Efforts intensify to confront pandemic-related spikes in violence against women across Europe and Central Asia
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 social contact and movement, and limited access to services have all made it harder for survivors to seek help.
To assess various impacts of the pandemic in the region, and help improve country responses, 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 for domestic violence, ranging from around 20 per cent in Turkey to 49 per cent in Kyrgyzstan. In most countries, women were also much more likely than men to say they did not know where to seek help.
To reach women survivors of violence with protection, counselling and legal assistance, women’s organizations have been stepping in and governments have been stepping up, in some cases innovating with digital approaches.
Ensuring access to services for survivors
During Albania’s lockdown (in March to May), the number of calls to the national counselling hotline tripled compared to the same period in 2019, but the number of domestic violence reports to police was lower than in 2019. The Human Rights in Democracy Centre, one of six local women’s organizations supported by UN Women and the EU, attributes this to the difficulty survivors had in accessing justice and support. Although the courts remained open during Albania’s lockdown, they only issued protection orders in 36 per cent of cases when survivors couldn’t appear in court.
The Centre has accompanied survivors throughout the legal process and coordinated with local institutions to ensure that these women can access justice and the services they need. “We were receiving calls from the police at every hour during the lockdown asking [us] to assist survivors of domestic violence,” explains Gentjana Zeneli, a lawyer for the Centre. It provided free legal support and court representation for 128 cases between May and October.
The Centre has also trained more than 100 professionals – including police, local government and health officials – to better respond to gender-based violence during the pandemic. Since the training, medical professionals have been issuing special reports that help survivors get protection orders in municipalities for the first time.
According to survivor Jana Kote*: “The Centre assisted me with court proceedings to get a protection order for my children and to receive psychological support and economic assistance. The organization has … helped me more than any other person in the world – more than my own mother, more than God.”
In Serbia, after an eerie silence, the SOS helpline saw a 43 per cent increase in first-time callers.
“Survivors said they were facing locked doors at state institutions, lack of clarity about availability of services and protection during the curfew, as well as difficulty accessing safehouses,” explains Suzana Antić Ristić, Head of the Human Rights Committee Vranje. “They also experienced increased dismissals of their claims and occasional unveiled threats by the very institutions tasked with protecting them.”
So, the Committee sent a letter to alert the Serbian Government and key state institutions about the situation. They asked for amendments to emergency measures – to allow survivors of violence to leave their homes, if in life-threatening situations, and to ensure that safehouses were accessible. Soon after, Serbia’s female Deputy Prime Minister urged survivors to report violence, assuring them of the State’s support in their hour of need.
In Turkey, 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.
The Federation of Women Associations of Turkey is also counselling women survivors of various forms of violence, including forced marriage, and helping relocate survivors to shelters in other cities. The Federation is one of three women-led organizations supported under UN Women’s “Small Grants” programme.
In Kyrgyzstan, UN Women’s Gender Rapid Assessment of COVID-19’s impact in Kyrgyzstan revealed that there had been a 65 per cent increase in domestic violence cases reported between March-May 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.
Yet official reports represent a fraction of all cases.
“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 the Republic of Moldova, calls to the helpline for women and girls increased by 35 per cent during the quarantine period.
Among the voices offering support is Rodica Carpenco – a former survivor herself. Since starting a new life, she volunteers counselling other survivors of domestic violence – support that has been complicated by 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.”
Meanwhile, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, women’s groups warn that 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.
Acknowledging and prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable women has become all the more urgent as women’s groups have reported an increase in violence cases, and as many safehouses were unable to accept new survivors.
Mubera Hodžić-Lemeš, a social worker and manager of a safehouse 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 safehouse 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.
Women's organizations digitize services for survivors
In Serbia, the DamaD women’s organization in Novi Pazar started fielding 53 per cent more calls on average per day during the pandemic, while also providing legal support.
“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,” says its founder and director Zibija Sarenkapic.
Her organization found and innovative way to reach survivors, through Viber calls, messages and a ‘chatbot’ – an automated messaging system that, once finalized, will provide basic information to survivors.
Seeing the challenges women face in reporting violence has also prompted other Serbian organizations, like the Centre for Support of Women and SOS Vojvodina Network helpline, to develop a safe virtual platform for chat support and a panic button.
States ramp up protection and services for survivors
Civil society organizations have not been alone in turning to digital means of offering services and protection.
In Georgia, a special geographic positioning system will allow the Ministry of Internal Affairs to control the movement of high-risk perpetrators and prevent the reoccurrence of violence.
UN Women purchased 100 electronic bracelets, provided appropriate training and infrastructure for the Ministry and supported the drafting of necessary legislative amendments, which were approved by Georgia’s Parliament and entered into force in 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 Ukraine, where reported domestic violence cases increased by 30 per cent, a UN Women-UNDP COVID-19 impact assessment highlights that the National Police of Ukraine released “guidelines for victims during quarantine” and launched a chatbot in the popular Telegram messenger app that sends automated messages with information about domestic violence and contacts for support services.
Meanwhile, a clever new digital campaign asks Ukrainians “Did she provoke?” while depicting a variety of violence against women scenarios, to increase awareness and challenges misperceptions. 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.
But government efforts to improve responses for survivors extend beyond digital innovations. Of all regions, Europe has introduced the most gender-sensitive pandemic measures – with 224 focused on addressing violence against women and girls – according to the COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, developed by UN Women and UNDP. Across the Europe and Central Asia region, data show that governments are prioritizing policies to combat violence against women and girls.
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. The commitment was made following a series of online seminars on the marginalization of violence against women during emergencies, forced isolation and restrictive measures, organized by the Centre of Women’s Rights under the UN Women regional programme “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” funded by the European Union.
“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.
Seminar participants contributed 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 neighbouring Kosovo** , to ensure that survivors could keep safely reporting violence during the pandemic, police took several steps.
“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.
Local governments have also been introducing measures. In North Macedonia, municipalities have been applying gender-responsive budgeting to better understand the specific needs of women and other vulnerable groups and realigning their budgets accordingly. As a result, the City of Skopje has increased its funding to end violence against women and girls, set up a new safehouse for women survivors of violence and doubled funds for a family centre providing psychosocial support and counselling services to victims and perpetrators.
This article has focused on the efforts of UN Women and its partners to confront violence against women from June until January 2021. Read more about earlier responses in the early stages of the pandemic, between March and May 2020, here.
Read tips on how to recognize abuse and help someone experiencing it here.
*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
** 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).