[We Care, We Share] Inspiring story: One Call Away – Breaking the silence of a shadow pandemic

We Care, We Share

UN and JICA Bhutan’s joint initiative – Resilience tools for COVID-19

One Call Away: Breaking the silence of a shadow pandemic  

Tashi Dorji was awake. His work phone was on the table beside him. It was his turn on the nightshift. Apart from a few calls earlier, the phone remained blank and idle. Thimphu declared its second lockdown and 5 days had already passed.

Tashi is from Chhukha. He has been working as an Assistant Counsellor with the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) for the last 4 years. The Toll-Free Helpline (1098) for Women and Children in difficult circumstances was launched in 2018.

“Ever since middle school, I was always interested and involved in social and community work, I was part of social service clubs in college too. Growing up, I began to learn about community issues, social services, and it broadened my view and heightened my interest. It has greatly influenced where I am today and what I am doing,” said Tashi.

After becoming a professional Counsellor, Tashi was part of the Protection Services team at the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) with four other counsellors, providing firsthand 24×7 counselling and protection services and reintegration support to women, children and men in Bhutan. An overarching and a crucial part of the services is Case Management which comprises of a needs assessment from an economic, health, legal, safety and risk perspective, in addition to more long-term assessments of the clients.

Unlike any other year, 2020 came as a challenging year, full of obstacles and at the same time opportunities. The concept of lockdowns and ‘stay-at-home’ periods, came as a force behind closed doors and often what happened behind closed doors, remained so.

“During this pandemic year, our services changed significantly. We had to take into consideration the spread of the virus and the health and safety, not only of our clients, but also ourselves. This came as a new procedure and we had to adapt very quickly and tailor our services not just to the needs of the client, but also keeping in mind safety measures and health protocols,” said Tashi.

After the first lockdown, a guidance note was developed for frontline counsellors to render services particularly during lockdowns. The Guidance Note laid down clear procedures to continue to deliver unhindered services to victims. The document also highlighted responsibilities of other collaborating service providers like the law enforcement agencies, health organisations and the CSOs, in making sure the clients received comprehensive support.

Communication channels and information sharing between agencies is very important in addressing gender-based violence and in protecting women and children in difficult circumstances. When we receive calls, we need to assess and identify the nature of the case and refer them to the concerned agency. If it requires medical aid, we contact the hospital. If it has criminal aspects, the police will be contacted to further assess the case. It is a joint effort and action that needs to be taken,” said Tashi.

Across the 20 Dzongkhags and 4 Thromdes, the Gender and Child Focal Person is also a Member Secretary of the Dzongkhag and Thromde Women and Children Committee (D/TWCC) and is the person involved in managing the cases and providing support and needed services to individuals and families. Helpline calls are received in Thimphu, and the concerned Dzongkhag or Thromde Focal is contacted and the cases are referred to him or her. A major challenge is that many of the cases go unreported and this remains an unseen and lurking concern. Lack of awareness, reluctance to report and fear of stigma are some of the main causes.

The first step in addressing GBV is the response from the victims themselves. They must recognize their situation and the abusive relationship they are in. GBV does not only comprise of physical violence but also emotional and psychological, sexual and economic abuse. These different forms of abuse are often abstract and difficult to identify. Coercive and controlling behavior including non-physical threats are examples and victims may feel trapped and helpless.

“There are many issues that aggravate GBV. We often think that physical violence is the only form of domestic violence and therefore only if there is physical abuse, a case can be reported. There is also a generalization that only women and children fall under GBV and that our services only cater to them. But that is completely false.  Of course, women and children are more vulnerable, however, male victims may find it more difficult to come forward due to socio-cultural perceptions and mindsets,” said Tashi.

“The lockdown can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. On one side, it gives an opportunity for families to come together, bond and spend time with each other. On the other, feelings of confinement and frustration can arise from constant interaction and lead to quarrels and violence. And that is where we need to come in,” added Tashi.

On some days, there is not a single call received. Tashi worries and is skeptical when this happens. When there are calls, services are rendered immediately, and when there are none, it either means that there is no violence or that it lives behind closed doors, in the shadows. 

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