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EU COVID-19 Solidarity Programme: A Success Story

20 April 2021

On October 30, 2020 the Netherlands Helsinki Committee launched an open regional Call for Proposals to “Supply Equipment to Counter Effects of the COVID-19 in Closed Institutions” for civil society organisations (CSOs) in Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, within scope of EU funded “EU Covid-19 Solidarity Programme for Eastern Partnership 2020-2022.” This programme aims to support CSOs in their response to the immediate and longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and is part of a broader set of activities carried out by a consortium with People in Need and AFEW International.

Persons living in closed institutions (both prisons, other facilities in the criminal justice chain and places of confinement of persons with a mental health problem) are included in the vulnerable groups covered in this programme. Persons living in these institutions in the target countries have been struggling to adapt to the new environment with extreme reduction of interaction, (discontinuation of) health care and (lack of) contact with lawyers, loved ones and the transition to online/remote management and mobilisation. To address these challenges, the NHC, in cooperation with Human Rights in Mental Health (Federation Global Initiative in Psychiatry, FGIP), provides sub-grants to CSOs to supply the necessary personal protective and IT equipment for closed institutions.

One of the five Georgian sub-grant winners (please see the list of all sub-grantees here) is a consortium led by the Georgian Association of Women in Business (GAWB) and including two other organisations (Penal Reform International and the Georgian Professional Psychologists’ Association). The project targets three penitentiary institutions and aims to provide assistance to around 2500 beneficiaries, building upon the joint work undertaken in previous projects focused on supporting the rehabilitation and re-integration of female prisoners in Georgia. What is unique about this project is that protective face masks are being hand sewn by a small social enterprise that employs 10 female ex-prisoners. The face masks are sewn in accordance with the required safety regulations (licensed by the National Centre for Disease Control & Public Health), and have proven to be very popular with various organisations in Georgia, such as the EU Delegation, UNDP, IWA, and others. During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the GAWB led social enterprise made and donated over 300 face masks to the women’s prison and 1000 face masks to socially vulnerable groups in rural areas of Georgia (along the administrative borderline with conflict-affected zones).

Nino Elizbarashvili (seen on the right in the photo above), team leader of this project and is the founder and President of the Georgian Association of Women in Business, highlights the importance of their project within the scope of the COVID-19 Solidarity Programme:

The biggest outcome of the project will be the reduction of COVID- 19 related social problems in Georgia’s prisons, as well as the increased protection and safety of most prisoners from the infection and diminished negative impact of COVID-19. During the pandemic, those imprisoned are particularly vulnerable due to their limited rights. As we involve former female prisoners in our activities, we expect the project will contribute to the mitigation of their social problems.

Elizbarashvili went on to describe how the focus of the project turned to the production of face masks:

“As you know, the onset of the pandemic created a difficult situation in all countries, including Georgia. At the time face masks were sparse, and our organisation decided to help out by making reusable face masks as part of our social enterprise activities, where we work with former female prisoners. We started out by creating samples of face masks with a protective filter. They were sent for licensing to the health laboratory, and through them we obtained permission to use and distribute the face masks. Initially, the association donated reusable face masks in a women’s prison, and then, with the help of donor organisations, purchased necessary materials and made donations to vulnerable groups living in border conflict zones (elderly people, single mothers and mothers with many children, as well as low-income families).

Elizbarashvili also reflected on the biggest challenges faced in the past year, and accomplishments she is most proud of:

“The current crisis triggered by the pandemic has greatly affected the development of our organisation and poses a tremendous risk to the development of female entrepreneurship. As institutions were closed, it was difficult for us to work with our members, and we looked at trying to revise our business model to the new realities. GAWB developed a communication strategy, which focused primarily on the most vulnerable groups, and provided information campaigns that aided in preventing fear and panic among the population (including poor and marginalised groups).

GAWB is proud to have provided assistance to vulnerable groups in their hour of need. Key support has been provided both on the advocacy and practical side, ensuring the protection of persons living in closed institutions, providing hygienic services alongside a donation of protective materials. GAWB’s support of vulnerable groups has been realised through the assistance or provision of food, shelter, medicine, psychological support, educational support and necessary information. We have significantly increased remote work and delivery of online services, including in rural areas.

In particular, we are proud to have provided special assistance to the most vulnerable segments of the population during this pandemic, former homeless female prisoners living in the association’s shelter, local people living in the highlands and border regions (‘Shida kartli’ and ‘Mtsketa-Mtianeti’) and small female entrepreneurs in these regions (including female prisoners).

When asked how she hoped this project would develop in the coming year, Elizbarashvili responded:

“If the virus remains active in this country, it will be very important to continue this project, as one-time aid is not enough. I also consider it necessary to help prisoners in all prisons, especially the elderly and vulnerable prisoners, so that they can enjoy the same quality and standard of healthcare that is available to the rest of the population outside of closed institutions, without discrimination. It is also important in these hard times to restore online educational programs, psychological and vocational training programs in prisons, and to develop a special methodology that will help relieve the stress, in a positive way, for both prisoners and staff.

GAWB will continue to be essential in mitigating the effects of the pandemic on a long term basis and will require support to ensure the continuity of these key support activities to mitigate the economic, social, and health consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.

The NHC as a partner

Finally, Elizbarashvili reflected on GAWB’s collaboration with the NHC on this project:

“Our collaboration is critical in achieving lasting policy changes surrounding complex issues that have arisen due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to influence longer-term policy reforms. The NHC is a particularly valuable partner, as the relationship we build with NHC allows us to leverage resources and extend our reach, including  knowledge, skills and capacities to nurture the capacity of marginalised groups and to widen the impact of our work. The financial support of NHC is also one of the most important assets we have.

Working with NHC, we can achieve far more than we could achieve alone in responding effectively to COVID-19 and in supporting prisoners affected by the pandemic.

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.