Efforts intensify to confront pandemic-related spikes in violence against women across Europe and Central Asia

Date: Monday, November 2, 2020

Violence against women and girls has been increasing globally as the COVID-19 pandemic magnifies economic and social stresses, with spikes of 20 to 40 per cent in some countries. Meanwhile, crowded homes, measures to restrict contact and movement, and limited access to services are making it harder for survivors to seek help.

To assess various impacts of the pandemic in the region, the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia conducted a rapid gender assessment in 10 countries, which included questions on violence against women. A considerable number of women (and men) reported having either personally experienced or heard of increases in domestic violence and discrimination. This was the case for an alarming 34 per cent of female respondents in Kyrgyzstan, 19 per cent in Georgia, 18 per cent in Kazakhstan and 15 per cent in Turkey.

The survey also revealed that a troubling share of women did not know where to seek help in cases of domestic violence, ranging from around 20 per cent in Turkey to 49 per cent in Kyrgyzstan. In most countries, women also much more likely than men to say they did not know where to seek help.

In Turkey, women’s organizations worry about reduced help-seeking

Büşra Sünetci is a social worker with the Foundation for Women’s Solidarity in Turkey. Photo from personal archive
Büşra Sünetci is a social worker with the Foundation for Women’s Solidarity in Turkey. Photo from personal archive

During the COVID-19 lockdown, women in Turkey have faced serious safety risks as the quarantine exacerbated violence. Women’s organizations are on the front lines, providing services for women  survivors seeking support.

“The pandemic [has] highlighted the weaknesses in the official mechanisms to prevent and combat violence against women,” says Büşra Sünetci, a social worker for the Foundation for Women’s Solidarity in Turkey, which assists women survivors. “We have observed that fewer women are seeking help from relevant institutions compared to previous years due to factors like health concerns and unexpected lockdown measures. The climate of fear created by the pandemic reduced the possibility of women sharing their experiences with other people.”

In addition to services operated by public institutions and municipalities, civil society and women’s organizations provide key assistance, including shelters, counselling, legal aid and helplines that provide information, referrals and support.

When her family tried to force her into an arranged marriage, 18-year-old Ayşe Güçlü* said she wanted to study instead. After her father and brothers turned violent, she reached out to the Federation of Women Associations of Turkey (TKDF), which provided counselling and helped her relocate to a shelter in another city.

TKDF is one of three women-led organizations that are being supported under UN Women’s “Small Grants” programme, which is enabling them to provide services to women and girls experiencing violence amid the pandemic.

A fraction of pandemic-related violence is being addressed in Kyrgyzstan

A survivor who now lives in a shelter and is hopeful for the future. Photo: AFEW Kyrgyzstan
A survivor who now lives in a shelter and is hopeful for the future. Photo: AFEW Kyrgyzstan

According to UN Women’s Gender Rapid Assessment of COVID-19’s impact in Kyrgyzstan, based on data sources in the country, from 25 March to 15 May 2020, 325 cases of domestic violence were reported in areas where the state of emergency was declared – a 65 per cent increase over the same period in 2019.

Yet official reports represent a fraction of all cases. Nargiza Eshtaeva, a psychologist and UN Women gender expert who heads a crisis centre in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, says she’s handled more than 350 domestic violence consultations alone since the quarantine began.

According to the Association of Crisis Centres, most cases remain unaddressed because: women refuse medical examination due to the fear of infection; they don’t report domestic violence to law enforcement agencies because they think the police won’t take protective measures and they’ll be left alone with their abusers for an indefinite period of time; due to self-isolation, women cannot go to their relatives and become economically dependent on their husbands; suspended police and court work means law enforcement cannot provide immediate legal support or go to a crime scene.

“The alarming fact is that one-third of respondents do not want to seek help in cases of domestic violence,” says Aisuluu Kamchybekova, UN Women Programme Coordinator in Kyrgyzstan. “Therefore, it is important to prioritize support services for violence survivors and ensure meaningful engagement of civil society in response planning and implementation, and humanitarian aid distribution, including women’s organizations and organizations supporting victims of gender-based violence.”

In Moldova, survivors support one another to escape violence

Rodica Carpenco speaks at the opening event of the "16 days of activism against gender-based violence" campaign in 2016. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Dorin Goian
Rodica Carpenco speaks at the opening event of the "16 days of activism against gender-based violence" campaign in 2016. Photo: UN Women Moldova/Dorin Goian

After enduring years violence from her husband, Rodica Carpenco managed to escape and start a new life with her five children in northern Moldova. Since then, she volunteers helping and counselling other survivors of domestic violence – which is harder amid the pandemic.

