For those we work with, COVID-19 is a cumulative crisis: for them we have to be determined, calm and quick.
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 Jasna Zečević and I am the president of the Association "Vive žene" in Tuzla, where I have been working since 1994 when this association was founded. Through my work in the center and the safe house, I was engaged in helping women victims of domestic violence, and during the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked every day to ensure that women and children were protected regardless of difficult circumstances. The association "Vive žene" is a partner organization of the regional program for combating violence against women and girls "Implementing norms, changing minds" which is implemented in Bosnia and Herzegovina by UN Women with partner organizations, with the financial support of the European Union.
Our first step when the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic began was to protect the health of our beneficiaries, both in the safe house and in other programs we run in northeastern BiH, as well as to protect our employees. Constant caution, monitoring a situation that no one can predict anymore with certainty, making decisions in moments when everything around you seems to be in chaos, when you have no one to turn to - all this was extremely difficult and stressful.
When the restrictive measures were introduced, I first thought that I had to keep calm, that this would take a few weeks, that we would adjust, as always. Unfortunately, the situation is still going on, and who knows how long it will last. I wasn’t right, but I kept calm. When you have people around you who expect answers from you, you don’t have much choice but to be determined, calm and quick. Our crisis response plan was excellent, and we analyzed and adjusted it every week, following the circumstances and orders of the competent authorities. At the beginning of the crisis, only a few employees stayed in the "Vive žene" center, and there were six women and seven children in the safe house. They were our biggest concern. Our beneficiaries, as victims of violence who had previously lived in fear and had enough problems, found themselves in new insecurity and uncertainty. At that moment, the most important thing for us was to give them a sense of security, protection and stability. The biggest challenge was how to receive new beneficiaries, victims of violence, and what protocols to follow when there were none. We requested urgent testing of women and children who were to be placed in a safe house, and after receiving a positive response from the Tuzla Canton Ministry of Health, we urgently developed special guidelines for admission to a safe house during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, an additional difficulty was providing space for isolation while waiting for the test results, because we did not have much space in the center. Thanks to the funds of the Swiss Embassy, we were able to prepare one part of the isolation center.
When a state of crisis was declared, we became overwhelmed by the calls of our beneficiaries. Isolation has also caused fear among citizens, especially people who continue to suffer the severe consequences of the war. The women and girls we support were among the most endangered. Almost all of our beneficiaries have already experienced violence and poverty, and the rest are locked in with perpetrators of violence or are forbidden to go out and seek help. For them, COVID-19 is a cumulative crisis, often evoking memories of past crises they had to go through. We quickly started providing psychological counseling and support via phone and online platforms Zoom and Skype. We have introduced a line for free help, counseling and support, and regular communication with users via Viber. The importance of ongoing support was confirmed by our beneficiaries two months later when they told us that they felt they were not alone, that they had someone with whom they could share their fears, anxieties and worries.
We faced organizational challenges and fears whether we would have enough funds to work. Most of the projects were related to community work, which was stopped, and the work of the safe house was questioned due to a great lack of funds. Fortunately, the prompt response from the international community, private companies, and the city of Tuzla has resulted in donations of protective equipment, food and hygiene supplies. After feeling lonely and uncertain, it was an indescribable relief to feel connected and supported by all who offered help.
The biggest challenge during the crisis was when, after three months of continuous work, planning, and respecting all protection measures, I received information that a younger colleague had lost her senses of taste and smell. In addition to all the protection measures, plexiglass at the reception, masks, disinfection, distance, redistribution of work - again fear, again quick decision making. Everyone who was in contact with a colleague was sent to isolation. The result was three positive employees, seven in isolation. Everyone who tested positive was fine; had mild symptoms. This situation made us aware that no matter how careful we are, someone can still have the virus. We also learned that the state of caution is not temporary, as we thought at first. This is a permanent condition, and we must adapt and learn to live in an unpredictable situation and always keep in mind that it's the responsiblity of all of us how the situation will develop.
If we want to recover better from the crisis, for me the most important issue is trust in terms of relations with the state and those who govern it. To get out of any crisis you need to have a leader you trust, you need to be motivated to give more of yourself, to participate and plan together. If you fight persistently, consistently and sincerely for justice, you can change the situation around you. I remain committed to fighting to improve the status and position of vulnerable groups, especially women victims of violence and war, and former camp prisoners whose status is not yet regulated. It is my life commitment and my mission. When and if we emerge from this crisis with as few consequences as possible, the categories that were least protected in our society will remain my priority. I think that caring for our fellow citizens who need help should be a priority for everyone because it has long been said that a country is as strong as it takes good care of its weakest and most vulnerable groups of citizens.