Around the world the Covid-19 outbreak has been accompanied by what many are calling “the Silent Pandemic” – an increase in violence against women and children. Unemployment, lost wages, school closures, and quarantine contribute to social isolation, stress and family conflict that increase the risk of violence against women and children. Government issued stay-at-home orders have been essential to controlling the spread of the virus, but they also hamper the ability of women to escape abusive partners and pose an additional challenge for service providers working to reach those in need of support.
The United Nations recently warned that globally, the world could expect as many as 31 million extra cases of gender-based violence as a result of the pandemic.
Since March 23rd, the Kyrgyz Republic has been operating under a National Emergency to control the spread of Covid-19. Schools and non-essential businesses are closed. Residents have been ordered to stay at home except for the purchase of essential food and medicines. While the country is cautiously optimistic that these measures are helping to stem the spread of the virus, concern is mounting that stressors associated with Covid-19 are intensifying the risk of domestic violence and limiting the ability of service providers to respond effectively.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the number of reported cases of domestic violence has increased by 62% since the introduction of the state of emergency in comparison with the same period last year.
Throughout the public health crisis, Crisis Center Sezim has worked hard to adapt to the new challenges of this crisis, by:
- Addressing the legal and psycho-social needs of victims of violence and families at risk;
- Providing families with essential tools to promote healthy coping behaviors and de-escalate family conflict; and
- Raising awareness about the increased risk of domestic violence associated with the Covid-19 outbreak.
With the introduction of the state of emergency, Sezim had to temporarily halt the provision of in-person services (including the admission women and children to the Shelter and Transit Social Home) to protect the health of clients and staff against the spread of the virus. Sezim’s team of professional psychologists, lawyers and social workers immediately began developing creative strategies to use online platforms and virtual networks to continue their work.
PROVIDING SUPPORT TO VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE AND FAMILIES AT RISK
- Sezim posted messages on Facebook and Instagram alerting the public to its temporary shift to remote services.
- Sezim’s crisis hotline continued to operate 24/7. In addition, staff began providing psychological counseling and legal consultations via online platforms and by telephone.
- Between March 23 – April 28, Sezim responded to 92 requests for assistance from 5 regions of the country (Bishkek city, Naryn, Issuk-Kul, Jalalabad and Osh city). Appeals were related to: 32 cases of domestic and sexual violence; 11 requests for legal support; 30 requests for shelter, food or financial support from families in crisis; 15 requests for psychological support or advocacy due to Covid-19 quarantine.
- Sezim established a peer support phone network with daily check-in for vulnerable elder women who are participants in Sezim’s 55+ Club.
- While no new clients could be accepted at Sezim’s emergency crisis shelter, Sezim provided shelter and support to 5 women and 4 children who were in residence at Sezim’s longer-term Transit Home prior to the imposition of the National Emergency. The transit home serves families rebuilding their lives after escaping violence. Existing clients have been able to safely shelter in place throughout the state emergency.
- Currently, Sezim is exploring opportunities to create safe conditions for clients and employees and is ready to start admitting women and children to the Shelter and Transit Social Home during quarantine.
PROMOTING HEALTHY COPING BEHAVIORS THROUGH ONLINE PLATFORMS
Sezim’s professional staff created a series of videos and posted them on their Facebook and Instagram sites, discussing:
- Stress under quarantine;
- Coping skills to reduce family conflict and promote healthy relationships;
- Personal safety measures individuals should take in the event they are facing abuse or the threat of violence during quarantine.
RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT THE INCREASED RISK OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
- Throughout the month of April, Sezim’s professional staff gave five expert interviews to four major news outlets (Azattyk, 24.KG, BBC and Channel 5) explaining how the Covid-19 quarantine intensifies the risk of domestic violence for women and children.
- Sezim advocated directly and through online platforms with its longtime partner, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, to raise awareness about the increased threat of violence against women and children and the support needed by NGOs to effectively respond during the Covid-19 outbreak.
STRENGTHENING THE RESPONSE TO VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN & CHILDREN
Looking to the future, public health experts warn that the risk of Covid-19 will likely remain until such time as a vaccine becomes widely available. This means that institutions, like Sezim, will need to continue to adapt and change to meet “the Silent Pandemic” of violence against women and children. Critical issues for the future include:
- In-person services at the emergency crisis shelter must be restored but this cannot be done without support to create the safe and hygienic conditions necessary to protect staff and clients from Covid-19 infection.
- Shelters serving victims of violence should be considered as “essential services” and included within Government plans to provide safety equipment and training to enable staff to safely deliver in-person services to women and children at risk of violence.
- Service modalities for case management of GBV must be adapted to enable a combination of remote and in-person service delivery.
- Referral networks with police, health facilities, social service providers, and Government partners need to be strengthened to maximize support during national emergencies.
- Online prevention resources to prevent gender and domestic violence, promote healthy coping behaviors and de-escalate family conflict must be expanded.
The Silent Pandemic: Violence against Women and Children and the Covid-19 Outbreak
Case #1. Arina called the Hotline, her mother (45 years old) became a victim of sexual violence. In the evening, when she was returning home, a 30-year-old male neighbor raped her. She told her daughter what had happened. Arina called the police. The woman wrote a statement and underwent a forensic examination. Legal and psychological consultations were held over the phone with the victim and her daughter. The injured woman said she did not trust law enforcement and was worried that the case could be closed. The rapist is currently being detained. Sezim keeps the case under control. Once quarantine is over, Sezim’s lawyer will participate in investigative and judicial measures. Sezim’s director will serve as a public defender in court.
Case #2. Asel called the Hotline about her children (1 and 3 years old). Her husband and his relatives drove her out of the house and the children were kept with their father. On behalf of the client, Sezim sent a statement to the Department of Social Development of the Issyk-Kul region, which was then redirected to the district Department of Social Development at the place of residence of the children. Sezim received a reply that officials contacted the father of the children to discuss the case. The place of residence for the children must be determined by a court if a divorce takes place. Legal and psychological consultations were held with Asel by phone. Asel and her youngest child are currently living with relatives.
 United Nations Fund for Population Activities press release April 28, 2020. https://www.unfpa.org/press/new-unfpa-projections-predict-calamitous-impact-womens-health-covid-19-pandemic-continues