A Domestic Violence Pandemic
There has been an increase in domestic violence during the lockdown in Azerbaijan, just like in the rest of the world. Isolation and fewer opportunities for assistance make it difficult for victims to receive the help they need.
There was a threefold increase in domestic violence in the EU and other countries in just the first weeks of the lockdowns introduced as part of the fight against COVID-19. Although official statistics on growth of domestic violence in Azerbaijan in this isolation period are not yet available, an increase in the number of people who have contacted shelters is an indication that things have become worse.
Isolation with an aggressor and its implications
"Even now, when I hear a loud male voice, I start trembling. I still am afraid," says Gulnaz (name changed). She is one of the nine women who had to seek refuge in a shelter for women and children in May. Gulnaz, the mother of two small children, says that her husband had previously beaten her on a regular basis, but things got unbearable during isolation, and not only for her.
"Before the lockdown, he would not spend much time at home. He would come home at night and there would not be that much violence. When the lockdown began, he stopped going outside. He became even more neurotic," Gulnaz says. "My children and I also became neurotic. We were living in constant fear. We tried to do everything the right way to make sure he had nothing to complain about. But it was useless, he would still find a reason to be violent."
In the very first days of the worldwide spread of coronavirus, the UN and the World Health Organization said that the lockdown would lead to an increase in domestic violence across the world. According to information available to the WHO, complaints received by women's support services about violence against women by their husbands or partners have increased by 60% compared to April 2019. A total of five times as many people have contacted hotlines.
According to the WHO's Hans Kluge, the loss of jobs, rising alcohol consumption, as well as stress, fear and anxiety that worry many people may lead to serious long-term consequences.
Since the beginning of the lockdown, 14 women have contacted the Baku shelter for women and children, and most of them came here in May.
"Although reports started coming in from other countries about an increase in domestic violence from the very first days of the lockdown, there has been little information during this period in Azerbaijan, unlike in the rest of the world," says Mehriban Zeynalova, the head of the women and children’s shelter. "Incidents and cases of violence may have occurred, but isolation has somewhat limited the possibility of information circulating."
The perfect cover-up for aggressors
"You know those large that people use to lock their gates? He used one of those chains to tether me like you would tether a dog," Gulnaz says in her story about the horrors that she had to face during isolation. "He stripped me of my clothes, tied my arms and legs, put me on the floor and as soon as I lifted my head, he beat it with a mop."
Azerbaijan is one of the countries that introduced a special quarantine because of COVID-19. Until 18 May, people could only go outside for three hours with permission from the police. Travel between population hubs is still banned. It was only with the help of the police that victims of domestic violence could be brought to the shelter.
"The roads were closed, it was difficult to bring people from the districts, and you needed to get permission. The Interior Ministry swiftly helped us with it," Mehriban Zeynalova says.
The problem of domestic violence was prominent in Azerbaijan before the lockdown, too. In 2019 alone, 184 women suffered at the hands of their family members, 54 of them died. And these are only official statistics.
"Aggressors usually try to isolate their victims to make it easier for themselves to carry out violence. For example, they restrict their victims' contact with friends and family members, and do not allow them to work. In this way, they deprive them of support. In this sense, the lockdown was the perfect cover-up for aggressors," says Gulnara Mehdiyeva, the coordinator of the feminist movement in Azerbaijan. "After all, in this case no one sees the marks from beatings, and most likely no one will know that violence occured. This makes the aggressor more confident that he will go unpunished and makes the victim more helpless."
Psychologist Jamila Rahimli says that isolation is having a serious negative impact on the psychological state of families as a whole.
"Normally, people are able to see less of each other and to devote more time to themselves and set boundaries. However, they practically do not have that kind of an opportunity during the lockdown. And if you are spending more time together, you have more problems. Long-standing discontent about something and grievances that were not expressed in time may also lead to physical violence during isolation," the psychologist says.
Recommendations for victims of domestic violence
In an interview with the Moldovan publication ZDG, lawyer Arina Turcan recommends that in order to enhance safety and defense during self-isolation, victims should always have a phone to use it in an emergency. It is also recommended that victims maintain communication with friends and neighbors that they trust. Together with them, they need to develop a crisis plan to make sure they know when they need to rush to help and what to do. For example, together they can agree on a signal that will warn them that the victim needs help so they can call the police or knock on the door.
The non-governmental organization La Strada in Moldova recommends that everyone in forced isolation should be vigilant and pay more attention to neighbors, relatives and close friends. "This is exactly the case when eavesdropping on sounds behind a neighbors' wall or fence is not a sign of ill manners, but can protect someone's health or life."
In an interview with Hromadske, psychologist and psychotherapist Vladimir Stanchishin explains that women who regularly suffer from domestic violence acquire the helplessness syndrome, in other words, they do not believe that anyone will help them. Therefore, it is important that people around them who are aware of the violence persuade the victim that they cannot tolerate it. And that the first thing to do is to contact the police.
Shelters for women and children exist in only three major cities in Azerbaijan - Baku, Ganja and Sumgait. All were established by non-governmental organizations. Although the Baku shelter for women and children is only designed for 30 people, 23 women and 22 children are living in it during the lockdown.
There are no hotlines or helplines in the country for victims of domestic violence. Mehriban Zeynalova believes that the government should create special counseling centers in different parts of the country to provide legal, psychological and social help to victims of domestic violence.
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