AUSTRIA: ‘Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality’

CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender-based violence (GBV) in Austria with Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal of the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls.

The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at improving women’s and girls’ lives through the development of training programmes, the provision of free counselling and campaigning and advocating for women’s concerns to be addressed by public policies.

Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal

How did the work of the Network change under the pandemic?

The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is an umbrella organisation encompassing 59 counselling centres all over Austria. We build our internal network by organising training activities, exchange and communication among counselling centres. We represent the concerns of our member organisations externally and are therefore in constant contact with funding bodies, politicians, the media and the public. We advocate for a society in which all human beings, and particularly women and girls, can lead a free and safe life.

The Network and all its counselling centres have no affiliation with any political party or religion. Our member organisations provide various forms of support, from career guidance, training and reintegration to work after parental leave, guidance regarding employment laws and residence status, to partnership and support on child-rearing issues, divorce and custody, physical and mental health issues, all the way to violence in all of its forms.

The pandemic had a major effect on our work, particularly at the beginning, when uncertainty was highest and the availability and accessibility of counselling was very limited. Many women and girls were unsure where to seek advice. Counselling centres tried to react to this as quickly as possible, for example by offering counselling online, but also by actively contacting women and girls who had registered with them earlier to ask how they were doing and whether they needed anything.

As in many other areas, counselling embraced new technologies during the pandemic. However, some women and girls didn’t have – and still don’t have – the equipment or skills to access these opportunities. At the same time, some organisations have told us that there are women and girls who find it easier to ask for advice or help in an online setting. And women who live in rural areas, far from the next counselling centre, found access to counselling easier via phone or email. The ways the pandemic impacted on our work cannot be summarised so easily, because its effects were multifaceted.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Austria, and how has civil society reacted to this?

Studies have shown that all types of violence against women and girls intensified during the pandemic. Political measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 affected women and girls in specific ways: financial worries, movement restrictions, often cramped living conditions and – in cases of domestic violence – isolation in close quarters with abusers all made the situation especially dire for many women and girls.

It is important to note that the pandemic has also affected many people’s psychological health. Only the future will show the pandemic’s long-term effects on a social level. Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality.

What is key for achieving equality and social justice is an active civil society. Civil society gives a public voice to those who are often not heard. During the pandemic, CSOs have pointed out how the crisis affected the most vulnerable groups in society. They have continued to offer advice and support to those who need it and have developed new offers to address pandemic-induced economic and psychological stress.

Counselling centres for women and girls play a special role in protection from GBV. We can recognise violence early on and in cases where it is hidden behind other problems. Even – and especially – in times of crisis such as this, counselling centres are crucial contact points for women and girls.

CSOs have always been key figures in advocating for gender and social equality in Austria, and will certainly continue to do it in the aftermath of the pandemic.

What should the Austrian government do to curb GBV?

Austria ratified the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – in 2013. Since then, its implementation has been evaluated by the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). In its evaluation report, GREVIO has included many CSO demands. Full implementation of the Istanbul Convention would be a milestone in the elimination of GBV.

One of the most important political steps would be an increase in funding for CSOs working in the field. Due to the ongoing crisis and the increased need for advice, women’s and girls’ counselling centres need more support. There is often no long-term funding that can ensure CSO sustainability, only project-based funding. This does not allow for long-term actions and makes planning difficult.

Furthermore, the knowhow and wide experience of women’s CSOs should be considered and included to a higher degree when it comes to policy-making at the national and regional levels. The government should make use of and rely on the expertise of women’s organisations and the long-existing services they built when planning new measures or setting up new institutions.

Further research on the specific situation of young women and girls should be conducted so that their needs are taken into consideration when new measures are designed.

The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls works 365 days a year to create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination, by offering counselling for women and girls in difficult situations; by making sexism, gender stereotypes and GBV a political issue; by advocating for women’s and girls’ rights on a daily basis; by developing training programmes, quality standards and working documents; by connecting feminist CSOs and by positioning ourselves as experts for the issue of gender equality. Our aim is to improve the living conditions of all women and girls living in Austria.

Due to the pandemic, we have not organised an event on 8 March, but some of our member organisations have planned events and we are joining the International Women’s Day protest in Vienna.

Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls through its website of Facebook page, and follow it on Instagram.