Gender-based violence and its consequences in the lives of women and femininities can be long-lasting and require multifaceted action and a holistic approach to address them.
For refugees and asylum seekers, survivors of gender-based violence, the difficulties, and obstacles posed by refugee management policies, cultural differences, and the conditions of moving to another country with an unfavorable social and institutional framework and living conditions, create additional obstacles that often seem undefeatable.
At this point, the actions developed by the Diotima Center meet and intersect, in the field of preventing gender-based violence and supporting those who have suffered it.
The actions are carried out by the Diotima Center in Thessaloniki, within the framework of the “Prevention and response to gender-based violence in the refugee population” program implemented with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Prevention actions in Thessaloniki
In Thessaloniki, as in other places throughout Greece, the Centre’s teams work by providing psychosocial support, legal assistance, and escort to women/men and LGBTQI survivors of gender-based violence, asylum seekers, and recognized refugees.
At the same time, great emphasis is also placed on the prevention of gender-based violence with numerous actions, information, and empowerment/mobilization of women as well as awareness-raising for men (actions for male inclusion).
In Thessaloniki, the actions are organized in the form of seminars and informative meetings on gender-based violence. One of the key seminar cycles concerns the preparation and training of women who have the ability to function as community mobilizers.
In 2021, from the beginning of the year until October, dozens of actions, activities, and meetings have taken place and more than 400 women and 45 men living in Thessaloniki, originating from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and African countries have participated.
But what are the needs covered by these actions? The right to a safe life free of violence is not self-evident, nor is it an easy process to deconstruct gender stereotypes that reproduce sexist perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors, and often acts of violence.
Knowing the possibilities a woman or a person has to protect themselves is not guaranteed and requires constant effort. Potentially new concepts, a change in the way of seeing themselves and the world, possibilities and opportunities of “another life”, needs that gain visibility in the community and so much more that can recreate smaller and larger universes.
How does Agapi Chlorou, head of gender violence prevention at the Diotima Center of Thessaloniki, evaluate these actions, the themes that are developed, the impact on the refugees who participated, and the indirect or direct impact on the community?
As A. Chlorou points out, “the groups that were set up in the form of short intervention/empowerment group/info sessions/training worked effectively and consisted of at least 3 separate meetings each. This minimal repeatability appeared to be an essential component in creating space for the individuals (female and male participants) to develop their potential and connect with the other individuals in the group and feel confident to talk about the issues they opened up within the intervention groups in a peripheral circle of contacts outside them.”
How do groups work?
“Efficiency consists in the simultaneous movement of these networks in three directions. The first concerns a vertical inward movement, creating and strengthening relationships within each individual group. Individuals now experience themselves as part of a whole that concerns them and is not detached from the process, as they may feel initially when they enter.
The second direction is an outward movement. Individually now, but with a fixed point of reference, the group they belong to and the Diotima Center talk and approach people in the second and third circles of social contacts.
The above is reflected in the practice of referring to me personally a calculable number of people for participation in a group/session but also direct referrals to the agency of women who have experienced gender violence and need support.
The already motivated individuals (mobilizers) function clearly as valuable “generators” of dynamics and create a movement within individual communities, something that without them would be very difficult or impossible to happen.
The third direction is the horizontal movement, and this is precisely where the cores/networks meet. Going beyond their autonomous composition, they come into contact, interact and transform.
The creation of personal relationships like dominoes often brings other peripheral relationships of the original dyad with it.
In Thessaloniki, from the beginning of 2021 until today, there are examples of smaller groupings that were integrated into each other, people who with their double participation in networks caused other dynamics, and other cases of “confusion” so that by the end of 2021 the from time to time mobilizer groups that were formed in another time autonomously know almost all of them, creating a circle of people from different ethnic communities, ages, etc. with a dynamic that spreads across the field without being able to accurately capture the size”, Agapi Chlorou says.
Lockdowns due to coronavirus have been a major obstacle to consistent meeting attendance. In addition, asylum seekers and refugees have a number of challenges to face in their daily lives which add burden and difficult to manage emotions.
