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Serbia: At Home with Violence

An uptick in domestic violence statistics has officials promising to get serious about a very old problem.

by Uffe Andersen 20 February 2014

BELGRADE | Snezana, 33, sits downcast in a taxi heading down one of Belgrade’s boulevards.

 

“I’m so ashamed to find myself in this situation,” she says.

 

“Don’t say that,” the taxi driver interjects. “I’m ashamed, being a man. Because I assume a man is the reason you’re here?”

 

A man – specifically, Snezana’s husband – is indeed responsible for this awkward encounter between two strangers.

 

Snezana – not her real name – is one of rising number of Serbians who experience domestic violence each year. Social services offices recorded 9,325 victims in 2012, nearly triple the number from 2006. 

 

The only option for many is to escape to one of about a dozen safe houses established across the country since 2000. Victims of violence, most of them women, can live in such centers with their children for up to six months free of charge, and also get legal help. Without pressure from husband and family, they can decide what to do next: return to the partner (around 15 percent do); seek a court order to force the abuser out of the house (in 2012, one-third succeeded); or go and live on their own, somehow.

 

Since 2000, around 3,700 women and children have stayed in Belgrade’s three safe houses, which can accommodate a combined 75 people at any one time. On average, every woman brings one child – and next to Snezana in the taxi sits Jelena, not yet 2 years old and apparently more curious than bothered.

 

Their huge bag, overflowing with hastily packed necessities, doesn’t close. On arrival at the house on the city’s outskirts, it’s carried inside while Snezana takes a seat, Jelena in her lap, at a table in a living-dining area before being shown her own room.

 

Only two staff are present – apart from the round-the-clock security – and they chat easily with Snezana. Formalities had been taken care of in the downtown office where Snezana first turned up.

 

Belgrade’s safe houses had their start at that office, which in 1996 started a counseling telephone line, Savetovaliste. Its popularity showed the need for transitional housing.

 

According to an extensive 2010 report by Belgrade think tank SeConS, 37.5 percent of women in Serbia had been exposed to domestic violence in the previous year, and 54.2 percent in their lifetime.

 

Those who work in the field say the sharp hike in recorded cases from 2006 to 2012 represents not an increase in actual violence but rather victims’ increasing willingness to report abuse as the topic gets more media coverage.

 

But there is one uptick that is not down to reporting. In 2013, either 43 or 46 women died as a result of violence in the home – accounts vary, as no government agency keeps comprehensive statistics on domestic violence victims. That is up from either 29 or 32 – again, not all monitoring organizations agree – in 2012. 

 

“If we knew why, we’d know how to stop the trend,” said Vesna Stanojevic, manager of Savetovaliste. She reeled off a list of factors, among them poverty, unemployment, and “the many changes that follow the political ones.” Serbia’s jobless rate stands at just under 30 percent and according to the latest World Bank figures, from 2010, about 9 percent live in poverty.

 

“To those who are disappointed and troubled, and have had enough of it all, the easiest [response] is to let out frustrations through violence against the weaker female partner,” Stanojevic said.

 

In the last couple of years, many men who killed their partners have then committed suicide. That largely accounts for the 31 men who died in family-related violence last year, Stanojevic said, although in 2012, 1,262 women were registered as perpetrators.

 

Thus, “domestic violence” predominantly means violence by men against women, which Stanojevic said has long been seen as acceptable in Serbia – like most Balkan countries, a patriarchal society. “Men decide about everything – including which rights should be allotted to women,” she said.

 

Vedrana Lacmanovic of the Autonomous Women’s Center (AWC), a feminist organization, attributed the uptick in what she called “femicide” to a variety of factors: “retraditionalization” of Serbian society, the influence of religion and nationalism, the economic crisis, the inability of the country’s institutions to fight the problem, and an embrace of outmoded values in education and the media.

 

Male dominance is blatant in official bodies, where women aren’t even present at the level of quotas stipulated by law, Stanojevic said. Underrepresentation has prevailed for so long that women find it normal to keep quiet, even in the face of violence, she said.

 

For her part, Snezana said, “I kept quiet and stood it to be able to stay in that marriage.”  

 

Snezana had known Srdjan (not her husband’s real name) since she was 16, but she said their problems didn’t start until they married in their early 20s. Her mother-in-law began intruding on her life, Snezana said – starting quarrels, going unashamedly through her things, “psychologically abusing” her.

