In an undisclosed location in Sombor, Serbia, 41-year-old Marija Tomic* is putting the finishing stitches on face masks. She has made hundreds of these fabric masks since Serbia declared the COVID-19 epidemic in March.
Tomic is a survivor of domestic violence and lives in a safe house for women survivors. “I got support in this society when I needed it most and now it feels great to give something back,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to provide a little help in this situation. And my heart feels full knowing that this can protect or even save someone’s life.”
Women who have been in abusive situations like Tomic understand the danger that can come from being isolated at home. The coronavirus crisis has placed women around the world at higher risk of intimate partner and domestic violence because of heightened tensions in the household. A recent study on femicide in Serbia conducted under the EU-UN Women regional programme indicated that the most dangerous place for women is their own home. While official data on domestic and intimate partner abuse in the Covid-19 context in Serbia has not been released, women’s organizations in the country are saying that reports of violence and requests for assistance are on the rise.
Tomic has been working in a sewing factory for years. Shortly after the pandemic was declared, Serbia saw shortage of face masks, now recognized as an important personal protective equipment in the context of COVID-19.
Since the safe house had five sewing machines, Tamara Savovic, head of the shelter, swiftly procured some fabrics and Tomic delivered a quick training to current and former beneficiaries as well as volunteers who wanted to help make face masks.
Within a couple of weeks, the safe house donated the first batch of face masks to the local taxi drivers’ association, as they are driving healthcare workers free of charge during the country-wide lockdown. Subsequently, the women have donated more masks for representatives of public utility companies in the town.
The mask-making project has been a big hit in Sombor. By sewing face masks, the women survivors and volunteers are not only contributing to protect the health of essential workers such as healthcare workers, taxi drivers, cleaners, and others on the front line of the pandemic, they are also feeling empowered and valued.
Like many countries in the region, Serbia declared a state of emergency on 15 March and consequently introduced various lockdown measures.
Within the first few weeks of the crisis, UN Women, together with the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit of the Government of the Republic of Serbia(SIPRU), secured and distributed hygiene kits and household essentials for 138 women survivors of violence in 11 safe houses across the country, including the one in Sombor.
Milana Rikanovic, head of UN Women office in Serbia, stressed on the importance of supporting women in safe houses during the coronavirus crisis. “As we respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, we must ensure that all victims of domestic abuse have all the support they need. Only when they have the psychosocial and other support, as well as all the necessary hygiene kits to keep themselves safe during the pandemic, we can encourage them to participate in the COVID-19 response,” said Rikanovic.
Dragana Jovanovic Arijes from SIPRU agreed: “It is important not to forget their potential, to encourage and support any initiative through which they contribute towards overcoming the challenges we are all facing as a society.”
UN Women continues to support women survivors of violence in Serbia and integrate gender concerns in COVID-19 response around the world.
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the person.