Interview: “Online is the new frontline for violence against women and girls”
Iris Luarasi is Director of the Counselling Line for Women and Girls (CLWG), an organization from Tirana, Albania, that manages the national helpline 116117 for women survivors of violence. In the last two years, thanks to support from the European Union-funded regional programme on ending violence against women “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” more than 3,000 women survivors have used the helpline for information, referrals and reporting – 900 of whom further obtained free legal aid and psychosocial counselling as well as referrals to more specialized support services. Luarasi spoke to UN Women about the importance of the national helpline, how it fits into broader measures to tackle violence against women, and next steps in the protection of women and girls from violence.
How has the national helpline impacted Albania’s efforts to end violence against women and girls?
The CLWG has operated as a telephone counselling service since its establishment in 1996, after a nation-wide survey found that more than 80 per cent of women and girls in Albania had suffered domestic violence. It was very clear that women and girls needed dedicated and specialized services, and the CLWG did that by offering easily accessible psychosocial counselling and referrals to victims of violence across the country. The national helpline was established through an agreement with the Ministry of Health and Social Protection in 2016, some years after Albania ratified the Istanbul Convention, which stipulates that States should have a dedicated line for domestic violence cases. The helpline, which is free-of-charge and answers calls from women and girls at any hour of the day or night, was a great leap forward for the country. It showed the Government’s commitment to the cause, and for the first time, survivors had the chance to receive high-quality psychosocial, legal and referral services for free. Ever since, the helpline has had an immense impact. This can be seen in the number of phone calls it receives, which increases year-to-year. In 2022, we had more than 3,400 calls.
How does the helpline fit in with the myriad other measures to respond to violence against women?
The helpline is a key part of the National Referral Mechanism System for Violence against Women. The services we offer are multidisciplinary – ranging from psychosocial counselling to primary legal aid, representation in courts, psychiatric help and referrals. At the same time, we partner with other civil society organizations that provide more specialized services related to employment, LGBTQI+ rights, the rights of women with disabilities, Roma and Egyptian women, etc. The helpline also closely cooperates with municipalities in a bid to provide safe housing and economic aid for survivors and their children, and it assists the police with pressing charges against perpetrators, etc. We are very often the entry point into the system for survivors.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic influence your thinking and planning around services for survivors?
Calls to the helpline surged during the second week of lockdown, and throughout the whole COVID-19 period we received three times more phone calls than usual. During the last week of April of 2020, the helpline received about 70 calls per day. We promptly responded by adjusting our service-delivery to the new circumstances and trying to find ways to operate at full capacity to support beneficiaries and to ensure the smooth delivery of services. The helpline continued working 24/7, with all staff working from home, providing psychosocial and legal counselling and referrals to survivors. We also introduced the first online counselling through Viber, WhatsApp, Skype, etc. Through a small donation, we managed to buy 50 mobile devices for women living in rural areas, to enable them to access services. Online counselling schedules were made more flexible to meet the needs of beneficiaries. Over time, we’ve integrated online counselling among the multitude of services we offer at the helpline, and it has been a highly successful and sustainable tool to reach survivors.
What are some of the biggest challenges in working with survivors?
The COVID-19 period was a major challenge for helpline staff and especially for victims and survivors. Securing the sustainability of the service continues to be a challenge, as it is only partly covered by the Government, and we have to continuously look for donors to support the 24-hour service. On the other hand, the whole process of escaping from violence is very hard on victims. When a survivor makes the decision to leave their perpetrator, this is only the beginning of a lengthy and draining process. The economic aid they receive from the Government as victims of violence has increased in the past year but is nevertheless insufficient to support a dignified living for them and their children. The legal process is also very costly, especially divorce proceedings. We offer free representation in court, and there are other organizations doing the same, but victims are not entirely exempt from all court taxes, which are unaffordable for many.
What are the next steps for the protection of women and girls that are suffering from violence?
We are now drafting a new law on digital violence. This emerged as a need directly from the cases we managed at the helpline. It is a trend we had been seeing for a while. The digital dimension of violence against women encompasses a wide range of acts online or through technology that reflect the different forms of violence against women happening offline, only expanded, amplified or generalized by the Internet. Online is the new frontline for violence against women and girls, and this increased exponentially during COVID-19. So, very soon we will go to Parliament with a concrete law on preventing and responding to digital violence, which is also stipulated in the Istanbul Convention.