Finding safety, connection, and empowerment during COVID-19 times is like finding a second home
In Palermo, Sicily, one mother transformed the challenges she faced into support for others
"When I think about the needs of mothers and other women, I am always guided by listening, by my professional experience, and also by my personal history.”
Deborah is a 43-year-old mother of four, and lives in Palermo, Sicily. She works as a linguistic and cultural mediator in the Women and Girls’ Safe Space (WGSS) managed by UNICEF’s NGO partner, Centro Penc.
Reflecting on when she came to Italy from Nigeria 20 years ago, Deborah said, “Every time we start a new journey in life, we are always confronted with many challenges and we learn from them. If we share these experiences, we can create a precious resource for someone else.”
“When I first arrived, I was feeling generally okay as a stay-at-home mother and wife, but I missed having a community around me,” Deborah remembered. “It's not that easy to settle in a new country. At the beginning, not fully understanding a new language can isolate you. You don't know how to deal with official documents, and you are not always aware about new opportunities around you.”
Deborah thought about when things started to shift for her. “When I met and talked to new people I got to know more of the world outside. I suddenly realized my Italian wasn’t as good as I had thought, and I decided I wanted to improve.”
Deborah knew that better fluency of Italian would make it easier for her to access services, and to get information about opportunities that her new country offered.
At the WGSS, Deborah is among people with whom she has a lot in common. She said, “We can be mothers, wives, or migrants. But first and foremost, we are women. As women, we have the right to be protected and to have the freedom to choose, among all possible paths, which one is right for us.”
For many women and girls, whether from Italy or recently arrived, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the sense of isolation that Deborah remembers. However, prolonged confinement under increasing uncertainty and stress, has made women and girls more at risk to violence. This extreme vulnerability is something that many migrant and refugee women know all too well. Gender-based violence can be an ever-present threat that defines their entire journey from their country of origin, to wherever they transited, and finally to their new country.
The idea of the WGSS started to take shape around 10 months ago, during a simple chat between Deborah and Maria Chiara Monti, who works as an ethno-psychologist and psychotherapist at Centro Penc. Today, the WGSS, supported by UNICEF, welcomes women, girls, and their children. The WGSS offers them opportunities to socialize, meet new people, and get support from specialized staff. Deborah was among the first WGSS frontline workers trained by UNICEF in linguistic and cultural mediation. She now provides a range of support to women and girls, including to survivors of gender-based violence.
"As soon as the WGSS opened, we started building a programme together with the women and girls who came,” said Deborah. “Thinking back about the challenges I faced in my life has helped me to realize that the first obstacle to overcome is the disconnect we experience when we do not feel we are part of something—this is what it feels like if we stay at home and never go out.”
“When you decide to be proactive and actively participate, only then will you find the courage to open up,” concluded Deborah.
Through word of mouth, the WGSS project took root and grew. The daily attendance now reaches 15 to 20 women and girls, mostly mothers between 15 and 40 years old, accompanied by their children. Children have an area where they can safely play while mothers participate in recreational activities and strengthen their personal skills.
Very quickly, the WGSS activity calendar began filling up with a range of new activities that responded to the needs and aspirations of everyone who came. Participants can get legal advice, access to health services, counselling on finding a job, learn Italian, take a vocational class, play a sport, or make art. During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone complies with safety and preventive measures.
The objectives of the WGSS are based of international guidelines recognized by a worldwide network of organizations using this model to promote women and girls’ empowerment, facilitate the disclosure of violence, and support access to services.
Although the WGSS was originally envisioned as a place mainly for migrant and refugee women and girls, the doors are open to women and girls who find themselves in risky situations or who simply need a support network. For Deborah and Maria Chiara, the hope is to reach more vulnerable women and girls – or as they put it, “To help our neighbors, whether they are Italian or foreign.”
Deborah and Maria Chiara agreed, “The WGSS was designed to be a second home for anyone who needs one. When these mothers tell us that they feel at home, and that they feel comfortable here, we know we met our main goal”.
The Women and Girls’ Safe Space was created in July 2020 with the support of UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). UNICEF supports the Women and Girls’ Safe Space within the framework of "Action Against Gender Violence Affecting Women and Children Refugees and Migrants in Greece, Italy, Serbia and Bulgaria", a programme implemented with the generous contribution of the Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration (BPRM) of the United States Department of State.