“Looking at the statistics on victims of [domestic] violence during COVID-19 in Georgia and in neighbouring countries, we see that the situation has worsened,” said Luka Khabazishvili, Head of Clinical Research at the Institute of Clinical Oncology in Tbilisi, Georgia. Luka is one of 160 Georgian health workers who were trained to recognize and respond to signs of gender-based violence in their patients.
Trainings and focus group discussions with health workers and psychosocial support groups for women at risk of violence were led by Union Sakhli, a Georgian civil society organization. Using the experience of survivors of domestic abuse, the project has built the capacity of health workers to provide services to over 300 000 patients in their care, better equipping them to recognize signs of violence in the future.
WHO is supporting a dialogue between civil society organizations and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Affairs of Georgia to inform decision-making with insights on the impacts of the pandemic on different communities, including survivors of domestic abuse. The findings from the project were presented to the Ministry in September 2021. The project is part of a WHO/Europe community engagement initiative taking place in eight European countries to increase community resilience to health emergencies.
A widespread regional phenomenon
According to WHO data, about one in three women in the European Region will experience either physical or sexual violence from their partners and others during their lifetime. Most violence is perpetrated by intimate partners, with a quarter of women aged 15–49 years reporting they have been subjected to physical or sexual violence by a partner.
As shown in a recent report from the WHO Regional Office for Europe, increased stress levels during the pandemic, the impact of lockdowns and the economic impact on families have further exposed women to intimate partner violence and risk, while limiting their ability to access services.
Union Sakhli ran four psychosocial support groups for women at risk of violence. One 45-year- old participant explained the impact of the pandemic on mental health as follows: “It feels as if we are under constant stress with uncertainty about the future and our fear was made worse by misinformation during the pandemic. The group sessions were very helpful and taught us how to become more aware of how to cope with stress. This type of support is needed and what I learned will stay with me.”
Another 59-year-old woman commented, “The group session was a really good opportunity to break out of isolation and have a sense of purpose.”
Spotting the signs of domestic violence
Health workers can play an important role in supporting women at risk of violence. Union Sakhli partnered with EVEX Medical Corporation, a network of 33 clinics in six regions of Georgia, to build their skills in this area.
“We identified the needs and problems of victims of domestic violence … such as access to services, including vaccination, restriction of transport during lockdown, difficulty accessing hygiene products, and economic, psychosocial and safety problems,” said Luka. “Now we have a better understanding of the complex challenges faced by victims of violence,” he added.
Focus groups run by the project also revealed some of the pressures dealt with by health workers during the pandemic. Some participants revealed they were at increased risk of violence due to extended working hours both in the workplace and at home. Equally, staff shortages led to emotional and mental stress and feelings of burnout, with little access to psychosocial services.
The CSO initiative in the European Region
WHO/Europe’s CSO initiative is piloting new bottom-up approaches to give communities a say in plans that affect their lives and to ensure their involvement in policy-making processes. It is contributing to the COVID-19 response and beyond by strengthening community readiness and resilience to emergencies, connecting vulnerable communities to services and enhancing inclusive governance. Georgia is one of eight countries in the European Region and 40 across the globe piloting such approaches.