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Brutal murders of women in Western Balkan countries raise alarm and expose system flaws

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Brutal murders of women in Western Balkan countries raise alarm and expose system flaws

A 26-year-old woman, who did not want to give her name for security reasons, looks out the window at a women’s safe house in Belgrade, Serbia, November 23, 2023. She said her partner had repeatedly raped, beaten, and strangled, and kept her and the baby locked in their apartment for hours. Across the Western Balkans, women are harassed, raped, beaten and killed, often by their partners and after repeatedly reporting the violence to authorities. (Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo)

In Bosnia, a man killed his wife and broadcast the murder live on Instagram. In neighboring Serbia, 27 women have been killed this year in sexist attacks, despite efforts to raise awareness and reverse the trend. Kosovo activists say violence against women constitutes a ‘national emergency’.

Across the Western Balkans, women are harassed, raped, beaten and killed, often by their partners and after repeatedly reporting the violence to authorities. The region is staunchly conservative, with a centuries-old tradition of male dominance, but the problem has grown in the wake of wars in the 1990s and the political, economic and social crises that have persisted since the conflicts ended.

In response, women’s groups in the region organized protests to draw public attention and demand action. They set up helplines and shelters for women. But activists criticize authorities for not acting more decisively to protect women and counter the culture of impunity.

The public in Bosnia and the wider region were brutally shaken by reality in August, when a woman in the northeastern Bosnian town of Gradacac was shot in the head by her former partner, in a live video on Instagram.

The murder was “so horrible and so tragic” that it was an “eye-opener”, said Jadranka Milicevic of the band Cure (Girls).

In the Western Balkans, most countries have adopted laws and regulations to combat violence against women, but their implementation remains inconsistent, activists say.

Bosnia, for example, was among the first countries to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women, but the problem has only worsened since then, said Milicevic.

“Violence against women and domestic violence is a global phenomenon. They exist everywhere, but it is the state’s response to violence that is the key issue,” said Vanja Macanovic, from the Autonomous Women’s Center of Serbia. “Unfortunately, what we see here (in the Balkans) is that violence is approved. This is a pattern of behavior that is not sufficiently condemned in public.”

“We have signed all relevant declarations, resolutions and international conventions, but their implementation is questionable,” Milicevic said. “Too many people still perceive (domestic) violence as a private issue, a private matter between two people. They don’t understand that this is a social problem.

Observers cite Bosnia’s lenient sentences for violence and murders of women as one of the main problems. A 2022 report by GREVIO, an expert body monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, said such judicial practices fuel a “sense of impunity” strongly felt by both perpetrators and their victims.

Only once has a murderer been sentenced to the maximum 40 years in prison in a case in which a woman was the victim, Milicevic said. A total of 65 women have been killed in the past decade and five have survived murder attempts in this country of 3.3 million people, according to local data.

The situation is similar in Kosovo, another highly patriarchal and masculine Balkan society. There, the rape last year of an 11-year-old girl by five attackers sparked street protests demanding women’s safety, which led to the resignation of the police chief.

But protesters took to the streets again later in 2022, angered by two killings in the capital Pristina. A 63-year-old geography teacher was killed by her axe-wielding husband, while a pregnant woman was found outside a hospital by her husband, who killed her as she waited to be discharged. give birth.

Serbian activist Macanovic believes that part of the problem is that “institutions are not held accountable” and that there are no consequences for errors in the processing of files. This discourages women from turning to state assistance, particularly in small communities, she added.

“We do not have a well-structured system of accountability for each professional in the event of wrongful action, or rather lack of action,” she said. It is rare for police, social services, prosecutors or court officials to be held accountable if mistakes are made and a woman is subsequently killed.

Faced with a surge in violence and killings of women, Serbia in 2017 began implementing a special law aimed at deepening cooperation between agencies, taking immediate action against attackers and creating task forces on violence prevention.

Serbian Minister for Human and Minority Rights Tomislav Zigmanov pledged more efforts at a recent meeting in the capital Belgrade, marking a global campaign to combat violence against women. Zigmanov called for cooperation with grassroots organizations to prevent violence and monitor the criminal process.

“We must also count on civic organizations as partners in creating a tolerant society of mutual respect and understanding,” he said.

In Kosovo, the Justice Ministry sends text messages warning of violence and urging women to report attacks. Senior local officials have publicly called for harsher penalties for perpetrators and criticized past practices.

“We need the entire justice system to prioritize cases of violence against girls and women,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti said Tuesday at a conference titled “United Against Violence – Enough is Enough ! Kurti cited “cases where criminals are released and crimes repeat themselves even worse than the first time.”

Bosnia also passed a law on preventing domestic violence several years ago and authorities have promised to do more. But in societies that have lived through wars, where economies and institutions have collapsed and where ethnic, political and social divisions are often fueled by authorities rather than countered, legal changes alone are not enough, say the experts.

Violence has persisted and will continue, says Vesna Stanojevic, who runs a chain of women’s shelters in Serbia. “Sometimes we receive women who are beaten so badly that they can no longer walk or move their heads, who arrived after being in the hospital, who are about to give birth, who have wounds on their stomachs “, she said.

“Where did they (the attackers) learn this? Who are role models for our children? ” she asked. “We should be educating and we (the companies) are obviously not doing that.”

Currently, more than 40 women and children are staying in the shelters run by her organization, she said. “In my 32 years of work, I have not seen the violence decrease… Sometimes there is more, sometimes less, but in general it is still there.”

At one of the shelters, a 26-year-old woman said in an interview that she decided to leave her partner when she noticed bruises on their baby as well. The woman, who did not want to give her name for safety reasons, said her partner repeatedly raped her, beat and strangled her, and kept her and the baby locked in their apartment. for hours.

When she was released, the woman ended up in hospital with chest injuries and bruises. The man is now detained. “The last (shot) was really bad,” she said. “I knew that if this happened again, neither me nor the baby would stay alive. » (PA)

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