The global crisis caused by the pandemic of COVID-19 virus, as crises usually do, has made clear some of the structural problems of our society by additionally marginalizing already marginalized people. The state of emergency was enforced in March for a then undefined period of time, the measures were more and more restrictive, and the public was overwhelmed with oftentimes contradictory recommendations and information. A11 Initiative for economic and social rights has followed the situation with an analysis of the measures derogating from human and minority rights during the state of emergency, precisely determining worrying dimensions of the pandemic and reactions to the crisis of those in charge. Practical implications of the crisis were becoming more and more visible, the isolation conditions caused a spike in violence against women and youth, workers were forced to work without proper personal protective equipment, while others were losing their jobs or had their salaries reduced; freelance artists were left without the state support; health system faced challenges it wasn’t prepared for. In tightly interwoven problems, many remained outside any focus and care by those in charge. The necessity of strict measures for protecting public health most of the time was not followed by systemic support to those for whom these measures meant restrictions of meeting basic life necessities. In the moments of big uncertainty and confusion faced by the entire world, there was a need to act timely, responsibly and efficiently, to think about those who are generally neglected, and even more neglected during the state of the emergency. Hence, our support during the first strike of the crisis caused by COVID-19 went in that direction.
Throughout the state of the emergency, RWF followed these principles:
- Solidarity – Support, compassion, understanding, exchange, connection and solidarity lead us through the crisis and work with groups in diverse manifestations. Sometimes solidarity implied urgent financial support, sometimes words of support, and sometimes simply giving time and space to the groups to deal with the challenges in their own ways.
- Flexibility – We tried to make our generally flexible mechanisms of support even more flexible. Facing the new situation, we acted openly and ready to respond to supported groups’ diverse needs, having in mind different contexts in which they work. Some envisioned activities were adjusted to the conditions of crisis (quite successfully!), some were fully transformed (with loads of creativity!), and some were postponed (we’re looking forward to them very much!). The state of the emergency also implied flexibilizing of our own daily work – we „moved“ into our virtual office in which we kept on running, working, thinking and sharing.
- Communication – The unpredicted and unpredictable circumstances on the ground level frequently required more intense communication with the groups. Still, having in mind that we all deal with the crisis in diverse ways, we followed the principle of being available to the groups but not overburdening them with excessive communication that might not feel good to them in the given moment. We stayed connected to the community and shared relevant reading materials, old and new texts from our websites, materials for thinking and analyzing.
- Responsiveness – The needs caused by the immediate consequences of the pandemic required quick and adequate reactions. We readily engaged in providing both financial and non-financial support to our partner organizations: we shared information, knowledge and resources, we stayed available for all sorts of consultations, and connected groups that could be valuable to each other during the crisis, as well as in future collaborations.
- Connecting – Besides connecting diverse groups, we have also tried ourselves to deepen the connections with similar organizations and international networks with the goal of mutual short- and long-term strategizing for overcoming the COVID-19 crisis. We participated in numerous online discussions within the networks of which we are members (Foundations for Peace Network and Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds) and the discussions organized by friendly organizations such as Global Fund for Community Foundations. The goal of participating in these conversations was gaining insights into the diverse contexts of the pandemic, with the exchange of key information and building a wide network of solidarity and support.
Collaboration with groups
As we usually do, this crisis also implied that we prioritize to explore diverse needs on the ground level, and for that, we relied upon the information we were getting from our partner organizations that know and recognize the needs of their environment the best. The direct consequences caused by the COVID-19 crisis were reduced to a similar essence – additional dangers for those already endangered and deeper marginalization of those already marginalized – but the manifestations of these consequences contextually varied, which is why our responses and support also varied case by case.
Rapid response grants program
The frontline of the financial support to the groups throughout the newly emerged situation was our already existing Rapid response grants program, envisioned as a mechanism of support in crisis situations, situations of rough human rights violations, activists’ compromised safety, in unpredicted and urgent situations that are abundant in our politically unstable society. As expected, the need for urgent financial support throughout the state of the emergency has intensified. The problems faced by diverse groups and communities were differently manifested but with certain common denominators – many of these problems witnessed anew that there is a deep systemic lack of care for the most vulnerable.
