The COVID-19 lockdown spelled disaster for Emiliya*, a refugee and married mother of two living in Bulgaria. She was already struggling to assimilate to a new life with lower paying jobs, fewer social opportunities, and a language she still hadn’t mastered.
Then the pandemic hit. Schools closed and her son and daughter were learning from home. Her husband lost his job, leaving her the sole financial contributor of the family. Financial stress and tensions within the household were mounting. Then, the Council of Refugee Women (CRW), a civil society organization supported by UNICEF, called to check in on the family. It quickly became apparent that they needed help.
“The situation in the family was very serious and we realized that we had to keep in constant contact with them,” says Radostina Belcheva, executive director of the Council of Refugee Women. “In one of the conversations, Emiliya looked very tense and depressed. She spoke quickly. We had a hard time understanding the meaning of what was being said, she was crying and repeating the same thing again and again.”
Prior to the crisis, staff from CRW would accompany Emiliya to parent meetings with her children’s school teachers to help with translation. Now, neither the teachers nor Emiliya had the translation support needed to contact one another.
With only one electronic device — a telephone — available to complete school work and to connect with teachers, Emiliya and her husband prioritized their son’s schooling. Their daughter completely stopped her lessons. In response, CRW created a programme for the daughter to continue learning with her brother through a donated UNICEF-tablet, but this did not solve all the family’s troubles.
CRW’s staff continued to worry about the family, and questioned whether Emiliya was experiencing domestic violence. With the continued stress of the lockdown and few activities outside home, Emiliya began to come to the centre more frequently. Slowly, she started sharing about the violence at home, which had begun before the family arrived as refugees. Her husband had threatened to take away the children if she ever separated from him.
A continuity of care in crisis
CRW contacted the UNICEF-supported child advocacy centre, run by Animus Association, and set up to provide children and families like Emiliya’s with a “one stop” place to get psychosocial support, health services, and legal advice and consultations.
Because gender-based violence (GBV) tends to increase during emergencies, UNICEF quickly developed a response plan with the child advocacy centres to continue providing services for the most vulnerable populations during COVID-19. The centres were allowed to stay open during lockdown, but they needed support in developing new protocols for providing case management and ensuring regular communication with families and the relevant institutions and child protection bodies, including police, child protection departments and schools.
“While most services were shutdown during the lockdown, we were able to act quickly and support our partners to continue providing essential services,” says Dr. Jane Muita, UNICEF Bulgaria representative.
“Further to the critical support for essential services, our response plan was also focused on ensuing a continuum of care and integrated approach. This improved the way people’s needs were met and contributed to a collective response to protecting children and vulnerable women,” says Dani Koleva, UNICEF Bulgaria child protection specialist.
Since the start of the pandemic, UNICEF has assisted more than 1,200 children and caregivers through the child advocacy centres, trained 44 frontline workers on GBV risk mitigation and referrals, and supported 78 crisis interventions. An additional 20 children and 24 mothers were supported through Mother and Baby shelters.
Waiting to support
CRW has advised Emiliya that she is protected under Bulgaria’s Domestic Violence Protection Act if she were to divorce her husband. While she has yet to decide if she wants a divorce, she’s developed a written safety plan, and agreed to seek support from CRW if the situation escalates.
Through this integrated support, the children are currently seeing a psychologist to help with school adaptation. And, in order for the family to receive additional support due to the father’s unemployment, he will need to meet with the family’s social worker. CRW has also assisted the family with finding better accommodation and enrolled the children in an introductory career orientation seminar. The staff continue to monitor the family’s situation to ensure everyone is protected.
“This situation teaches all of us working in CRW that every family and every person is unique. No one can teach the other what to do, but what we can do is stand by the clients and wait for the moment when they are ready to take the necessary action,” says Boyko Tsenkov, the family’s social worker.
* name has been changed to protect identity
This story is part of a series of field diaries from UNICEF staff focused on reimagining and delivering a gender equitable world, including living out the organization’s Five Actions for Gender Equality in the COVID-19 Response.
Kimberly Chriscaden is a former UNICEF Communications Specialist, Gender.