“The counselling process became more difficult now that women are constantly in the same house with their perpetrators,” she says. “They do not always manage to notify authorities about violence or call their counsellors from our centre. Some women are forced to hide in the garden or even in toilets to be able to contact me.”

She says the number of calls to Moldova’s helpline for women and girls has increased by 35 per cent during the quarantine period.

Serbian women’s organizations digitize their services to support survivors

Zibija Sarenkapic is a well-known women’s rights advocate in Novi Pazar, Serbia. Photo courtesy of Zibija Sarenkapic.
Zibija Sarenkapic is a well-known women’s rights advocate in Novi Pazar, Serbia. Photo courtesy of Zibija Sarenkapic

Zibija Sarenkapic, who runs the DamaD in Novi Pazar, Serbia, says her organization found and innovative way to help survivors during the pandemic, through Viber calls, messages and a ‘chatbot’.

“During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen a huge increase in the number of cases of violence, with almost 53 per cent more calls and legal support provided on average per day,” she says. “Thanks to the support of UN Women, we hired additional volunteers and made our services available 24/7, allowing women to call at a time when they feel most comfortable. This is mostly in the early morning hours or very late at night when the abuser is asleep or otherwise preoccupied.”

The organization is also developing a Viber chatbot – an automated messaging system that, once finalized, will provide basic information to survivors.

Seeing the challenges women faced in reporting violence also prompted other Serbian organizations, like the Centre for Support of Women (CSW) and SOS Vojvodina Network helpline, to develop a safe virtual platform for chat support and a panic button

Biljana Stepanov, CSW Director and Board President of SOS Vojvodina. Photo by Medija centar Beograd.
Biljana Stepanov, CSW Director and Board President of SOS Vojvodina. Photo by Medija centar Beograd

“We received a lower number of reports of violence for a period,” explains  Biljana Stepanov, CSW Director and Board President of the SOS helpline. With time, reports started to increase.

Stepanov says the initial fear of reporting violence was also caused by “the inadequate response of certain institutions when violence was reported. Some women were told to handle this by their own, to wait and report violence once the state of emergency was lifted, to keep silent and not provoke the perpetrator, and not to leave the house if violence occurs during curfew or they will be fined. Practically, all support for women fell to specialized women’s organizations and services that were available through electronic communication channels.”

Key institutions in Serbia and Montenegro commit to improve protection for women from violence

Around 30 professionals working in the protection system in Montenegro and Serbia have committed to improve the management of violence against women cases, especially in emergencies. This was the result of a series of online seminars on the marginalization of violence against women during emergencies, forced isolation and restrictive measures, organized by Centre of Women’s Rights under the UN Women regional programme “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” funded by the European Union.

Gorjana Mirčić Čaluković, Deputy Public Prosecutor from Serbia. Photo: Personal archive
Gorjana Mirčić Čaluković, Deputy Public Prosecutor from Serbia. Photo: Personal archive

“Thanks to these seminars, I changed my attitude towards the way we should handle violence against women cases,” stated Jelena Protić, of the State Prosecutor’s Office in Montenegro.

Following the seminars, participants will contribute to drafting regional guidelines for risk assessment and risk management to prevent the recurrence and escalation of violence against women. 

“To more successfully address domestic violence cases, it is crucial to: strengthen the coordination and cooperation of existing groups, more frequently involve health workers, and include representatives of the Gender Equality Body at the local level,” said Gorjana Mirčić Čaluković, a Deputy Public Prosecutor with 18 years of experience in domestic violence protection in Serbia. “The training session was an inspiration and reminder that we must not give up and continue to work to find new solutions and opportunities, especially now, in a pandemic.”

In Kosovo, police raise awareness and build trust to reach survivors

Sergeant Xhemile Behluli is the Domestic Violence Section supervisor for the Kosovo Police. Photo: UN Women
Sergeant Xhemile Behluli is the Domestic Violence Section supervisor for the Kosovo Police. Photo: UN Women

In neighbouring Kosovo* , there were more than 1,000 reported cases of domestic violence in the first half of 2020, versus 836 cases over the same period in 2019. To ensure survivors could keep safely reporting violence, police took several steps.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have employed various additional measures to maintain trust,” explains Sergeant Xhemile Behluli, who has been the Domestic Violence Section Supervisor for the Kosovo Police since 2011. “In this emergency context, the police operate with increased capacities at all times to ensure that the needs of women and girls are met. … we have closely cooperated with the media in order to raise public awareness on increasing cases of violence against women.”