The pending asylum procedures that often require the women to move to other areas, the daily difficult living conditions, the barriers in access to housing, financial insecurity, medical issues, and the corresponding appointments when and if the problems of access to health services are overcome, the needs of the children, and other issues that arise suddenly, may not always allow their participation and in general their mobilization.
However, when they succeed, they find and realize that these meetings are of great value to them as they feel that they are taking care of themselves and sharing experiences, knowledge, and feelings with other women.
Learning to defend our autonomy
Can the wealth of ideas, interactions, moments of joy, acceptance, and respect, but also those where different approaches and even conflicts became an occasion for even greater deepening, openness, and awareness of what unites us, be adequately captured?
Perhaps mentioning just a few of the many topics raised and discussed during these months might give an idea:
- The different realities for women by country, power, and modes of oppression
- The concept of consent in the act of love
- Dominance/control relationships between spouses and also in the parent-child relationship
- The red flags, signs, and ways to approach and help a person who is in danger or in an abusive relationship
- Ways of searching for and accessing services, providing immediate assistance by discussing and identifying the limits and gaps in the response mechanism for protection from gender-based violence (legal part, handling by the authorities, treatment, etc.).
“Through the friendships that developed, emphasizes A. Chlorou, a multitude of issues ran through the communication. Information about covid, finding a job, suggestions for cohabitation, exchange of information on access to services and hospitals, exchange of material for mothers with young children in relation to psychology and creative employment. At the same time, during the year there were many updates on educational seminars and with my personal support, two of the young participants received scholarships for a master’s degree.”
At the same time, the meeting place is something much more. It also functions as a place to relax, chat or just rest and be quiet, a situation that is not at all self-evident in a refugee.
Sharing and caring
As they themselves say, they are grateful to those who had the idea to set up and implement these actions because, through them, they learned many new things about their safety and rights. They are very happy with the friendly environment and the treatment they receive from the Centre’s staff, which strengthens the trust and sense of security that they lack so much.
During the meetings, women express their thoughts and share stories and feelings.
F. in one of the meetings, said that in the week after the meeting, she felt an inner energy to engage with herself. She believes this is because of their meeting. She also said that she talked about everything she and her mother discussed in Afghanistan and she loved that they had that communication.
“We learned how to protect ourselves, but also to help other women in cases of violence against us and who we can turn to for our protection” adds A., while M. refers to the value of group meetings saying that “the joy it’s for us to all be together and learn new things”.
Male inclusion enhances equality
If informing and empowering women is extremely important, working with men is of equal importance. Gender roles and stereotypes, diversity, and discrimination come to the fore and are openly discussed, helping to raise awareness of sexist practices in relationships and people’s daily lives in general.
Discrimination based on gender and gender identity, as well as, the awareness of the social dimension they have, help to recognize their different needs and respect them. In addition, the knowledge gained in these meetings about the causes of gender-based violence and the legal framework for the protection of survivors of gender-based violence, the legal consequences of such acts of violence, is an important prevention practice.
The group of the Diotima Center in Thessaloniki set as a goal and was open to synergies in order for people served by other organizations to take part in the actions it organizes, to exchange ideas and practices of male inclusion, and to co-organize actions and events that promote the idea of solidarity, knowledge, protection from the consequences of gender-based violence, etc.
Thus, part of the group actions for the prevention of gender-based violence organized by the Thessaloniki group, are implemented in collaboration with other Civil Society organizations, as well as, state agencies involved in providing services to the refugee population.
For instance: ARSIS (Diaplou program), HANTH (ILC), Blue Refugee Center, Red Cross (MFC), UNHCR Thessaloniki, Women’s Center IRIDA, KARITAS, IOM (Helios program), DIPAK (Estia program), ELIAKTIDA (Estia program), MELISSA Day Centers & ACTION FOR WOMEN.
It is the group’s intention and expectation that these valuable synergies in the field will continue and be enriched in the future, as well as, prevention actions as a whole.