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Safety at Home: Supporting Survivors Under COVID-19 Lockdowns

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Safety at Home: Supporting Survivors Under COVID-19 Lockdowns © UNRWA

“During COVID-19 lockdowns, the situation becomes harder for everyone—especially the vulnerable individuals most at risk of abuse and neglect at their own homes,” says Hana, a case worker in the Child and Family Protection Programme (CFPP) branch of the UNRWA Department of Relief and Social Services.

Since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders aimed at preventing community spread of the disease have had an unintended and tragic impact on survivors of gender-based violence and, specifically, domestic violence. All over the world, survivors have been trapped at home with their abusers as rates of domestic violence intensify, in what [UN Women refers to as the ‘Shadow Pandemic’].

Hana, a frontline worker in the West Bank, knew the threat facing the Palestine refugee women and families she works with. Between April and July 2020, the UNRWA Department of Relief and Social Services recorded a constant increase in the intensity of domestic violence cases, especially those involving women, children and the elderly. One of the biggest challenges she and her colleagues in the CFFP faced was how to reach beneficiaries and identify new cases. To ensure beneficiaries were receiving the support they needed during the lockdown, Hana and other case workers started contacting beneficiaries and referring them to third parties for assistance over the phone.

“Before the virus outbreak, we used to be in the field, conducting face-to-face case meetings. Now, we work remotely with the cases, which makes it harder to communicate, but we’re managing to successfully coordinate case conferences with actors, stakeholders and service providers,” she explained.

One of the cases that Hana worked on under the new, remote model was that of Amineh*, a young Palestine refugee wife and mother living in the West Bank. Amineh and her children were facing physical abuse from her husband, who struggles with drug abuse. After withstanding constant attacks, Amineh reported her husband to the police and he was arrested. When he was released two months later because of COVID-19, Amineh and the children began living in fear that he would resume harming them.

Seeking help, Amineh was referred to CFPP, where she was assigned to Hana. Via remote counseling, Hana helped Amineh deal with her anxiety and enrolled her and her children in counselling and psychosocial support sessions. Hana and the CFPP team also referred Amineh to the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Social Development for legal protection and the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling to help her hire a lawyer and file for divorce. Amineh’s husband was eventually ordered to leave their house and Amineh received a security system and new locks for the doors.

As a result of the interventions of Hana and the CFPP team, today Amineh and her children feel much safer at their house. The larger UNRWA Department of Relief and Social Services team continues to provide her with psychological counselling and are helping her find a path toward economic independence.

Speaking of the challenges she faced while maintaining contact with her cases during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Hana says, “As we work mostly with difficult and high-risk cases, communication and fast response continue to be a big challenge. Usually, the response of service providers takes too long, which was a fear during the lockdown. However, my excellent relationships with local community-based organizations helped me get quick responses for the cases, which was encouraging. In the end, we are all doing our best to provide the services the community needs.”

Amineh is one of 226 survivors referred to and assisted by CFFP in the West Bank between April and November 2020, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the 1822 cases already being followed-up by CFFP, including 733 child protection cases. Palestine refugee survivors are among the most vulnerable of an already intensely disadvantaged community.

UNRWA is operating at full capacity but with inadequate resources, and funds are now urgently needed so staff can continue to deliver essential services without disruption. With the Agency’s cash flow at their lowest levels since 2012, and with needs of refugees critically high because of the impact of COVID-19, the risk for survivors of gender-based violence becomes acute if their avenues of support are threatened. Only if sufficient funding is received will the Agency be able to continue to support Palestine refugees most at risk, and for whom the consequences of gender-based violence will continue well beyond the current pandemic.

*Amineh’s name was changed to protect her identity.