Street magazine Liceulice was among the first organizations that we have supported with an urgent grant during the COVID-19 crisis. The organization addressed us in March, at the moment when the global uncertainty imposed on all of us meant much deeper uncertainty for the sellers of street magazines. The sellers of the Liceulice magazine belong to diverse marginalized groups, and with their work being directly related to the streets, restricted freedom of movement raised concerns for their existence, their ability to afford rent, food, medications and other essentials. Liceulice had a coordinated solidary campaign and managed to bridge the previous months, and RWF has supported them with an urgent grant for providing the most endangered sellers from Belgrade and Novi Sad with psychosocial support and food and hygiene packages, as well as the production of the special online edition of the magazine.
For already a decade, Liceulice is a story inspiring solidarity and empowering us but also warning us of the ruthless systemic neglecting of diversely deprived groups, of discrimination producing existential endangerment. That crisis is far wider than the pandemic and this is why support is important every day.
In March, we have also supported BeFem, feminist cultural centre, to conduct their campaign Feminist quarantine diaries. At the very beginning of the crisis, the group has recognized the danger of women, women’s voices and identities, feminist and activist perspective can stay absolutely marginalized in the public discourse throughout the state of emergency. With this grant, we have supported the campaign implying visuals and video reports from the activists from Serbia and the region, with recommendations for self-isolation/self-organization, with personal and political perceptions of the situations. The campaign has also opened space for a new form of alliance and solidarity.
“The experience of the pandemic has shown us the strength of women’s solidarity, as well as immeasurable importance of women, women’s work and knowledge in the situation of emergency. For all of us, this was a completely new experience facing us with creating the “new normal”, especially in the circumstances indicating the lack of systemic and institutional capacities for the ethics of care for the vulnerable groups, with women and children standing out. The long-term feminist practice has shown how public policies and services can be created differently which is why it is important to open space for women’s voices. It has also shown us the importance of the professions on the public health frontlines, with mainly having women among them, and how important it is to keep reminding the patriarchal community of that.”
From BeFem’s campaign report
Collective action A roof above head
In April, we supported Collective action A roof above head in self-organizing and providing support by delivering food and hygiene products for diversely marginalized people – for families and individuals in non-formal settlements, overpopulated settlements or in the status of homeless, for people who have, due to the crisis and non-adequate response by the institutions prevented from being able to afford the living essentials. CA A roof above head, the organization publicly best known for defending people from unjust evictions and private executors, continuously widens its field of work highlighting the housing crisis. Timely support on the ground level is much more than a humanitarian aid – these actions, which are continuing after the quarantine, as the field needs grow, again and again point out to the deep housing crisis, endangered right to a home and other types of marginalization coming with it, as well as to the necessity of solving these issues urgently.
One day of these activists looked like this:
Jovan: It went ok, it was a 7-members family with all the income they have being a single small salary, now slashed to 15,000 dinars, and they were very grateful because the Easter holidays have financially drained them.
Šejn: Nađa and I have brought a package to the Asmeti family.
Aleksa: The package was sent to the Kovačević family.
Una: My brother and I have brought packages to three families in Pančevo.
Boris (Subotica): Today, 6 families in Subotica were covered. 20 children overall among them.
Solidarity kitchen has distributed 170 meals for the poor and homeless, and Team for the homeless has brought food for 35 homeless people.
We wish to ask you not to be angry with us for still waiting, the money goes away quickly and our people are already fighting like lions to achieve everything. 50 of us is trying to feed 1400 people without any previous training. It means that mistakes, omissions and delays have to happen. One who works, makes mistakes, but we’re learning along the way and improve our work all the time.
No one hungry, no one without a home!
From the Facebook page of CA A roof above head
And there were many, many days like this, and there will be many more. Over 90% of the assets CA A roof above head collects comes from the small solidarity donations and it is essential to continue this solidarity practice – for many families, forgotten by the system, this sort of support is the only guarantee of survival.