However, Behluli says the police need continuous training, such as on crisis response and psychological support.

Electronic surveillance of high-risk perpetrators begins in Georgia

Trainings on electronic surveillance. Photo: 112 Georgia
Trainings on electronic surveillance. Photo: 112 Georgia

To beef up protection mechanisms, a special geographic positioning system will allow Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs to permanently control the movement of high-risk perpetrators and prevent the reoccurrence of violence.

UN Women purchased 100 electronic bracelets and the appropriate training and infrastructure for the Ministry while providing technical support in the drafting of necessary legislative amendments. The amendments were approved by the Parliament of Georgia in July and entered into force on 1 September 2020.

As a result of these legislative changes, additional mechanisms have been introduced to improve the effectiveness of protection measures. For example, in conjunction with a restraining order, perpetrators can now be forced to wear an electronic bracelet when there is a real risk of repeated violence.

In Albania, women’s organizations monitor the referral system

Esmeralda Hoxha, project coordinator, Gender Alliance for Development Center, Albania. Photo: Personal archive.
Esmeralda Hoxha, project coordinator, Gender Alliance for Development Center, Albania. Photo: Personal archive.

Amid the pandemic, many shelters in Albania closed their doors, for lack of guidance. So UN Women provided technical support to the Government to develop a protocol to ensure the undisrupted functioning of shelters.

“Services should be accessible, equitable and of high quality,” says Esmeralda Hoxha, project coordinator at the Gender Alliance for Development Center in Albania, which has been monitoring the country’s coordinated referral system.

“After three years of monitoring, the results tell a mixed tale of success and struggles to change institutions, perceptions and behaviours,” she says. “Without trust in institutions, survivors have less incentive to report and thus become entrapped in a vicious cycle of violence that over time becomes accepted and justified. It is important for us, as women’s advocates, to ensure that this does not happen, and holding service-providers accountable is one of many ways to ensure that women and girls can live a life free from violence.”

Survivors from marginalized groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina face heightened challenges

According to women’s groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the State’s violence protection system does not have specific regulations to protect marginalized groups, such as Roma women or women with disabilities, from violence, which has left them even more vulnerable to being left behind amid the pandemic.

Mubera Hodžić Lemeš, safe house manager for the Foundation for Local Democracy, at her office. Photo: Private archive
Mubera Hodžić Lemeš, safe house manager for the Foundation for Local Democracy, at her office. Photo: Private archive

“The entire health care system has placed the focus exclusively on dealing with the virus. Centers that were already inaccessible are even more so in the times of crisis,” explains Nerina Čevra, Executive Director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy. “Lack of educated staff and awareness of the need to look at women who experience violence in a comprehensive manner is even more on the back-burner for the institutions as they fight the pandemic.”

Acknowledging and prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable women has become all the more urgent as women’s groups reported an increase in violence cases, and as many safe houses were unable to accept new survivors.

Mubera Hodžić-Lemeš, a social worker and manager of a safe house run by the Foundation of Local Democracy in Sarajevo, says the number of reports of violence through the SOS hotline tripled from March to April and there was another 10 per cent increase in May. Their safe house was able to receive new cases again after support from UN Women and its partners, which included protective equipment (gloves, masks, sanitizer, etc.) and a one-time financial grant.

Digital campaign challenges Ukrainians to rethink gender-based violence

To increase awareness and challenges perceptions around gender-based violence and its causes, a clever new digital campaign asks Ukrainians “Did she provoke?” while depicting a variety of situations of violence against women. The scenarios include domestic violence, sexual harassment in public places, stalking and bullying to challenge victim-blaming and to advocate for zero tolerance to violence.

The campaign, run by UN Women under a joint UN peacebuilding programme, has reached more than 1.5 million people on YouTube and sparked a wide discussion about what really causes gender-based violence. It comes at an important time as COVID-19 lockdowns have seen a dramatic rise in domestic violence incidents. In April 2020, Ukraine’s national hotline on gender-based violence received 2,048 calls, a 56 per cent increase compared to March 2020.

This article has focused on the efforts of UN Women and its partners to confront violence against women from June until October 2020. Read more about earlier responses in the early stages of the pandemic, between March and May, here.

Read tips on how to recognize abuse and help someone experiencing it here.

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* For the European Union, this designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence. For UN Women, references to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of UN Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).