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When Home Isn’t the Safest Place: COVID-19 & Domestic Violence

FROM: Valbona Karakaçi , Jacques Merat , Arbër Kadia , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 01. June 2020
© AFP

In most crises, domestic violence gets worse. Often women are the victims. Crises restrict contact with family and friends who provide women support and protection from violence. Other public services may also get scaled back or become less accessible, leaving victims with few means to seek shelter or solace. On the flip side, crises like the COVID-19 pandemic create opportunities to address the challenge of domestic violence in a better way. Yet, finding sustainable solutions calls for linking the responses to crises with policy, social, and economic support mechanisms.

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France: a rise by a third. India: double the usual number of domestic abuse cases. Australia: spiked by 75%. Kosovo: cases are up 36% from the same period last year. Palestinian territories: 33% increase. Argentina: 67% rise in calls for help in April compared to a year earlier and Kenya: increased by 34% in the first three weeks of the lockdown….

The list is long. And data is scare—the numbers are only those reported or detected. However, there has been an alarming increase in domestic violence against women during the pandemic.

Albania has done well recently in promoting gender equality. It’s one of the few countries that has made inroads in the Global Gender Gap index. The improvement has been clearer mainly due to women’s representation in politics.

With the pandemic and the restrictions in mobility, Albania has also experienced a rise in reports of domestic violence. This calls for addressing gender-based violence as part of the broader pandemic response.

In this blog post, we discuss how the Bashki të Forta (BtF) project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) implemented by Helvetas has been contributing to supporting institutions to address the problem sustainably.

Building on its work in supporting women to make the best possible use of quotas in party lists for local and national elections, the project has contributed to the creation of gender and social inclusion commissions in 60 Municipal Councils after the local elections of June 2019. These commissions focus on promoting gender equality in municipal policies, for which the project provides training and follow-up.

In most crises, domestic violence gets worse

‘I won’t forget the past,’ says M.[1], 16, who now lives in a shelter for girls and women, victims of violence in Balldre, Lezha. Despite her suffering, she is determined: ‘I’ll fight with all my strength to become someone, to show everyone that I made it.’

Existing patterns of abuse—psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional—are increasing in frequency and type because people are constantly at close quarters. In such cases, being home may not be a safe option. Some call this the ‘hidden pandemic’.

There may be several reasons: stress, disruption of social and protective networks, increased economic hardship, and decreased access to services.

In Albania, women have been the main victims (including victims of trafficking). But children and senior citizens aren’t immune. ‘We have had difficulties even before the COVID-19 pandemic. We are determined not to interrupt the service for any moment,’ says Sister Alma Zogu, a caretaker of the shelter for girls and women, victims of violence in Balldre, Lezh.

The extent of the problem is difficult to know in Albania. There was an inconsistency between the phone calls received from civil society care centers (reporting domestic violence) and the police who announced the cases. The civil society centers reported more phone calls than the same period of the previous year, while the same figures had dropped on police reports.

The isolation and quarantine might have contributed to a spike in cases of domestic violence. On top of that, inter-institutional structure and coordination for violence monitoring might have been suspended due to quarantine measures.

Only 38% of gender commissions members (who participated in a webinar on gender-based domestic violence) confirmed to have information about the domestic violence in their community. Also, only 14% knew about existing mechanisms/support that municipalities have in place to address gender-based domestic violence.

Leveraging oversight as a response

Elvis Shehu is the Vice President of the Municipal Council of Tepelena. He is outraged by the fact that violence, both during this pandemic and in general, has become the norm. ‘It is a shame that remains with us (men). We must invest more and show serious commitment to tackling the problem,’ says Elvis.

Bashki të Forta (BtF) has facilitated the gender commissions of 60 Municipal Councils (legislative bodies) to oversee how their Municipal Administrations (executive bodies) respond to the increase of domestic violence. Gender commissions of 45 municipalities (out of 61) have succeeded in adopting resolutions by their councils, allowing them to request specific reports from Municipal Administrations.

Reports have been prepared in 45 municipalities. They highlight with figures responses to domestic violence, for example, in terms of psycho-social assistance, legal protection, immediate protection, or still medical assistance to women who are victims of domestic violence.