Association of Roma Women NADA, Aleksinac
In numerous Roma settlements across the country, the COVID-19 crisis enhanced diverse problems, again left without a proper response and support from the institution, which keeps reminding us of structural racism, neglect and additional marginalization of Roma people in the situation of crisis. One of the illustrative problems is that the state of emergency has narrowed the working options to those who make a living by collecting waste, and on some days completely eliminated the possibility of working. This comes with the inability to put the food on the table, let alone to get personal protective equipment, which completely makes it clear what sort of essential problems Roma communities are facing even when it is not the state of emergency.
With the rising numbers of people infected by the COVID-19 virus in Aleksinac and its surroundings, the Association of Roma Women NADA has recognized the urgency of providing hygiene products in Roma communities around Aleksinac in order to prevent the spread of the virus. With this grant, RWF has supported NADA in the volunteer action of distributing hygiene packages for 80 families in Roma settlements in Žitkovac and Prćilovica. The action captured another important dimension – informing the residents of these settlements about the precautionary measures and disease prevention, which are information unavailable to many due to living conditions that exclude electricity and media.
Roma Centre for Women and Children Daje, Belgrade
In May, we have supported our long-term partners from Daje Centre in their grassroots action of distributing food and hygiene packages in isolated substandard Roma settlements. On this occasion, women from the settlements were also provided with monthly bus tickets to ease their access to safety mechanisms, institutions and jobseeking. However, much more than an urgent reaction to a crisis, this field action was important for the Daje activists to get familiar with new women, estimate the situation regarding the escalation of domestic violence during the state of emergency and direct those who are potentially endangered or endangered how to protect themselves.
Outside of this grant, Daje Centre had several other field actions, their SOS line worked 24/7, and a special helpline and FB page for psychological support were established. Their experiences and information from the field include the following:
During the state of the emergency, the confusion of women grew, and many of them who were in the situation of suffering male violence found themselves in a “frozen condition”, where doing nothing was their defense mechanism in the given circumstances. Many women who have survived partner violence during the curfew have not dared to leave the violent environment, fearing the fines for breaking the curfew. Also, many of them hesitated to call the police and report violence thinking that the police during the state of emergency have “more important” issues. According to our data, during the state of emergency, there were situations when the police wouldn’t come after reports of domestic violence (Daje has reacted to this by writing an urgency). Also, according to the field information, during the state of the emergency, there were cases when the ambulance also wouldn’t come after calls from the Roma settlements.
From the „Report of Roma centre for women and children Daje work during and after the state of emergency“
Women in black, Belgrade
During the floods 2014-2016, Women in black were one of our main allies in combating the crisis at the time. Women in black have again approached a crisis, this time a global one, with a specific understanding of diverse inner aspects making that crisis. Recognizing its political, class, gender, ethnic and other dimensions, the group has also recognized the necessity of solidarity with the activists of the Network of Women in Black and the communities those activists work with, with particular care about activists older than 65. Being on the frontlines of the defense, the activists are oftentimes also neglected. With this grant, RWF has supported Women in Black to conduct meetings and actions of providing solidarity support in Novi Sad, Petrovaradin, Leskovac, Vlasotince, Kruševac, Kikinda, Pančevo and Đulići (Bosnia and Herzegovina). These visits emerged from the principles of feminists ethics of care and desire to stand in solidarity with the activists, especially those who were additionally endangered by the work stoppage or losing jobs.
During the pandemic, Women in black have also maintained regular communication and exchange with the activists from Serbia, the region, as well as from the international Network of Women in black – from Italy, Spain, Belgium, Great Britain, Turkey, South America, USA – gaining insights into global contexts of the pandemic, its consequences and layered dimensions. Group’s work during the pandemic also implied psychological support to activists in the region by the therapy team of Women’s Tribunal. Women in black have also organized a conference in Radmilovac devoted to COVID-19 crisis discussion and its diverse implications. Through all of their activities, just like in the previous three decades, through major and minor crises, Women in black keep reminding us that solidarity is our strength.
Out of the circle, Niš
During the first strike of the COVID-19 crisis, not only marginalized communities were endangered but also the groups fighting for dignified lives of the marginalized. In May, we used our rapid response grants program to support Out of the circle Niš, an organization providing legal and psychosocial support to women with disabilities and deals with the protection of women with disabilities from violence. During the state of emergency, the group was left without the much-needed state financial support and found itself in an inconvenient position. At the same time, the group was facing additional challenges to support women with disabilities to bridge the crisis during the state of emergency.