 

When Srdjan refused to confront his mother about this behavior, Snezana did it herself, which made things worse in the already tense household. “Whenever there was the slightest problem, most probably it would end in beatings, threats, and psychological abuse,” she said.

 

Snezana has no parents herself and had fled twice before, living for a couple of days with an aunt, then with a female friend. Thanks to her job at a television station, and with her husband also working, the family is middle class.

 

That jibes with Stanojevic’s experience. She dismisses the widespread perception that domestic violence afflicts mainly the working class or poor.

 

“The university professor, the pop star, and the construction worker – all can be violent,” Stanojevic said. The root of domestic violence lies “in people who have grown up witnessing their father being violent, like their grandfather before him.” The sons of those families are more likely to become abusers, she said, and the daughters more likely to choose violent partners.

 

A KNIFE TO THE THROAT

 

Snezana said she decided to leave when it became clear that Srdjan might make good on his threat to “break my bones” and kill her or himself.

 

When she came home one day, the previous day’s argument started up again. “He gripped me around my neck, telling me he’d slaughter me, holding a knife to my throat,” Snezana said.

 

When she had fled previously, she returned at the pleading of her 11-year-old son. This time, however, “I told him that he cannot decide about my life, and that I just couldn’t go on.” Snezana was not sure what her son, who was in school at the time, would choose to do as she left this third time.

 

It took her a decade to get this far, and she’s determined not to go back. She will soon start searching for an apartment. That sets her apart from the legions of women who depend financially on their abusive partners.

 

“These women must be given employment so they become economically independent and don’t have to return to the bully,” said Stana Bozovic, secretary of state for gender equality issues at the Labor, Employment, and Social Policies Ministry, on a January visit to a Belgrade safe house.

 

But Bozovic, who also presides over the government’s advisory Gender Equality Council, didn’t say how that would happen in a country haunted by joblessness. Employment centers typically do not put victims of domestic violence at the front of the line. Single-parent households, which are usually headed by women, are the family groups second most likely to live in poverty in Serbia, after large families.

 

It is partly for financial reasons that some judges justify freeing abusers. Most are immediately released, given a suspended sentence, or fined, as their income supports the family, Stanojevic said.

 

A significant proportion of the women killed in their homes last year had complained to the police or social workers about abuse in the family: media reports put it at one-half, while a network of aid and shelter organizations puts it at one-third. But the lesson is the same, Stanojevic said: “The murders could have been avoided if the authorities’ reaction had been adequate.”

 

Serbia’s deputy ombudsman recently criticized judges for their lenience with abusers, and other efforts are afoot to change the way the system deals with them. In December, Serbia’s parliament approved the country’s entry into the so-called Istanbul Convention, an initiative by human rights watchdog the Council of Europe to make combating violence against women the responsibility of national governments.

 

Living up to the convention requires “improving institutions, laws, procedures, and measures taken,” Bozovic wrote in an email. She said public employees would be held accountable for how they handle abuse cases.

 

“We expect less violence, as well as better treatment of victims,” she wrote.

 

Lacmanovic of the AWC said the convention, if implemented, could “lead to far-reaching changes on the road to real gender equality and prevention of violence against women.”

 

But that’s a big “if,” she said, as reforms remain only on paper and civil servants face no consequences for not enforcing the law. Lacmanovic said the fate of any case depends too much on which bureaucrat happens to deal with it.

 

To better train judges, Bozovic said a judicial training academy, established in 2010 to help reform the bench, has made domestic violence part of its curriculum.

 

Stanojevic said that while attitudes about domestic violence have changed since she started helping victims in 1992, getting politicians and the judicial system to get serious about it has been an uphill struggle.

 

“If you mentioned that some woman was the victim of domestic violence, the first comment would be, ‘And so what?’ and the next, ‘She probably deserved it,’ ” Stanojevic said. “Things have changed just so much that a beating is no longer something that can be deserved.”

 

On the other hand, while laws have come into force – including one from 2006 making domestic violence a criminal offense – their impact is limited by lax enforcement.

 

“So, yes, much has changed, but not so much that we now have institutions that react adequately,” Stanojevic said. “Women and children still live [at the safe house] for months while the justice system does nothing, and the bully sits in the family home without feeling any kind of consequences for what he’s done.”

Uffe Andersen is a journalist in Smederevo, Serbia. Home page photo by Milica Gvozdenovic.

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