Covid-19 has altered the lives of millions of people. Yet women and Lgbtq+ individuals are facing the more severe consequences. For them sometimes the mandatory quarantine is more dangerous than the virus itself. They are obliged to live in a house along with people that are tormenting them both physically and mentally, cut off by their supportive environment. The insecurity and the financial repercussions of this situation contribute to an escalation of violence making the abusers even more dangerous. According to the General Secretariat for family policy and gender equality, in March calls to the help line for women victims of violence have been increased by 16,4%. Although several experts and actors in the field are expressing their concerns that this is only the tip of the iceberg, since the real extent of the problem will be revealed after the quarantine, the response by competent authorities is inadequate. The following analysis will focus on several shortcomings manifested during the Covid-19 pandemic that came to my knowledge as a member of the legal team of (CRWI) “Diotima”. The Centre for Research on Women’s Issues (CRWI) “Diotima” is a non-profit, non- governmental women’s organization providing a series of services aimed at supporting and empowering women or women’s groups, among which is legal aid for survivors of gender-based violence.
The primary issue is the inability of domestic violence victims to communicate with competent authorities. In Greece the communication with police is only available via telephone. Because of the pandemic an email address was made available for victims to communicate with state appointed psychologists and social workers at the women-sos help line. However, in these circumstances it is imperative that victims are be able to seek help from the police itself through messages. A viable solution could be the development of an application, a suitable solution also in case of refugees and migrants who don’t speak Greek or English. In normal circumstances non-native speakers should either go by themselves to the nearest police station with an interpreter or ask from the latter to call the police. An application could provide predefined messages in several languages informing the police about the situation and the whereabouts of the victim.
The pandemic affects also the filling of a complaint for domestic violence. Incidents with police officers that discourage women from reporting domestic violence incidents are not rare in Greece. In an emergency situation those deviations are justified by the need to address only emergencies. Fortunately, the police leadership is trying to deal with such incidents upon notice. This demonstrates the need to have strong civil society organisations giving voice to each victim. Filling a complaint is now often possible only by appointment, since police authorities are reluctant to receive complaints in an effort to minimise the number of people visiting police stations. For that reason, the special procedure for caught in the act offenders (flagrante delicto) is also not followed in every case, thus depriving the victim from the subsequent protection deriving from the immediate removal of the alleged perpetrator from the house. Furthermore, going to the police station requires a certain form of negotiation with officers that control the movement of citizens, since exceptional transfer to a police station is not provisioned. Apparently a meeting with a lawyer is impossible and all necessary communication is carried out by telephone or internet. There are also cases where police officers forbid lawyers from being present during the statement of the victim due to “overcrowd” and possible covid-19 infection. As a result, this first statement of the victim is often defective, something that could be detrimental to the subsequent prosecution. Applications for interim measures are also affected by the pandemic. Filling for protection measures is contingent upon a decision from a judge that there is a real risk. However, that decision is taken on a case by case basis and not by taking account that by definition protection measures in cases of domestic violence are of fundamental importance to prevent further aggression or further assault. Resolving the issue by addressing to the public prosecutor, who is capable according to law 3500/2006 to impose restrictive measures to the alleged offender, is also problematic because it presupposes the filling of a criminal complaint and its assignment to a prosecutor. This procedure usually takes time and there is also a reluctance of the public prosecutor to impose restrictive measures at such an early stage in the proceedings. As a result, after the filling of a complaint the victim is displaced from the household and vulnerable to further attacks. Furthermore, the majority of the hotels are closed due to the pandemic and the already high-occupant women’s refuges are trying to resolve issues relating to the inability to conduct the necessary medical examinations for admission, including testing for covid-19. The inadequate response of the judicial system along with the fact that women’s refuges are not fully operational are leaving domestic violence victims unprotected.
Femicides are also occurring as a form of escalation of domestic violence. During the mandatory quarantine three femicides were reported by the media. Though the press dealt with the incidents in an insensitive manner not addressing the gender-based element of those killings, more and more people are realising that those murders were not simple cases of homicide but there was an additional demerit to them.
The situation for women refugees and migrants is even more difficult. The exit from all the refugee camps is limited and several went into a full lockdown. The living conditions along with the lack of protective gear and recourses are creating a dangerous environment particularly for women and vulnerable people. In this situation protecting domestic violence victims and in general victims of gender-based violence is a daunting task. In addition to the aforementioned shortcomings at police and judicial level, distinct spaces in the camps for women are full and transfer to the mainland is quite an ordeal due to the geographical limitation imposed by the new international protection act (Law 4636/2019). An increase of discriminatory behavior is also observed. The fear that due to the poor living conditions in the camps refugees and migrants may have carried the virus to the near villages resulted in racist rhetoric. There is also an unequal access to the healthcare system. In the islands there is an effort to address the needs of refugees and migrants with on-site health units due to the limited capacity of the healthcare system. The government has announced that all asylum seekers will be provided with a temporary social security number. This number though is not yet available.
Covid-19 pandemic has definitely affected women both nationals and non-nationals. It has also revealed that domestic violence is a persistent problem. After the pandemic there is an urgent need to readdress the issue and find ways to efficiently protect the victims. This quarantine opened the discussion about domestic violence in several European states. I strongly believe that we should continue the discussion and consider that the time has come for an EU Directive on gender-based violence that could efficiently protect women throughout Europe.
Chara Chioni-Chotouman, PhD Candidate in Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens