Photo: Melanie Wasser / Unsplash

Staying home is vital to halting the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic from spreading. For many of us, it has never been easier to do our part to help.

For others, however, home is not a haven from danger.

Beyond its many health risks, the outbreak is having a significantly heavy toll on the safety and security of many women as well.

In Albania, as in many countries around the world, the pandemic has only intensified the occurrence of gender-based violence. The lock down, already ongoing for five weeks, is creating fertile ground for gender inequalities to be exposed at their worst.

One in two women in Albania have been subjected to sexual, physical or psychological violence in their lifetime, according to a survey supported by the Swedish Government, UNDP and UN Women. Nearly half of the surveyed women have experienced intimate-partner domestic violence.

Albanian well-known reporters, bloggers, lawyers, UN staff share their stories of violence against women.

It is against this landscape that the Coronavirus has hit Albania, forcing people to stay home and amplifying the likelihood of domestic violence. Household security, money and health worries and strains, as well as gendered expectations, can be accentuated by confined living conditions .

245 cases of domestic violence were reported by the Albanian State Police in March. 89 were criminally prosecuted, with 33 offenders arrested and 141 protection orders issued. But the numbers may actually be higher, as reporting might be lower since many women must remain in self-isolation with the perpetrators of violence.

“The domestic violence that women and girls experience during emergencies can result in profound physical and psycho-social harm,” says women’s rights activist Marsela Allmuca. “The trends previously identified in the country indicate that during the COVID-19 outbreak, incidents of domestic violence — although not reported — are silently on the rise, given the fact that movement restrictions are put in place. At the same time, however, when many girls and women need specialized support services more than ever before, practice shows that services provided by Coordinated Referral Mechanisms at municipal level are likely to decrease, due to resources being diverted to dealing with the [COVID-19] crisis.”

Coordinated referral mechanisms are created at the local level from health, education and social workers, police and justice sector representatives, shelters and helplines to make sure that wherever a survivor seeks help, the protection mechanism is launched if the survivor agrees. It is also used to better coordinate support and services.

Many women reached out to UNDP Albania’s social media platforms with “calls for help”. Lack of work, money, security, safety, and even the freedom to go out are quoted as the main reasons fueling domestic violence incidents.

Remzie* came forward with her story. “I feel very isolated, especially during this new situation. I don’t have a shelter. My children and I are sleeping in the shop where I work as dressmaker. The shop has closed due to the virus. At least I am happy the owners have allowed me to sleep here. I cannot go back to my house, as my husband has become more violent than usual. Not a day passed without him beating me and the kids. So, I left.”

“I am the only one working now, because I have a job at a supermarket and the bar where my husband worked is closed for who-knows how long,” Anila shared. “I come home and find him frustrated, shouting, sometimes he gets violent. I’m not as worried for myself as I am for leaving my children alone with him all day now that they don’t go to school. But what other choice do I have?”

Most women still request anonymity, even when they’re asking for help. “My children are there, so is my mother from time to time, but none of us can stop my husband from releasing his anger on us. The first week of the quarantine was slightly better, we were all optimistic things would go back to the way they were in no time. But with each passing day, no end seems to be in sight and my husband’s mood swings only get worse. I have nowhere to go — I can only ask for help.”

These stories come from women living in Albania’s capital, Tirana. It is worrisome to imagine what happens in remote rural areas, where help is even more scarce.

Aware of the danger faced by gender-based and domestic violence survivors in being forced to live with perpetrators, UNDP rang the alarm bell and appealed to local development partners to consider the special needs of women and girls in addressing COVID-19 related emergencies.

15 municipalities, with UNDP support, are immediately seeing how to best use the specialized support services provided by the state and civic organizations for violence survivors during the emergency. Awareness and information stand at the heart of these efforts. Municipalities use their social media platforms to share legal remedies to be used in cases of domestic violence, as well as providing emergency local and national hotline numbers to call if violence occurs.

To maximize public outreach and advocate for a violence-free society, municipalities launched online contests asking to convey messages against violence against girls and women through art.

Ura Vajgurore Municipality online art contest poster for violence against women and girls during COVID-19

Putting human rights at the heart of response

The Ministries of Health and Social Protection and Interior and General Directorate of State Police welcomed UNDP’s recommendations on a number of issues related to emergency response for sexual and domestic violence. The General Directorate of Police issued special instructions to all local police on how to give adequate attention to sexual and domestic violence cases in their communities and how to take appropriate actions in cooperation with local domestic violence coordinators.

In consultation with Ministry of Health and Social Protection, UNDP is supporting the development of a mechanism that standardizes actions to be taken by diverse institutions like police, hospitals and shelters in dealing with urgent cases amid the COVID-19 situation.

Collage of user-friendly information tailored for survivors on COVID-19 situation shared by 15 municipalities

Supported by UNDP, LILIUM Center, the only one stop, multi-sectoral crisis management center for supporting sexual violence survivors, is developing internal procedural guidelines to adequately handle these cases in the COVID-19 context. Easy-to-read materials on sexual abuse, its consequences and how to report it are also provided through social media platforms. Sexual violence survivors can also benefit from online psycho-social assistance.

In partnership with the Government of Sweden, UNDP supports the government to improve protection and services for survivors, strengthen laws, and address the root causes of violence by challenging social norms and behaviors and tackling the wider gender inequalities.

This pandemic is challenging and staying at home can be a nightmare for domestic violence survivors. But there is good news: There is help. And when women call, there will be someone on the other end, waiting to help.

*Names have been changed.

Fighting COVID-19 takes a whole of society approach. UNDP is working across the region to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Find out more about our work.

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