Campaign on the rights of woman survivors of violence and their children to access support and protection 

Backlash in Providing Assistance and Support to Victims in Estonia

The WAVE Network in frame of the WAVE Step Up! Campaign, drafted, in cooperation with an Estonian member organisation, an open letter to the Estonian Government and members of Parliament, to express the concern for the 2017 state budget allocations for women’s shelters, which had been cut extensively compared to previous year. Therefore, the Estonian government was called upon to allocate the missing funding, to ensure the women shelters remain and are allocated appropriate funding. On the 18 January 2017, WAVE received a positive response from the Estonian Government.

However, the Estonian government failed to allocate additional funding for 2017 to keep the service provision to abused women in women’s support centres at the adequate level that existed previously.

The reply which Ms Helmen Kütt, Social Democratic Party, chair of the Social Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu (the Estonian parliament) sent to the WAVE appeal of 15 December ignores the acuteness of the problem and provides a false picture of the real situation. As such it is a clear indication of the government’s overall attitude toward violence against women. Minister Jevgeni Ossinovski, leader of the Social Democratic Party, claimed in a TV talk show: “We have made use of foreign donor money; we have provided a broader spectrum of services than prescribed by law. Now that the government has taken over the service provision, we see that some have benefited and some have not because we move in the direction of harmonising the service. There is no way, however, that the quality of the service will be compromised.”

The reality, however, is that as of 1 January 2017 seven women’s organisations that in 2016 provided a full range of services for abused women and their children in nine counties (out of the total of 15), discontinued the service and closed women’s shelters because a cheaper service provider was found for the county by way of procurement. Closed were Järva County Women’s Support Centre (WSC), Lääne County WSC together with its Hiiu County branch; Rapla County WSC, Viljandi County WSC, Viru County WSC, WSC, Võru County WSC alongside with its Põlva County branch and Tallinn WSC, managed by the Estonian Women’s Shelters’ Union.

From now onwards, in four counties the service will be provided by the NGO Eluliin (Lifeline), which has so far been focused on working with prostitutes, drug addicts and victims of human trafficking and provided general psychological crisis counselling. In one of the counties, the contract was awarded to a business entity rendering services for the homeless. In three counties, a cheaper service is provided by a WSC from another county. Only two WSCs in counties with smaller populations could continue providing the full service due to the failure to find a cheaper service provider; this concerns Valga and Jõgeva WSCs.

How it all happened

In 2013-2016, thanks to the Norway Grants programme “Domestic and gender-based violence” complex services for victims of VAW were developed for WSCs. The latter included - on top of initial emergency crisis counselling, case-based counselling and temporary accommodation – also legal and psychological counselling by specially trained experienced professionals. Following the service description developed under the Norway Grant project, such complex services were expressly mentioned in the Victim Support Act, which was adopted by the Riigikogu in October 2016. The 2017 state budget envisaged for these services 620 000 euros – in excess of 100 000 euros less than state budget allocations for the support centres in 2016.

In November 2016, the Social Insurance Board announced a public tender to find providers of WSC centre services. Compared with 2016 funds allocated by the Ministry of Social Affairs for rendering the service, the maximum contract amounts had decreased in ten regions, including by 45% in Jõgeva County, by 43% in Järva County, by 58% in Lääne County (together with Hiiu County), by 25% in Lääne Viru County, by 44% in Valga County, by 44% in Võru County. The upper limit had grown in four regions, primarily in regions with bigger populations like Harju County and Ida-Viru County. Such a distribution meant that in counties with smaller populations WSCs are in 2017 not capable of providing legal and psychological counselling and a support centre can employ only one member of staff paid the national average salary at which she/he has to guarantee 24/7 availability of service.

During the public procurement process, the requirements for service providers were weakened whereat training on violence against women was made equal to training on human trafficking.The Social Insurance Board managed to find service providers offering a cheaper service for the majority of counties to replace the previously existing providers. The total value of the contracts awarded reached 641,000 euros (instead of the intended 620,000) which yet means 84,000 less than in 2016. The most drastic cuts concerned counties with smaller populations where abused women have practically no other option to access help. The availability and quality of the service varies drastically across the counties.

Reduced funding and thoughtless distribution of existing funds, treating assistance to abused women business as usual, procuring services as cheap as possible have in 2017 irreversibly destroyed the previously existing well-established and well-functioning system of WSC in Estonia.

Estonia are lacking behind many years in terms of the quality of services for abused women. Furthermore, the efforts made under the Norway Grant project in harmonising the services and improving their quality have consequently proved useless. Terminating the activities of the previously existing WSCs means loss of competence and experience of nearly 40 professionals and volunteers with specialist training in the field of violence against women. The women’s organisations in Estonia have lost trust in their government. The trust and cooperation between organisations is gone and they have turned into competing businesses on the market. Additionally, women’s organisations have lost trust in networking and the client’s trust in the system of support centres, is also gone.

The solution, in the opinion of the Estonian Women’s Shelters Union, would be taking a decisive step ahead – turning WSCs’ services into a public service and putting an end to buying cheap service with dubious quality on the market via public tendering.

The Social Insurance Board should hire for every county apart from a victim support worker professional(s), lawyers and psychologists or psycho-therapists providing services to victims of violence against women. These people should have specialised in providing assistance to victims of violence against women and should have undergone extensive training in the field.And further, adequate sums should be allocated in the state budget for next year given that the 2018 budgeting process is already starting.

The focus of 2017 activities is to demand that the government make the proposed changes, which is something WAVE supports.