Around the world, domestic violence spiked during lockdowns ordered to control the spread of the coronavirus. It was a stress test that in some cases exposed deep flaws in official structures meant to protect victims, but it was also a catalyst for innovation and creative problem solving among the NGOs helping those victims. Three women from organisations working with domestic violence victims in Armenia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine talk about what they saw during the lockdown and how they changed their approach to reach those suffering violence at home during the pandemic.
“The women who came to our shelters had been hostages in their homes during lockdown,” says Maro Matosian, Director of the Women’s Support Center, an Armenian NGO operating two shelters in the capital, Yerevan, for women and children fleeing abuse. Matosian explains that among the myriad challenges to helping domestic violence victims during the coronavirus pandemic, the added layer of isolation victims experienced during the lockdown was one of the most difficult.
“In more developed countries with a robust domestic violence response already in place, you saw the number of calls to domestic violence crisis hotlines go up during the quarantine. But in poorer countries like Armenia, they dropped significantly even though family violence was still going on,” she said.
Matosian attributes the decline to the fact that many rural women, who the Women’s Support Center also serves, do not have regular internet access. Soon after the lockdown began, Matosian and her staff realised that many of the women who were seeking help from the Center had been referred there by concerned employees at pharmacies and grocery stores, two of the only public places women could go at that time. Thanks to a donation from the Open Society Foundations, the Center immediately went to work hanging posters in pharmacies and grocery shops across the country with the hotline number and information for domestic violence victims, and the calls came pouring in. Now that the lockdown has eased, the calls are double what the Center would normally see.
The pandemic has fuelled rising unemployment in Armenia, the brunt of which has been borne by women, who are often employed in undeclared or hourly jobs. Many of the women the Center had previously helped to escape their abusers lost their only means of survival when they lost their jobs. These women, many of whom have children, were at risk of having to return to their abuser out of desperation. With the help of various donor organisations, the Women’s Support Center responded quickly with emergency financial aid allowing them to continue living independently through June, when they should be able to return to work. Matosian says she hopes experiences like these during the pandemic will change the way aid for domestic violence victims is prioritised in the future.
“It is great that we’re able to provide training programmes for women to achieve financial independence, but they can’t focus on training if they can’t by diapers and food, even without a pandemic.”
In addition to the precarious economic situation of many domestic violence survivors, the pandemic has also exposed how ill equipped the police are to help victims. Matosian shared the story of one woman who found the courage during the lockdown to escape the violent home she had been trapped in for 25 years. After walking for several kilometres and being told by two different police officers that they couldn’t do anything for her, she finally sat down exhausted and defeated on a park bench, where an average citizen helped her.
“Now our main message is that all members of law enforcement should be prepared to help domestic violence victims who approach them under any circumstances,” Matosian said.
Enforced isolation, strained financial resources and heightened stress levels were all possible triggers for violent behaviour at home during the lockdown, says Zdena Prokopová, a counsellor with the Rosa Women’s Centre in Prague, which saw a two-fold increase in calls to their help line for domestic violence victims between March and May, when stay-at-home orders were at their strictest to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Prokopová says the calls came from women who had been attacked for the first time during the lockdown, as well as from those who had endured years of abuse that escalated during the national state of emergency.
In order to meet the surge in demand for their services, the Rosa Women’s Centre vastly expanded their call centre hours and online counselling, including adding the option of counselling by Facebook Messenger. Staff at Rosa also realised that grocery stores were one of the only places victims could go alone during the lockdown, so they set up information booths outside large stores.
With the uptick in online shopping and deliveries during the lockdown, Rosa staff saw an opportunity for some unexpected actors to intervene to stop family violence—delivery drivers. With the help of the Vodafone Foundation, the centre partnered with six private delivery services to train drivers on the warning signs of domestic violence.
“Delivery drivers were in a unique position to help if they saw a beaten woman or heard a scream,” said Prokopová.
Since paper leaflets with the crisis line number left on the doorstep could pose a danger to victims if their abusers found them, drivers downloaded a free mobile app from Bright Sky with a recorded message on how to get help that they could quickly show to someone they suspected was being abused.
JurFem is a Ukrainian women lawyers association working to uphold the rights of women, including domestic violence victims. The network of women legal professionals represents women in crisis, as well as creates methodologies for other lawyers working with domestic violence victims, and provides recommendations to officials making policy on domestic violence. JurFem head Hrystina Kit says Ukraine’s law on domestic violence, enacted in 2018, is a good step, but the pandemic has further shown how the legal and social framework around domestic violence still falls short.
“In Ukraine, most state-provided legal aid for domestic violence victims was simply not accessible during the pandemic,” said Kit. “In villages, most women don’t have internet, and they live too far away to go in person. We also don’t have many shelters, and there is not enough space in the first place, even before the pandemic.”
Kit says due to the difficulty domestic violence victims faced accessing expert legal aid during the lockdown, it became even more critical that more lawyers, judges and police across the country are trained in how to deal with domestic violence cases.
“The quarantine exposed the imperfections and inefficiencies of police and social services in dealing with domestic violence. The problem came into focus and showed we didn’t do enough work before the lockdown,” she said.
During the lockdown, JurFem held several webinars and Facebook livestream talks and events for police and lawyers to better understand how domestic violence works and what they can do for victims. Some of the talks were joined by people currently suffering abuse, who were able to ask questions directly to police in a safe environment.
“There was an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic, and I hope there will be a corresponding increase in interest in the problem, especially among lawyers interested in learning how they can help victims,” said Kit.