‘Attempts to prevent violence against women, as the case with the adoption of this resolution, show that there is widespread impunity for violence,’ stresses Matilda Çela, Chair of the commission for gender equality and social inclusion, Municipal Council of Tepelena

‘Passing a resolution in itself may not be enough. The resolution is a necessary step to provide the gender commissions with sufficient authority and legitimacy to request reports from municipal administrations. This, we believe, gives the oversight more meaning in its role for mobilizing resources and monitoring cases of domestic violence. Evidence collected from the municipalities needs to be analyzed and documented. Equally important is the increased support that goes to the victims of domestic violence.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity to raise (even) the awareness of gender commission members about their oversight role (exercised in the area of domestic violence). In cooperation with the School of Public Administration, Bashki të Forta (BtF) delivered a webinar on the topic of ‘Monitoring the Gender-based Violence as a Council Representative’.

The pandemic also was a moment to bring closer the relevant structures and institutions in the provision of timely and effective services. ‘I think the pandemic is a good reminder to the municipality about the importance of the care that should be shown to victims of violence and potential victims of violence,’ reflects Migena Balla, who is the President of the Municipal Council of Vlora.

The synergy between all the supporting mechanisms for women has improved the relevance of the services. ‘It has enabled women to raise their voice,’ says Lirie Gjana, a Social Center Worker. For Lirie, what is highly crucial is the support system has now increased women’s confidence that they are not alone.

The resolution to strengthen the oversight by municipal councils on their administrations has created ‘solidarity among Municipal Councils to support the families and children of women, victims of violence, during the pandemic with food packages and other economic aid,’ shares Elsa Poga, Head of the Referral Mechanism against Domestic Violence in Has Municipality.

Conclusion

Albania is part of a group of countries in Eastern Europe, which tells an inspiring story of empowerment where quotas in party lists for local and national elections have started to deliver results. The quotas may be necessary at the very outset; however, they alone don’t yield long-term transformative results.

In some cases, the quotas backfire unless additional affirmative actions are supported to work with both women and men for a more enabling environment. Pre-existing social norms and gender inequalities need to be part of the response to the pandemic. This is exactly what Lavdi Hasani, the President of Municipal Council of Gjirokastra believes in. Lavdi forcefully argues that ‘we should put women and girls at the center of our efforts for women's rights and gender equality. We’ll never be free as a nation if we remain indifferent to respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the rights of women and girls.’

The foundation that Bashki të Forta (BtF) has put in place is promising by improving the oversights of councils on administrations and contributing to better public services. One of those contributions is responding effectively to gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to other related services during the pandemic.

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[1] Not her real name in order to protect the privacy of victims.

Valbona Karakaçi is a Regional Advisor for the Western Balkans at Helvetas and Strategic Advisor of Bashki të Forta (BtF), a project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). She has been a key managerial and go-to person for over 20 years in various international development interventions, mainly with Swiss Cooperation, aimed at decentralization and democratic local governance in Albania. She has vast experience and a demonstrated track record of excellence in strategic analysis and steering, stakeholder and partnership management, evidence-based policy dialogue, knowledge management, capacity and organizational development, process facilitation, and project cycle management. She holds the academic title of Doctors of Philosophy, and apart from her international development duties, she is also a lecturer and researcher for the University of Shkodra and the European University of Tirana in the field of cultural studies.
Jacques Merat is the Project Manager of Bashki të Forta (BtF). Involved in the project from its inception phase, Jacques makes sure activities are implemented on time and allow reaching targets. He also makes his wide governance expertise available to team members and partners. Jacques has been working on local governance and decentralization since his early years in development cooperation in 1998. He has advised civil society organizations, local and central governments in many countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Economist and Sociologist by training, he specialized in 2001 in governance through a master's degree and attended postgraduate courses later on in public finances and public law.
Arbër Kadia responsible for Communications and Monitoring and Results Measurement for the Bashki të Forta project. During the COVID-19 emergency, he produces a weekly report on the Albanian municipalities' response to the crisis. He is a new addition to the team after having worked as a consultant for the Swiss bases energy project Trans Adriatic Pipeline AG and with a wealth of experience as director of National Heritage at the Ministry of Culture in Albania, mainstream TV media and other engagements in the private sector as a communications consultant.
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses, & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies