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The time of isolation due to COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly highlighted numerous social, economic and political injustices. These injustices existed even earlier, despite their rejection and disregard by state structures, and the pandemic was an impetus for these injustices to at least become part of the public discourse.

It was not surprising to see how certain groups suffer considerably more as a result of such a crisis. Girls and women, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian minority communities, the LGBTQI community, low-income individuals and families found themselves in a hopeless situation with an increased risk of infection, physical, emotional and sexual violence.

With the help of the Democracy for Development organization, YIHR KS has held a virtual discussion with activists from the majority of Western Balkan countries to jointly discuss the current situation on gender-based violence, emergency kits approved by respective governments and the work of civil society and feminist activists. Feminist groups and civil society organizations were the first to react to the non-inclusion of women in emergency and rehabilitation kits and to the failure to address the needs of women in general, thus raising the issue that due to isolation women were facing an increased level of physical, emotional and sexual violence.

Is home a safe place for all? 

In patriarchal societies, the home represents a physical and mental space that is detached from what is happening outside, and the rules are largely based on gender norms. What happens at home remains there. The work done at home is seen as natural and does not entail any importance for the economic, social or political system as a whole and is not valued according to neo-liberal policies. Consequently, violence against girls and women has been consistently considered a private matter of the family and was not discussed in public discourse, nor received the proper treatment and response by the relevant institutions.

The isolation that lasted for more than three months in most Western Balkan countries marked alarming figures in gender-based violence, although feminist activists are inclined to believe that the statistics do not represent the reality. Women and members of the LGBTQI community were extremely disadvantaged in terms of the possibility for reporting cases of violence, or for receiving real-time assistance and to access the shelters, public health services and so forth.

Home did not turn out to be a safe place and the paradise of mental and physical tranquility that was supposed to be and the pandemic elucidated the danger that comes from prolonging the oppression of women inside the home in other public spheres. Many girls and women who were dismissed from their jobs, now isolated within a physical space with existing or potential abusers faced the new reality of not being able to easily call the police or seek shelter away from home. The response and immediate solutions came only after the pressure from civil society and feminist activists pushing for the establishment of safe telephone lines for victims of gender-based violence and other ad-hoc policies. According to activists from different countries, the same scenario occurred in almost all countries.

Pandemic for women in economic terms: 

In economic terms, women are disproportionately affected by such crises. Given that a high percentage of women worldwide work part-time or are part of an informal economy, they are the first group to be dismissed, being deprived of income, and their economic rehabilitation is much more harder and longer than that of men.

The productive and reproductive role of women in the formal and informal economy is strongly affected by economic, social and political crises.

According to Sophie Herman, the unpaid economy of reproductive care that is considered to be naturally feminine, in situations of such crises acts as a ‘shock absorber’. It is women who in crisis situations carry the burden of caring for children and the elderly, continue to do even more intensive household chores (cleaning, cooking, etc.) and leave the formal and informal economy more easily (are dismissed from their jobs). According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), women worldwide spend 16.4 billion hours on chores and non-paid care. During the discussion with the Western Balkans’ feminist activists, it was said that this mentality and framework of social functioning is completely the same and prevalent in the countries of the region.

Research shows that when there was an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, a significant proportion of women also suffered from psychological trauma due to the fact that they were primarily responsible for the sick and feared they could transmit the virus to their children.

On the other hand, women comprise about 70% of the world’s healthcare workers, which is no exception for Kosovo and other neighboring countries. Also, all the essential services that were active during the isolation period, such as food markets and pharmacies, consist of a significantly higher percentage of women as workforce. In addition to the direct risk of infection with the COVID-19 virus and long working hours, the closure of schools and kindergartens put these women at a disadvantage and they had to find alternatives to childcare and transportation from home to work.

During the discussion with feminist activists in the region numerous conclusions were drawn and the systematic oppression of women, whether in the private or public domain, was put to the fore as a concerning issue. However, civil society organizations and feminist movements in the region and around the world, during and after the isolation, continued their work and actions virtually, thus encouraging public discussions about the situation of women and their role. It was repeatedly emphasized by the panelists that such a rapid return to the “status quo” of inequality that characterizes our societies should not be allowed, but we must insist on a structured transition to an economy that values housework and care and ensures improved living for all through social policies. The pandemic may be seen as a call to “wake up” from a state of neutrality and rejection of discriminatory policies that undermine the experiences of certain groups and suppress them.

The importance of a cross-border feminist movement and the need for cooperation and connection of the region’s feminist movements was also emphasized. By combining theory and practice, we can recognize the experiences of women and their other identities and guarantee an equal social, economic and political status. Feminist movements on the one hand, and civil society on the other, can push forward radical changes at the social and state level.

This article was written by YIHR KS within the framework of the initiative “Community actions to promote parental leave” within the project “Social Dialogue for Social Justice” implemented by Democracy for Development, funded by the Olof Palme International Center and supported by the Swedish Government.

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