“All those who live in dysfunctional families in these times of self-isolation are at greater risk of violence because the additional stress, frustration and tension that the isolation brings can boost the dysfunctional patterns of behaviour among family members or abusive partners,” Stoimenovska told BIRN.
“Thus a violent person can become even more violent”.
Figures point to rise in domestic violence
While official statistics in some Balkan countries point to a rise in domestic violence, experts and NGOs say the data rarely reflect the true scale of the problem given victims often do not report incidents and some do not even recognise that they are being abused.
The Animus Association, one of the oldest organisations providing support and shelter to domestic abuse victims, said it had received more than 550 calls to its hotline since January 1, a significantly higher rate than normal.
In one case, on April 8, a 42-year-old woman in the Bulgarian Black Sea port city of Varna died from injuries sustained when she was physically assaulted. Her boyfriend was arrested.
In neighbouring Romania, statistics released by police on April 13 showed a 2.3 per cent increase in cases of domestic violence in March this year compared with March 2019.
In Moldova, in the first three months of 2020 police registered 267 offences related to domestic violence compared to 231 over the same period of last year.
Police protection orders were applied in 173 cases in the first three months of 2020, up from 157 in the first quarter of 2019, Dorel Nistor, head of the Community Interaction Section of Moldova’s General Police Inspectorate, told BIRN.
In Montenegro, Maja Raicevic, head of the Centre for Women’s Rights, said on April 5 that in March calls to her NGO reporting domestic violence were up 20 per cent on the previous month.
A total of 57 criminal charges were issued for domestic violence last month. “The majority of these cases were reported after the government announced measures against the spread of the novel coronavirus,” on March 13, a spokesman for the Misdemeanour Court in Podgorica, told the MINA news agency.
In neighbouring Kosovo, police reported 169 cases of domestic violence in March, 36 per cent more than the same month of last year.
NGOs concerned authorities neglecting the problem
In Croatia, police told BIRN that the number of domestic violence cases was up from 94 in March 2019 to 120 in March this year, but stressed the rise should not be interpreted as an “overall increase in violence” but was the result of efforts to educate police officers in how to identify such offences.
Indeed, Interior Minister Damir Bozinovic told a press conference on April 8: “No increase in criminal acts of domestic violence has been registered.”
But those on the ground say this ignores a rise in calls to shelters.
The Autonomous Women’s House of Zagreb said on April 8 that in February and March it had received 19 requests from women for admission to its shelter and was receiving around 10 calls every day.
The Domine association in Croatia’s second city of Split, on the Adriatic coast, also reported an increase in calls from women seeking emergency accommodation or other assistance.
Paula Zore of the Platform for Reproductive Rights, a women’s rights initiative, said the divergence in numbers and differing interpretation of such statistics reflected the “problematic treatment” of the problem by state bodies.
“They do not take violence against women seriously and do not understand how this situation is causing an increase in [domestic] violence,” Zore told BIRN.
The fact NGOs were seeing a greater rise in domestic violence than the authorities reflects “a lack of confidence in [state] institutions,” she said.
Likewise, in Romania, lawyer Giulia Crisan of the NGO ANAIS, said that between March 13 and April 13 her association had received 74 calls seeking legal and psychological support, compared with fewer than 50 in January and again in February.
“We are getting direct calls from victims who want to know if they can leave the family home, if they can take the children with them or start divorce procedures,” Crisan told BIRN. “But we also have cases in which neighbours report that an old woman is being beaten by her son after they heard noise and the victim crying.”
In North Macedonia, the Skopje-based Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality of Women – ESE wrote to the government this month called for greater protection for victims of domestic violence, including a “crisis fund” to provide financial support.
Many victims unable or afraid to report violence
Some countries said they had not registered a rise in the number of domestic abuse cases, or that such data was not currently available.
Yet in these countries too, the NGO sector says violence is on the rise.
Neither of Bosnia’s two autonomous regions – the Federation and Republika Srpska – have reported a rise in domestic violence since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, but activists say they expect the numbers to grow in April and May.
“That does not mean that there has not been an increase in violence, but that the women are under the control of the bullies and are not able to report violence,” Nada Golubovic, head of the managing board of the ‘United women’ foundation, told the Nezavisne novine daily in the Republika Srpska on April 13.
In Serbia, the Autonomous Women’s Centre in Belgrade said in a press release on April 16 that during the first month of the state of emergency they had registered a threefold increase in contact from women.
Mirjana Mitic, a social worker with the NGO, said that more than 50 women per week were contacting the organisations for help.
“One should bear in mind that these worrying figures record only cases in which women were able to seek help,” Mitic told BIRN.
“Many of them cannot call because they fear that their violent partners will hear them, and that afterwards the violence will escalate and they will be prevented from trying to leave the house.”
Mitic said almost all callers had cited the state of emergency, isolation or the curfew in Serbia as “affecting the intensity of the violence they are now suffering.”
“Isolation and interruption of the victim’s contact with other people are common patterns of a perpetrator’s behaviour,” Mitic said. “This situation makes it easier for them to exercise control over the victim and prevent her from seeking help.”
Lack of shelter space
In Kosovo, outgoing Prime Minister Albin Kurti expressed concern on April 16 about the effect of the pandemic on domestic violence.
“As leaders of the institutions, we are concerned that with the situation of self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence has increased,” Kurti said, and announced an increase in state funding for shelters by 900,000 euros.
Nazmie Abdullahu Leku, a social worker at the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims, said it was particularly difficult for victims of sexual violence committed during the 1998-99 Kosovo war. “Conflicts in the family have increased,” Leku said and this amounts to a “re-traumatisation not only of the victims but also of the children and other family members.”
Enver Cesko, the president of Kosovo Association for Psychotherapy, told BIRN that a number of organisations, including the association, were providing online mental health services. Cesko also uploads Youtube videos of exercises to help mental health in Albanian, English and Turkish.
Erza Kurti of the Kosovo’s Women’s Network said domestic violence could still go to police, hospitals, shelters or other institutions when necessary, regardless of the restrictions on movement.
But in Moldova, because shelters are also under quarantine and cannot take in new residents, Lilia Poting of the Chisinau-based NGO Promo-Lex said her organisation had rented an apartment “where people in need can be placed.”
“We came together and tried to solve this whole problem,” Poting said.
Zore, the activist in Croatia, said that civil society organisations had been warning for years about a lack of counselling centres and shelter space. They were also sending a message to victims that such shelters and support centres continue to operate.
It gives victims “a sense of security,” Zore told BIRN. “Indeed, when it comes to victims of violence, they can rely on support from civil society, not from the state.”