In Paris suburb Saint-Denis, a women’s refuge is coming to the rescue of those who were forgotten
In this former industrial suburb where residents' access to healthcare is mostly limited to hospital visits, a new space that is unique in France has opened: one that houses not only gynecologists and psychologists, but also social workers and lawyers.
"Within these walls, there will be no taboos," promised Dr. Ghada Hatem on the day of the centre's inauguration. Physical violence, rape, incest, excision… In the safety of this smart and brightly coloured refuge, every kind of suffering has been recounted. "It was impossible for us to just pretend there was nothing to see!" the gynecologist and obstetrician who founded this unique centre recalled. A short distance from the Delafontaine hospital in Saint-Denis, in a garden that's still overgrown, the Maison des femmes (Women's House) opened its doors in the summer of 2016.
For quite some time, there have hardly been any gynecologists left in Saint-Denis, and doctors are rare, so residents' access to healthcare is mostly limited to hospital visits. Some 4,700 women, of 120 different nationalities, give birth there each year. More than 200 of these women leave, baby in tow, with no contacts - other than the emergency number 115 - that can offer them help finding a roof for shelter. Some of these women never saw a doctor during their pregnancy. The majority of them don't have any social insurance cover upon their first visit. "Their main worry is where they are going to sleep that same night, and what they are going to eat," Dr. Hatem explained. "So they hardly feel concerned by cervical smear tests, or mammograms…" The hospital's family planning department; three small offices at the end of a corridor, squeezed into the maternity unit, was not up to the task of dealing with the growing problems of sexual violence, and female genital mutilation. "In the last two years the department has recorded a 21 percent rise in the number of abortions carried out, and a 50 percent increase in consultations, according to the hospital. In addition to which the department deals with 35 impromptu visits per day, from persons requesting advice on various subjects."
"I 'have a dream' too"
Gynecologists, sexologists, surgeons, psychologists, midwives, relationship counselors, social workers, lawyers and since a year ago, police chiefs, a psychiatrist, a psychomotricity specialist and a relaxation therapist; without counting the twenty-two volunteers – ranging from medical to administrative staff – are currently available to support the Maison des femmes' patients. The Malian singer Inna Modja is the centre's 'godmother', and she leads a discussion group for women who have undergone excision. Like 15 percent of the patients on the Delafontaine maternity ward, Modja was cut; at the age of four-and-a-half. "I've succeeded in taking away from this extremely negative experience the will to accomplish things and to be my own woman," the singer confided. Modja has since been "restored". "Here the women are welcomed as they would be in their own home. Knowing that some of us have lived through similar experiences helps give the women confidence and build up trust! Perhaps sometimes I will pick up my guitar and play for them, to bring them comfort."
"Deprived and vulnerable women will find comfort and support in the warmth of this house"
Women who come to the Maison des femmes can participate in beauty workshops, relaxation sessions, art therapy classes or even learn to read and write. "Whatever they like, as long the activities don't focus exclusively on their 'mother-status'!", relationship and family counselor Monique Veneri explained. "Here, it's about taking care of oneself." Hanging on the wall, there's a poem by Dr. Hatem: "I 'have a dream' too". "I dreamed that women - who are at once half the sky, the future of humanity and the salt of the earth, if we believe what the poets write - had become human beings, free, equal and living in solidarity with each other," she wrote.
Aftercare for victims of trauma
There are days when Veneri would love to be offering couples therapy, as she did in her former job at a clinic in Toulouse that she left. Here, "the majority of consultations concern marital rape and abortion. And we see so many minors who have been victims of rape." Indeed, that afternoon the whole Maison des femmes team was called to the assistance of a 17-year-old girl who had just arrived. Pregnant, she had been raped, after having been drugged by a stranger that she had "stupidly followed". "When I woke up, in his bed, he held me by the wrists and threatened me, saying, "What am I going to do with you now?", she recounted, still terrorised. "I thought he was going to kill me. So I swore I wouldn't say anything." Tell her parents? Have an abortion? Report the rape to the police? "We hate to make a decision on the woman's behalf," Mathilde Delespine, midwife and coordinator at the Maison emphasised. "But the law says that if we know of sexual abuse perpetrated against a minor, we have to report it." While the relationship counselor is trying to reassure the teenage girl, the midwife consults the juvenile squad. A simple statement, without an accusation, will be sufficient to allow the police to examine the DNA of the fetus after the abortion. As for the young victim, "We're going to organise her post-trauma care and follow-up", the Maison des femmes' coordinator assures us. "In the eyes of this man, she was a mere object. Our goal is to ensure that she feels like the protagonist in her own life as a woman again."