A safe haven, a new start, and a workshop for rebuilding broken lives

EL PAÍS accompanies women in a refuge for victims of violence and abuse over the course of a week

A shelter for abused women in Madrid.
A shelter for abused women in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

The unlikely assortment of women at this refuge in Madrid includes a former European martial arts champion, a businesswoman, a mother who gave birth here, and another who came from the hospital with her newborn in her arms. They have been thrown together in their search for a safe haven along with a manager, an administrator and a young gypsy. They number around 20, and their ages range from 21 to 69. Some of them have children and some do not, but all have had lives ruined by the abuse of a man who was meant to love them. Rarely do they understand why.

“It takes a long time to realize that you are being abused,” says one. “It's really hard to walk out on your life and take refuge.”

Suffered silently by thousands of women, domestic violence is much more than a black eye. The psychological damage can tear lives apart. Here, they try to put them back together; it is a workshop for battered souls or, officially, the Center of Attention, Recovery and Reintegration for Abused Women.

Every day starts the same. Breakfast from 8am until 8:45am, though those who have a job – there are two – or are taking a class, eat earlier. There is a bustle of activity in the glass dining room that offers views of a patio forbidden to the children. Just like back home, the women get their children washed and dressed for the day ahead, with some needing to be taken to school.

More than 50 victims of abuse die each year

One in eight women living in Spain (12.5%) have been victim to violence from partners or exes, according to the 2015 Macrosurvey of Violence against Women carried out by the Ministry of Health.

Every year, more than 50 women lose their lives on account of violent behavior from partners or ex-partners (57 in 2015). So far this year, 25 have died. More than 120,000 victims report abuse every year – 123,275 in 2015 – according to the Observatory against Domestic and Gender Violence, part of the General Council of the Judiciary. According to this body, only 0.4% of these reports are false. In 2015, they issued 24,679 restraining orders, 59.1% of which were solicited.

As many as 34,695 victims receive active insertion income from the state.

Then the clock strikes 11am. It is the hour everyone has been waiting for.

Today, someone new is coming. Dori Montoro, the staff member who drives the van, has gone to fetch the new girl from the headquarters of the Federation of Associations of Divorced and Separated Women that owns the center. The gate opens to a collective gasp of surprise. The van has come back empty. The new resident, a young woman, has come by car, something that rarely happens. She has picked up her children from school early and has driven hundreds of kilometers to put herself and her children out of danger.

“Welcome. You are very brave,” she is told.

“Thank you.” Tears fall. She quickly wipes them away and smiles as she returns to the car. “Come on, kids,” she says. “We're here.”

Three children who look as though they are on their best behavior climb out of the car. A couple of suitcases and bags make up all their belongings together, plus the money she has taken out of the bank. Access to money is far from the norm. Of the 20 residents, seven have no income. Four receive €425 a month from the state as victims of domestic violence.

“Domestic violence can also lead to poverty,” explains social worker Juani Aguilar. This means poverty for the women and also for their children; 14 of the women here are living with their children and only one father pays regular child support.

“I want to go to the swimming pool,” says the middle child, once out of the car. But there’s no pool here. Instead, two bright rooms containing four beds and a bathroom. This is their home now for the months to come, or perhaps the usual year and a half it takes to get the women back on their feet before they can leave with a a job and a place to live.

It’s farewell to their comfortable, middle-class house and welcome to a new kind of home, where the workers will call for the women over the loudspeaker using their room numbers. Number 306, for the latest arrival, and like the others, she will wear the key to her rooms around her neck.

After years of abuse, women try to start a new life.
After years of abuse, women try to start a new life.Samuel Sanchez

One of the other residents shows 306 around. “This is where we have therapy,” she tells her. “This is where we get legal advice. Here's the library and here's the nursery…” At 1:30am, lunch is served. There is only one option, except when it includes pork – of the nine foreigners here, four are Muslim.

The women have their midmorning cup of coffee  in the patio and speculate. One more. Another one like them, though she might be one of the few who doesn't have to finish every meal with Xanax or lorazepam. Conchi Villamediana, the housekeeper, dispenses the pills. She also dispensis kisses and hugs. “They’re very important here,” she says. Every so often, one of the women breaks down. Comfort and a cup of linden tea are basic day-to-day commodities. It’s not easy for the women to face their past; coming here is the first step to recovering from the violence that has dominated their lives and destroyed their self-esteem.

Individual and group therapy are obligatory; the cornerstones of recovery. “The point of therapy is to get the women to accept that they have been abused,” explains Itziar Uruñuela, one of the three resident psychologists.

As they tell their stories, the women gradually stop feeling guilty and start understanding that they never deserved to be undermined, or hit – and neither did their children. “They also have to understand why it happened, that we live in a patriarchal society. The objective is to stop it happening again and to trigger alarm bells,” says Uruñuela. “That means recovering self-esteem. They need to realize they were able to endure through their own merit.”

The goal is not always achieved; three out of 10 residents leave the refuge before the end of the first four months. Of those who finish the program, 70% consider themselves fully recovered with a sense that they have moved from being a victim to a survivor.

“It’s very important to get the memories of violence under control,” says another of the resident psychologists, Susana Enciso. “The memories recede but are easily revived."

In the case of number 214, there are other factors, such as feelings of loneliness, that prevent her from moving on. “My wings have been clipped. If I left, I would have to go to the man who abused me. I don't have anyone else,” she says through her tears, then rocks back and forth in silence. She is 37 with a son.

It’s very important to get the memories of violence under control. Staff member Dori Montoro

“There is a difference between the children who have witnessed violence at home and those who have not,” says educator Eneida Mercado. “The aggression is reproduced. There are boys and girls with terrible fears, some with depression or anxiety. There are children who tell you, ‘My dad grabbed a knife,’ or ‘When my dad hit my mom, we played the quiet game'.”

A voice comes over the loudspeaker.

“309, to the lawyer’s office,” it says.

“It’s him. Again!” Number 309 sounds upset, but she drops what’s she’s doing and hurries out.

She is right. Her ex, who has a restraining order, has asked to spend the day with their daughter. The courts have allowed him certain visiting rights, using the school as a meeting point. “She's going to wet herself again,” muses 309.

Lawyers’ calls are always alarming. Six women have court cases pending. Of the 10 women who have asked for restraining orders, only four were granted, says Marian Aranda, the resident lawyer. This is lower than the national average, which has gone down to 60% and explains why the women go out with their backs practically to the wall, even though the location of the center is kept secret.

For 306, the moment she’s been dreading arrives. “They’re looking for me. My husband has reported the children missing,” she says, looking exhausted. Hours later, she explains to the police what has happened and makes an official allegation of abuse. At the end of the week, the judge will deny her a restraining order due to lack of evidence, but she will appeal. Meanwhile, she has asked for a divorce. Her allegation is one of thousands – 123,725 women resorted to the law last year on account of a partner or ex-partner’s violent behavior.

“The past doesn’t disappear,” says Ana María Pérez del Campo, who founded the center. “But it loses its importance, and when the women leave here, only the future counts. This is a school for the brave.”

And as if to confirm this, 311, a small lively woman, says with pride, “I’m wounded but not defeated.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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