18 DECEMBER 2023

#OurStories: Coordination of agencies and services dealing with Domestic Violence

Imagine waking up every morning, year after year, anxious and afraid. Imagine being belittled, insulted and bullied every day by the person closest to you… as he demands that you report your every move, constantly accuses you of lying and, sometimes even hits you or forces you to have sex when you don’t want to…. Imagine having two children who witness all of this… and who have to endure much the same themselves. Sometimes you ask yourself… Why doesn’t anyone say something… why don’t they call the police…? Now imagine that after making every effort to make things better over a long period, and after many attempts to understand what you’re doing wrong and change it, you finally come to realise that it isn’t your fault, there is nothing left for you to try and change and his behaviour is not going to change, because the simple truth is that HE CHOOSES to abuse you. Finally, you summon up the courage to ask for help, but no help comes. In fact, there isn’t any help out there…

Maria is a survivor of domestic violence. She met Markos 10 years ago; they got married and had two children. At first everything seemed fine, but after a while the problems started, the insults, attempts at control, threats and later on there were also other forms of violence. At first, she couldn’t understand why he kept criticising her – why couldn’t she do anything right? At first Maria couldn’t believe she was in an abusive relationship; she told herself he was going through a bad time, he had problems at work, and maybe it was also her fault: it irritated him that she couldn’t make the children behave, so they wouldn’t annoy him… It was when he started treating the children the way he treated her that Maria knew she had to do something, she had to get away. But she was afraid – she was very afraid…

After she’d made this decision, she felt more alone than ever… She needed a place of refuge, she needed support, she needed a safe place for her and her children, and she needed money to live on. She tried to reach out to countless services and agencies, asking for the same things. Some helped more than others, and some didn’t help at all… The most common response she got was ‘we don’t provide this service: you have to deal with it yourself, or else go to such-and-such an organisation’. Maria had to become the coordinator of the Services & Agencies system herself! She had to coordinate them all, she even had to put them in contact with each other so they could find a solution for her problems. And to make sure that she and her children would be entitled to get what they needed, she had to meet the different requirements of each agency… they needed to have medical exams, obtain court orders, solve endless bureaucratic problems, submit documents that he had to give her or sign for her… find and rent a house… and a host of other things that needed peace of mind, time, practical help and money…

Many different Marias did us the honour of confiding in us, and after we had accompanied them all on this journey of escape from domestic violence, we had an idea: why can’t all the different Greek agencies and authorities sit around a table and work together: coordinate their activities themselves and provide holistic support for all victims of domestic violence, so that every woman and child is dealt with according to their needs, and receives the protection and support they are entitled to as soon as they seek help? No single agency could do this alone. All of the agencies need to work together to recognise the gaps in the chain which at present only Maria can see, and then fill them, fix them, or get rid of them. In fact, they have a legal obligation to do this, according to the Istanbul Convention. It has already been Greek law for four years – Law 4531 of 2018.’ What’s stopping them?’ was the question Maria was asking herself. ‘Is what’s happening to me not really domestic violence, does he in fact have the right to treat us like this, or is it that they don’t really want to help us – they simply don’t care?’

At the European Anti-Violence Network we were having the same thoughts, and trying to come up with solutions, when at the end of 2019 our organisation was chosen by the Active Citizens Fund to represent Greece at a conference on best practice in the area of gender equality, and we found ourselves in Iceland! There we met the Icelandic Chief of Police of Iceland, Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir, who was then the Chief of the Metropolitan Police (in Reykjavík), and she described exactly what we had in mind, only something better! Together we designed a Bilateral cooperation initiative funded by the ‘Active Citizens Fund in Greece’ programme, which thanks to the coronavirus pandemic we had to wait 1.5 years to implement online. In the end, however, it led to our designing the project which we’re presenting to you today, in partnership with ‘The Smile of the Child’. It has a huge title, but it describes exactly what we’re trying to achieve:

‘Using the Icelandic Police’s paradigm to build a Greek multi-Agency substantial partnership, in order to improve the support and protection of women and children victims of domestic violence, in line with the standards of the Istanbul Convention’.

As part of the Project, a Special Action Group against Domestic Violence has already been set up, involving representatives of the different agencies and authorities. They have all come to accept that, if they’re going to fulfil their obligations to the victims, they must first change their procedures, so that professionals in different specialties and from different fields are able to work together effectively. This is also the objective of the Special Action Team: to identify problems and missing links, to decide, monitor and evaluate the methodology and tools to be used by an intersectoral team who will receive joint training, so they can implement some of the provisions of the Istanbul Convention.

The team’s goal is to find effective ways of protecting and supporting every Maria and her children who need to escape from domestic violence: immediately, effectively, and for as long as necessary. The aims of the project are to begin to find ways for different sectors to work together, to launch a pilot scheme and evaluate it, so that in the end we can be sure that no other woman will have to deal with the challenges that Maria and her children faced in their quest to escape from domestic violence.