In , support groups fear lockdown is silencing domestic abuse victims

By Claudia Cristoferi and Giuseppe Fonte

MILAN, April 4 (Reuters) - has seen a sharp fall in official reports of domestic violence as it approaches a month under coronavirus lockdown, raising concern among some support groups that forced confinement is leaving victims struggling to seek help.

Citing official data, a parliamentary committee into violence against women said last week that reports to police of domestic abuse dropped to 652 in the first 22 days of March, when went into lockdown, from 1,157 in the same period of 2019.

Telefono Rosa, 's largest domestic violence helpline, said calls fell 55% to 496 in the first two weeks of March from 1,104 in the same period last year. Other help groups said they had seen similar declines.

The parliamentary committee's report said the trend did not mean a decline in violence against women but was rather a signal that "victims of violence risk being even more exposed to control and aggression by a partner who mistreats them."

"There are a lot of problems in this situation, maybe not the least of them is the difficulty of asking for help when everyone is obliged to stay at home," said Alessandra Simone, director of the police criminal division in Milan.

Successive Italian governments have passed reforms aimed at improving protections, but 13.6% of women have suffered violence from a partner or ex-partner, according to national statistics bureau Istat.

The country has seen more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 and accounts for almost a third of worldwide deaths. It was the first European nation to go into lockdown.

"We're seeing a drastic fall in calls by women because they have less freedom in this situation of forced confinement," said Chiara Sainaghi, who manages five anti-violence centres in and around Milan for the Fondazione Somaschi, a social assistance foundation. She said calls to her group had fallen by as much as 70%.

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Some help groups and the authorities say they have tried to launch other forms of contact, including messaging services like WhatsApp, whose use has surged during lockdowns in many countries. Users in are placing 20% more calls and sending 20% more messages on WhatsApp compared to a year ago, the company said in mid-March.

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Italian police have in recent days adapted an app originally designed to allow young people to report bullying and drug dealing near their schools to report domestic violence by sending messages or pictures without alerting their partner.

In Spain, where police said they had also seen a fall in calls for help, authorities launched a WhatsApp service for women trapped at home which the Equality Ministry said had seen a 270% increase in consultations since the lockdown began.

Valeria Valente, the senator who chairs the Italian parliamentary committee, said cultural and social factors in already made it hard for many to report domestic violence.

But she said the shutdown appeared to be leading some women who might otherwise try to leave their partners to stick it out.

"How is a woman who wants to report violence supposed to move? With the lockdown (she) can only contact the anti-violence centres when she goes to the pharmacy or buys food," Valente said. (Additional reporting by Angelo Amante in and Clara-Laeila Laudette in Madrid; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Tattersall)

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