Given the emergency and the unforeseen challenges, women’s rights are not on the agenda of companies and governments.
Coronavirus lockdown measures all around Europe have affected our private and professional lives. From Italy to Bulgaria, Greece and Spain, schools, shops, restaurants, and hotels have been closed for months. Going for a walk is permitted only with mandatory protective masks and social distancing. Companies have been reorganised allowing employees working from home or adapting workplaces and implementing appropriate protective measures; but where not possible, unemployment has increased.
Since the beginning of the emergency in March, WE GO! partners have reorganised activities, meetings, and communications online, doing their best to keep project activities on track. We have been asked to “stay home”, but that is not a safe option for everyone. Indeed, increased isolation from the response to Covid-19 risks worsening the level and severity of domestic abuse and reducing social workers' ability to tackle the issue. Protecting and ensuring women's rights becomes urgent more than ever.
What is happening in our countries?
Bulgaria has been in a state of emergency since March 13. During this period, public gathering is banned. Only mothers with young children and people with pets can walk freely outside. Companies have been recommended to restructure their business with smart working.
At this time, people suffering from domestic abuse have been supported with individual assistance, legal advice and socio-psychological help through the social service "Crisis Centre", where they are immediately placed regardless of their current address. The state has provided a total of 148 centres and 12 "Mother with Baby" units, for an overall total capacity of 5421 people. As additional support during the emergency state, special crisis teams have been created to coordinate and reconcile these social actions, following the anti-crisis measures of the state and municipalities.
Despite the situation, the Center for Sustainable Communities Development continued working on their projects, moving meetings with partners and stakeholders online. Talks with several project collaboration companies are forthcoming: “We have focused our efforts on companies where there have already been cases of domestic violence, and where workers and managers have a strong attitude to the problem. We are also trying to engage enterprises with many female employees, where it is crucial to have a policy advocating women's rights”.
In Greece, from March 13 to May 4, free movement was only permitted by sending SMS to a dedicated number or by bringing a self-declaration form. The situation of isolation has affected the implementation of some activities since not all employees are familiar with ICT, and some companies have shut down.
Here, the General Secretariat for Family Policy and Gender Equality (GSFPGE) coordinates an integrated network of structures operating across the country and consisting of the SOS 15900 helpline, 42 counselling centres and 20 women's shelters. Against the spread of COVID-19, the GSFPGE has ensured the implementation of teleworking and telephone support sessions for all the structures to continue offering their services respecting the restrictive emergency measures. Special actions during the state of emergency include: in the most urgent cases, accommodation with free housing and meals, and free medical tests (in collaboration with the Hellenic Society of Forensic Medicine); an intense awareness campaign through government communication channels and in the media with a video spot disseminating the message "We Stay at Home but We Don't Stay Silent"; weekly statistical processing of data to assess the effects of the restrictive measures on domestic violence rates.
The Women's Centre of Karditsa as well has been operating during the whole period providing counselling for GBV survivors by phone. “According to the Greek General Secretariat for Gender Equality, the number of calls for violence in April was triple than in March, GBV survivors tripled the last two months. Seven out of ten cases of violence were reported by the women themselves, and three out of ten were reported by third parties such as parents, children, siblings, neighbours, and friends”. However, there is still the issue of economic empowerment, as “GBV survivors' economic empowerment is not a priority for employers in Greece at the moment” - continued the Centre.
Spain is in lockdown since March 14. Given the economic and social impact caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, the Government has approved several packages of urgent economic and social measures to protect families, workers, and self-employed people. To prevent, control and minimize the possible increase of domestic abuses resulting from the confinement, the Ministry of Equality has promoted a Contingency Plan against gender-based violence during the COVID-19 crisis. This includes a series of strategic and operational measures. Among them: declaring essential service all comprehensive assistance services for victims of violence against women, the citizen awareness campaign “We are with you. We stop gender violence together”, and a guide for women experiencing violence.
The partner Fundació SURT manages many projects and programs in all Catalonia, professionals have kept in touch with beneficiaries by phone or video calls. An extra phone line is currently available for support and referrals in cases of gender-based violence. “More than 450.000 people are staying home and receiving 70% of their salary. Since this situation has affected mostly the small companies, our professionals are contacting medium/big companies to keep the project running. We believe that our main challenge will be the job-matching between companies and women. Even though we have a strong network, the COVID-19 situation has damaged the economy significantly: many women had to stay home with the abuse perpetrators; many lost their job; many were infected. We thus believe that most women do not have their basic needs covered. We will have to support them comprehensively, not just economically” - declared our Spanish partner.
The activities of the anti-violence centres have not been suspended even in Italy, the very first European country devastated by the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the Italian National Council of Research out of 228 AVCs, during the COVID-19 emergency, 78% of the structures recorded a halving of new calls. However, this does not necessarily correspond to a reduction of abuses. Indeed, despite a 71% decrease in intentional murders in March 2020, femicide has decreased by only 42%. These numbers reveal the real issue: many women, isolated at home with their abusers, continued suffering violence in silence. “Why have not new women's shelters been found? Why have centres not received the priority swabs? Why is the Article 384 bis (of the Code of Criminal Procedure) not applied effectively with an immediate separation of women from their persecutors? Once again, unfortunately, it is a cultural fact. Somewhere we still think that femicide is an unavoidable crime” - declared Paola di Nicola, Judge of the Court of Rome, for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
Rel.Azioni Positive as well continued supporting women despite the distance: “Counselling via phone or Skype is not as effective as in person. – says Mariangela Zanni – The situation is terrible, especially for those who had taken this important step towards independence. We work hard to help women in finding internship opportunities. Still, now most of them have been suspended, and many companies are facing a financial crisis. Many women are alone, with dependent children and are unable even to get support from their ex-husband. We will do our best to activate new training, too. Considering that job demand will certainly be different, women will have to acquire the most requested skills in this phase".
Our response to the emergency
Since the beginning of the lockdown, ActionAid started mapping emerging needs on the territory by contacting the AVCs partners, the anti-violence network of Milan and the Di.re. network. It was found out that:
Women engaged in the economic empowerment process ended up in a state of uncertainty due to the suspension of their job contracts or grants, for the business shutdown throughout the country;
Many AVCs could not afford the expenses for sanitising and securing their structures;
Anti-violence structures could not carry out fundraising activities in combination with March 8, reporting a loss of income;
Due to COVID-19 precautionary measures, some shelters stopped receiving women or covered, with their own funds, room rentals for women during the lockdown.
For this reason, ActionAid activated a dedicated emergency fund to guarantee the most urgent needs of AVC structures and women, now and in the post-emergency. The #Closed4women Fund helped 24 anti-violence centres - selected out of 45 applications to the call - mainly with the expenses for sanitising and securing structures, and for directly supporting women who had started an economic empowerment process they had to interrupt due to the pandemic.
Against this Covid-19 background, the slow funding mechanisms and the overall inadequate resources allocation for anti-violence centres are critical issues. In fact, the unforeseen expenses, the delay in the disbursement of state funds and the upcoming economic crisis endanger the sustainability of the anti-violence centres, which are carrying out such a valuable job even during the emergency. Most of all, the missing governmental systemic approach to prevent and fight violence against women during the current pandemic risks jeopardising the right to a life free from violence for women in Italy.