In Azerbaijan, Covid fueled child abuse

Author: Ulkar Natiqqizi, , Illustrator: Aydan Hasanova

In the 19 months since the Covid-19 pandemic started, organizations helping vulnerable children and families at risk in Azerbaijan have been inundated with calls for help.

One organization, the Children’s Hotline, reports it has received a record number of calls since the pandemic started. The center, created in 2010 with support from the public and private sectors, focuses on helping children. Operating under the motto “Help is as close as the phone,” the center employs psychologists, lawyers and social workers to answer calls and provide assistance.

In 2020, the center received 6,657 calls—mostly from women—compared to 5,061 in 2019. The number of callers under the age of 18 doubled in 2020, according to the director of the Children’s Hotline, Kamala Ashumova. So far this year, the center has received over 2,000 calls, mostly due to children struggling with school, psychological problems or legal issues.

Ashumova noted that prior to the pandemic, families were able to hide domestic abuse because people did not want anyone outside of the family to know about it.

But the pandemic, especially the strict lockdown, changed the situation. The Azerbaijani government restricted residents’ movement three times in one year to prevent the spread of the virus. People were allowed to go out only for medical needs, purchase food or attend a funeral, for a maximum of three hours.

Internationally, children suffered greatly due to the 2020 pandemic, according to UNICEF's 2020 annual report. The report states about eight percent of domestic violence during the pandemic was toward children. 

“Out of more than 900 calls received by the Azerbaijan Child Helpline between May and November, 1 in 10 sought psychological support related to violence against children,” the report stated. 

“Due to the lockdown, women and children became less tolerant of violence. And this has led to more exposure when abuse occurs. For instance, if we normally received 200-350 applications a month, during the lockdown, we received 600-700 applications,” Ashumova said.

She noted, however, that Azerbaijan has not yet adopted the international practices that have been proven to help detect and prevent domestic violence, particularly enabling police to investigate anonymous reports of abuse.

Ashumova added that the growth in domestic abuse means the country needs to work harder on the issue and adopt “a comprehensive approach” to help people. “A complex approach is not always available. People apply to one institution for help, where they are told ‘your problem does not concern us, go and apply to a different institution for help,’” she said, adding that in addition to the uptick in domestic violence and child abuse, children have started to run away at a younger age.

That is a particularly dangerous trend in Azerbaijan, where there are no government-run shelters for women and children who face violence.

Officially, there are 13 shelters registered by non-government organizations, but not all of them are functioning, according to an official from the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Issues, the central executive power body implementing and regulating the state policy on family, women, and children issues.

Since 2015, the State Committee has created monitoring groups in every region of the country to address domestic violence issues. In 2020 its groups received 179 applications and complaints related to domestic violence. In the first 5 months of 2021, the committee received 98 applications, the same number it received in the first six months of 2020.

“More than 300 citizens received legal assistance on various issues via both the Committee's Facebook page and by telephone, and relevant appeals were sent to the relevant authorities,” a representative of the State Committee said in an interview with a local news agency in 2020.

In a separate interview, a member of the State Committee noted that the pandemic has triggered an increase in violence against women and children.

In response, the State Committee reported that in 2020 it conducted several online seminars, meetings and conferences. For instance, one meeting it hosted focused on psychological problems in families during the pandemic and their solutions. The State Committee did not respond to Chai Khana’s requests for more details about its work during the pandemic, including any activities aimed at preventing child abuse.

A survey of 648 people conducted by the State Committee in 2020 found that the majority of respondents—especially women (68.2  percent)—said they had been the victim of violence during the pandemic. Very few—3.9 percent—said violence against children was an issue.

But private organizations and NGOs have had the opposite experience during the pandemic.

Mehriban Zeynalova, the head of the Clean World Social Union for women's rights issues, said that while the union did not receive many calls during the lockdown, there has been a huge increase in the months that followed.

“Right now four to five people apply to us for assistance [every day],” she said, noting that some can no longer afford rent and want to leave their children at the shelter. “[Children] have come themselves because of a lack of family attention.”

One woman dropped off her 14-year-old daughter for a week, Zeynalova recalled. She never came back for her.

When parents seek assistance, it is often for help when they notice their children’s behavior has changed, according to psychologists and shelter directors.

The Children’s Hotline 2020 annual report noted one call, made by a man who was worried about his son. The 13-year-old boy was acting aggressive and had stopped speaking with the family. He asked the Children’s Hotline Service for help. 

When the center’s employees spoke to the boy, it turned out his older brother was bullying him constantly and that, in addition to his parents’ own anxiety about the pandemic, was affecting him.

Psychologist Vafa Akbar agreed that most parents appealed for help dealing with their children’s behavior. 

“There were cases when teenagers were shouting at their mother, and didn't get along with their parents,” she said. “They were self-harming, using toothpicks to leave marks and scratches on their bodies. When the parents saw this, they realized that something was wrong.” 

Akbar said that there were several different explanations for children exhibiting aggression during the strict lockdown.  “My observation was that because children fell behind in their studies and felt ignored by their friends and parents, they started exhibiting aggression,” she noted.

“When they respond with aggression to each other or to their parents, violence is inevitable.” 

Ashumova believes that, as a result of the pandemic, even more families will seek help—especially children. The Children’s Hotline has increased its public outreach in anticipation of the growing need for assistance. 

“We put our posters on public transport, metro or on the roads to the regions. We also had advertisements on TV, information with the number when the pandemic started,” she said.

“We sent the message that we don’t want to lead to the break up your family or expose your family secrets. We want to help.”

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