With this grant, RWF has supported this group in bridging the period of crisis, wishing to contribute to the continuity of the group’s works, as well as short- and long-term struggle for dignified lives of women with disabilities.
Social centre October, Belgrade
For almost seven years, Social centre October has been an activist space subsisting on principles of self-sustainability and solidarity, with the donations from the visitors. Politically essential meeting point of leftist, feminist, green and other progressive ideas, the space through diverse steady activities connects different groups and individuals, hosts activists from all over the country and abroad, collaborates with groups through solidarity actions, exists as the starting point of many initiatives and protests. The state of the emergency has left this space without any income, and since there were no visitors, donations became scarce as well and the assets for covering some of the essential expenses lacked, which is why RWF has supported them.
COVID-19 crisis imposes a serious challenge for the functioning of the activist spaces that are mainly self-sustainable and solidarity-based, and it highlights the importance of preserving progressive spots. COVID-19 crisis is also an opportunity for transforming progressive ideas, improving them, creating new solidarity and practical narratives which will also have to have their physical home after the crisis.
October’s mascot, Moćko the cat, endured the pandemic pretty well; he had some nice rest from the people (he wouldn’t admit that he missed them a bit as well); October is still his empire, and the October collective keeps on visiting and taking care of him. He hopes the circumstances will be better soon and he will soon again be able to attend the round tables, film screenings, board games evenings, lectures, parties, jumping into random laps and expressing all of his feline love and rebellion.
Some of the groups we support have adjusted their activities to directly and timely respond to the needs of their communities, using the assets from our support alongside support assets from other donors.
SOS Centre for women and children violence survivors from Vlasotince, which we support through General support, has organized a field action of distributing packages for marginalized women in their environment.
“SOS Vlasotince in action caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which has left and is leaving a significant trace on women. The smile is gone from their faces, they are, as they say, forgotten by everyone, alone, hungry, sad, scared, tired, depressed, scared, abandoned. Our visit and giving were enabled by our friends Reconstruction Women’s Fund and UN Women.”
From the Facebook page of SOS Centre for women and children Vlasotince
SOS Women’s Centre from Novi Sad, another organization we support through the General Support program, has intensified its activities during but also after the state of emergency, carefully following the rising numbers of cases of violence against women. They have organized a crisis action team and, alongside other members, adjusted their needs to better respond to the newly emerged needs of their users, and those needs are doubled compared to the same period last year. The availability of phone support is expanded, online support was available 24h, legal support was organized to be aligned with the precautionary measures, the mediation service was organized, as well as support for the youth, and it was noted that during the COVID-19 crisis, the violence against people younger than 25 has risen. During the state of the emergency, the organization conducted additional activities following and supporting their core work. All the activities were documented in detail with the goal of knowledge exchange and remembering women’s struggles, which certainly has an additional value in the extraordinary circumstances.
The organization has also joined the campaign “Hang the poster. Save a life” initiated by the IRIDA organization, through which, in collaboration with local cafes, shops and other businesses, as well as with other interested parties, organizations highlight posters in visible spots to inform women in risk of violence about who to address.
In June, at the moment when it seemed like the pandemic is dying down, and the measures were loosened, we have managed to conduct the regular grant round for our Special Focus Program, awarding 9 grants. Learning from the previous months, we have adjusted the call to include the question about alternative ways of conducting activities in case of health risks.
We are getting contradictory information about the pandemic again and there is a large dose of uncertainty regarding the future precautionary measures, eventual restrictions, and even the real numbers of the infected. One thing is, however, certain – it seems that, like in previous crises, the marginalized will be pushed to even further margins, having their basic rights denied and being put in the positions dependent on solidarity actions of self-organized groups/civil society. Solidarity, safety and good communication about the grassroots needs remain our main principles in further work and dealing with the crisis, with a particular accent on the most urgent needs.
We are immensely thankful to our partner organizations with which we are in a continuous touch, mainly for the precious information and devotion, solidarity and open collaboration. We are also thankful to donors who support us for years and enable us assets for providing support to our partner organizations, which were flexible enough to adjust the newly emerged needs without major changes in our mechanisms of work.