In the sea of COVID-19 Information and Statistics, We Must Find a Way to Protect Human Rights

This story is part of the United Nations in BiH series of personal accounts highlighting extraordinary work during COVID-19 response and recovery; marking UN75.

My name is Dragana Petrić, I have been working in the non-governmental sector since 2009, and I am the coordinator of the programme for preventing and combating human trafficking at the Lara Foundation in Bijeljina. During the coronavirus crisis, I participated in organizing the work of the Foundation despite the difficult circumstances that hindered the work of safe houses and endangered the well-being of women who survived violence. The Lara Foundation is a partner organization of the regional "Implementing Norms, Changing Minds" program for combating violence against women and girls, which is implemented in Bosnia and Herzegovina by UN Women with the financial support of the European Union.

During the most critical period of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lara Foundation was committed to adapting to the new circumstances and mitigating the risks and consequences of the pandemic. This implied, and still does, a wide range of action: from working directly with beneficiaries - women survivors of domestic violence and vulnerable groups of women in the field - through the delivery of aid packages; answering a large number of inquiries and requests about the current needs of the organization and our beneficiaries; to the revision of current projects and activities.

Work at the Lara Foundation has not been interrupted, nor have working hours been shortened. Our priority area of activity is direct support services. We have adjusted the work to ensure the best and most efficient ways of safety for our employees and users, through compliance with all recommended and prescribed protection measures such as mandatory wearing of protective equipment and enhanced disinfection of the premises. A special working system was introduced in the safe house where we tried in every possible way to avoid situations that would lead to the spread of the infection. A lot of activities were adapted to the current situation; some were delayed, some were transformed into online activities, and some have been completely revised to have a concrete impact on the current situation.

The first thing that came to my mind when restrictive measures were introduced was how to stay healthy and productive at the same time. At first, everything seemed quite unrealistic and I had a feeling that nothing could be done, but as time went on, with great mutual support within the team, we realized that it was possible to function in these limited frameworks, and we learned how to "get the best out of the worst." The biggest challenge was how to stay healthy and preserve that kind of security for yourself and your loved ones, because without that, any further work and planning loses its meaning. I am currently trying to get back to normal life and normal workflows, so that I can be helpful in solving the larger problems of the organization and community.

Although the situation caused by the COVID-19 affected all of us, and we were all potential targets, I have the impression that the needs of women victims of domestic violence, especially users of safe houses, have finally resonated in an adequate light. Early on when the emergency measures were introduced, we started receiving inquiries about how we work, how support services work, with a special emphasis on the work of a safe house. Inquiries, and then concrete help, came from foreign donors, but also from governmental and non-governmental structures. It is an amazing and powerful feeling when a woman in need tells you she cannot believe someone remembered her, which shows how precious any kind of help is. This help may be symbolic, but even that can very often satisfy the basic needs of everyday life. A very important added value of such actions is that people restore faith in the system, even if it is thanks to the civil sector.

During this period, I found inspiration and motivation for my work in the inexhaustible energy of activists of all women's non-governmental organizations. They tirelessly and sometimes in impossible working conditions managed to be in the right place at the right time and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable groups, especially the always marginalized women.

If we want to recover better from the crisis, the priority would be to get the economy back on its feet, as economic instability can lead to a number of other problems in society, including an increased number of domestic violence cases, which has been evident in recent months. Isolation, uncertain financial situation, job loss, reduced socialization, have significantly contributed to increased tensions in family and partner relationships.

Another equally important direction of recovery entails the empowerment of women and other population groups. Respect for basic human rights must not be neglected with the justification of protecting health and life. As a society, we have faced a great challenge, and at a time when the main topic is how to protect ourselves from the virus that can have fatal consequences for life and health, it is difficult to talk about the need and obligation of all of us to protect women from violence, provide workers with their basic rights and a minimum of safety at work. In the sea of information that predominantly deal with statistics on infection rates and deaths caused by coronavirus, we must find a way to protect other human rights that are guaranteed to us by the Constitution.

UN entities involved in this initiative
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women