for six months. There was little space and there were a lot of children, too, as many women seek shelter with their offspring.”They set up an extra room for me in the attic so that I could still study for school,” she recalls with a smile. With help from the refuge, she was able to find her own apartment at the beginning of 2011. Her new life could begin.
All classes represented
It is cases such as these that motivate Margarete Kramer and Ulrike Grosse-Kreul to continue their work. They have been at the women’s refuge in Bonn for 30 years. They listen to women who come to them for advice, go out in the middle of the night to pick up women who find themselves on the street after running away from domestic violence, and act as arbitrators when there’s cabin fever in the cramped refuge.
“Most of the women are between 25 and 35, but they’re from all classes,” says Grosse-Kreul. “But once we had a 70-year-old,” Kramer recalls with a smile. “She said that if she’d known about women’s refuges she would have left her husband much earlier.”
Too little protection in Germany
But there are not enough women’s refuges in Germany to provide for all the women who seek protection. To meet demand, at least 15,000 more places would be needed. In Bonn, a city of 330,000 inhabitants, there are only 44 places for women looking for refuge, and that includes those for children.
“Unfortunately, we have to turn away women every day because we simply do not have enough space,” bemoans Grosse-Kreul.
Violence can lead to death
Even if women do make it to a refuge, it does not mean that they are necessarily safe. “We saw a woman shot dead by her husband in front of our eyes and those of her children,” the two social workers said. It happened just after he agreed to a separation.
Altogether, four women have been killed since they have been working at the refuge. “This is terrible for us, of course,” says Kramer. As a result, each time a woman calls for help, they worry that they will not be able to properly assess the level of danger.
But as much is done to help as fast as possible, especially when young women such as Kassandra call. Some of those who receive help try to repay it in kind later. These days, Kassandra helps women from the refuge to find an apartment. “I am not sad about how it all happened. I would do it again,” she says. “Now, I’m doing very well.”
But it has involved great sacrifices for Kassandra, who has had no contact with her family for years. She has come to terms with that, but still feels fear when she sees someone on the street who looks like her older brother.
She calls on all women who suffer domestic violence to pluck up the “courage to go and not to wait forever. If you want to, you can. Even if you’re alone or feel alone.”
Kassandra was not alone when she left home; her boyfriend helped her. Today, they are still together and are bringing up their two children together.
Kassandra says that the state should not skimp on an institution that saves lives. “Every woman should be able to get a place, even if it’s only for two weeks. In 2019, no woman should be turned away.”