Pressure to respond to cases of COVID-19 has disrupted the social, health and legal support for the victims/survivors of gender-based violence. The restrictions imposed on free movement, combined with the fear of infection, have prevented persons in violent situations from accessing necessary support in some cases.
PwC Serbia provided insight into the pitfalls and best practices of institutions in cases of gender-based violence during the lockdown across Serbia, together with recommendations to the government on recovery measures.
The COVID-19 crisis led to significant economic pressure in most countries, affecting disproportionately sectors where the workforce is predominantly made up of women. In addition to immediate measures to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, there has been a need to fully consider and assess the impact of the crisis on the institutional response to gender-based violence (GBV) to support the Government of Serbia and international partners to plan for COVID-19 recovery related to GBV in the medium and long term, and to use the lessons learned to prepare and respond better in future crises.
At the early stage of the pandemic, women’s organizations in Serbia warned of the possible consequences of the pandemic and emergency measures on gender-based violence. The outbreak of gender-based violence has been confirmed in countries experiencing lockdown, and this outburst of domestic violence was strongly related to the introduction of suppression measures and the population spending increased amounts of time in isolation.
In Serbia, many medical institutions have been repurposed for the government’s COVID-19 response, while the health and social emergency services, as well as the police, have been intensively engaged with mitigating the pandemic. Changed or reduced working hours of public institutions, the lack of public transportation and limited freedom of movement during the lockdown, combined with a lack or difficult access to safe houses, left some women in a vulnerable position. Furthermore, institutions failed to send a clear message through the media to victims of domestic violence that their personal security should take precedence over restrictions on movement. Professionals tasked with supporting and protecting women against gender-based violence have experienced difficulties in organising multi-sectoral meetings to discuss ongoing cases.
The Government of Serbia wanted to improve the institutional response to gender-based violence as part of their mid- and long-term pandemic recovery plans.
PwC Serbia’s approach combined desk research on the national legal and strategic framework, and international studies on the incidence of violence against women in times of crisis, with fieldwork conducted in March-May 2020 to collect statistical and qualitative data from institutions and civil society organizations through questionnaires and interviews. The team relied on its thorough understanding of the country’s institutional set up for the prevention of violence against women in family and partner intimate relations, which included collecting input from a diversified group of actors—from law enforcement and judiciary, to social services and civil society organizations.
The PwC team looked to identify, fully consider and assess the systemic and operational gaps as well as cases of good practice. This required a snapshot of the whole system in place and collecting scattered statistical and qualitative data to gauge the efficiency of the institutional response.
The project showed that the relevant ministries and other institutions had failed to issue precise and uniform guidelines and instructions in a timely manner, specifying the actions of the subordinate institutions in cases of domestic violence during the state of emergency. Not all institutions were adequately allocated and provided with human resources to ensure smooth operations in cases of domestic violence. The state of emergency and measures to protect against the pandemic made it difficult for institutions to access, collect and share the relevant data necessary to adequately assess the risk of the imminent danger of violence and/or domestic violence.
PwC Serbia’s report has been timely and informed the work of the Coordination Body for Gender Equality of the Republic of Serbia. The findings and recommendations opened a discussion on the institutional response to gender-based violence in times of crises, thus making their place in a newly formulated national strategy for gender equality.
PwC found that some multi-sectoral coordination and cooperation groups used applications for online meetings during the lockdown. The Ministry of Justice has picked up on that good practice and, together with UNDP, equipped 10 basic public prosecutor's offices across Serbia with access to an online meeting application for convening online meetings. Today, there are a total of 17 offices, which represent almost 1/3 of all prosecutor's offices in the country, thus increasing the overall efficiency of the process and making it possible, in some cases, for victims to join this type of meeting more easily.
The findings and recommendations from the assessment have been integrated in the new national strategy on prevention and protection of women from domestic and gender-based violence, which was adopted by the Serbian Government in April 2021. In addition, the Ministry has revamped its "Exclude Violence" website so that victims throughout Serbia are informed about available services in a timely manner. The study identified that the civil society organizations have demonstrated much more adaptability to the situation by opening the new communication channels for their beneficiaries, which should be further deployed for the benefit of the women that are part of vulnerable groups.
PwC Serbia continues to provide support to the UNDP on the topic. Based on the identified need for the education of all actors, PwC Serbia is currently developing two e-learning courses for the Judicial Academy and Police on the protection of women from domestic violence.
While implementing this project, we as a team had a great sense of duty to support one of the most vulnerable groups of citizens in Serbia: women and girls who fell victim to family violence. We worked closely with multiple institutions to identify bottlenecks that prevented the government institutions from reacting promptly and protecting them during the lockdown when they couldn’t leave their homes in some cases. It was a great pleasure to see that the Government Coordination body for Gender Equality and UNDP team recognised our recommendations for more efficient joint actions and integrated them in the National Strategy for Gender Equality.
Marijana Trifunovic Stefanovic
Director, PwC Serbia
Partner, PwC Serbia