Safely seeking help for intimate partner violence, even during COVID-19

The below was written by Harriet Kezaabu, Women’s Protection and Empowerment Coordinator in Uganda at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). It is shared with the permission of the Karamoja Women Umbrella Organization (KAWUO).

Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) often seek to control every aspect of survivor’s lives, seeking to isolate them and prevent them from seeking help. When survivors seek help, they sometimes need to do so creatively in order to avoid detection by the perpetrators. Last November, an example of this was shared on multiple news sources: a survivor in the USA called an emergency hotline and pretended to order pizza. Once the hotline operator realized what was going on, they started asking yes-or-no questions, with the survivor answering in a way that continued the facade (e.g. “do you need medical assistance” answered by “no, with pepperoni”). After giving her address for the “delivery,” the police quickly showed up to provide support — with the perpetrator never suspecting that the pizza order was secretly a call for help.

A woman stands with her back to the camera. Her yellow shirt reads “Lead by Example — Respect women and girls.”
A woman stands with her back to the camera. Her yellow shirt reads “Lead by Example — Respect women and girls.”
A community volunteer in Uganda. Photo credit: Helena Minchew/IRC

During COVID-19, we’ve seen major increases in IPV cases in Uganda and particularly in our operational locations; at the same time, with the nationwide lockdown it’s become harder than ever for survivors to seek support without detection by the perpetrators. In the Karamoja Region of North East Uganda, the International Rescue Committee provides case management services to GBV survivors through our local Women’s Protection and Empowerment (WPE) partners, the Karamoja Women Umbrella Organization (KAWUO), with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Notably, the ban on movements made it difficult for face-to-face services, requiring an adaptation to a remote approach of providing care over the phone. With survivors confined in the same space with perpetrators, the team had to think creatively on how to support the women in a safer manner without exposing them to more risk and harm by the abusers. Pretending to order pizza wasn’t likely to work, so how could they apply the same idea to their work?

What KAWUO did was to work with survivors to establish ‘verbal passwords’ at the beginning of every call. If a caseworker is on the phone with a survivor and the survivor says the password, then the caseworker knows it is not a safe time to talk and re-directs the conversation to other topics — specifically, they start discussing COVID-19 preventative measures by the government. If the perpetrator overhears, they just assume that it’s one of the many efforts to inform the community about COVID-19, and never suspect that the survivor was seeking help. In a few instances, the alleged perpetrator has been invited to listen in to the COVID-19 conversation.

Another innovation that KAWUO is implementing is the use of a ‘phone beep system’ with their clients. Depending on the number of times that a survivor ‘beeps’ the caseworker, the caseworker knows how to respond accordingly. Our WPE team has bi-weekly check-ins with KAWUO via tele-conference using mobile phones (as internet connection is poor) and provides technical guidance on different topics requested by KAWUO to support them to manage the GBV and IPV cases. These types of innovations are so important to make sure that we can continue supporting women during this troubling period.

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