Heartbreaking: Serbia domestic

Violence and sexual assault have long been considered taboo topics in the Balkan country, where many women are under pressure to remain silent about the scourge. Photo: AFP

Heartbreaking: Serbia domestic abuse victims face unhelpful state

After her boyfriend repeatedly beat her, Marija reached out for help from the authorities. But like many other women in Serbia, she soon lost hope in a system unable to protect her.

Heartbreaking: Serbia domestic

Violence and sexual assault have long been considered taboo topics in the Balkan country, where many women are under pressure to remain silent about the scourge. Photo: AFP

Violence and sexual assault have long been considered taboo topics in the Balkan country, where many women are under pressure to remain silent about the scourge.

Those brave enough to speak up are often met with a bureaucratic minefield, a flawed judiciary and ineffective protection mechanisms, which all discourage other victims from raising their voice too.

It was two years ago when Marija first got in touch with the authorities after an assault by her then boyfriend.

“He hit me while I was on the ground,” said Marija, whose surname has been withheld to protect her identity.

“I was afraid of what he would do next,” she told AFP.

The son of Merita Doci, shows a picture of his mother the day she was beaten by her husband in their home in the town of Fushe-Kruje on 10 September, 2017. Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which falls on 25 November, 2017, activists warn that the scourge of domestic abuse remains deep-seated across the Balkans – and that not enough is being done to stop it. In Albania, police recorded nearly 3,000 cases of domestic violence and issued 1,643 protection orders across the population of 2.8 million between January and September. Photo: GENT SHKULLAKU / AFP

Having little fear of the law, her partner waited with Marija for the police. At the station, the officers asked the boyfriend to drive her home after filing a report.

The police then referred them to a social services centre, where Marija was asked to consider reconciling with her partner, despite his violent behaviour.

“That’s when I gave up,” said Marija, who was later again assaulted by the same man, even after authorities issued a one-month restraining order.

‘TRY TO FORGET’ 

Marija was just one of thousands of women who helped unleash a groundswell of anger on social media in December under the hashtag #NisamPrijavila, or “I Did Not Report”.

The outpouring online came after another woman, Nina Stojakovic, publicly accused the police of ignoring her sister after she reported her boyfriend — Uros “Numero” Radivojevic, a famous rapper in Serbia — had assaulted her.

“They told her to go home and try to forget,” Stojakovic told AFP.

Merita Doci, 49 shows the blood-stained clothes she was wearing the day she was beaten by her husband in her home in the town of Fushe-Kruje on September 10, 2017. Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which falls on November 25, 2017, activists warn that the scourge of domestic abuse remains deep-seated across the Balkans — and that not enough is being done to stop it. In Albania, police recorded nearly 3,000 cases of domestic violence and issued 1,643 protection orders across the population of 2.8 million between January and September. Photo: GENT SHKULLAKU / AFP

Following the social media backlash, two more women came forward to accuse Radivojevic of assault. The musician has since been detained and indicted for domestic violence.

Tanja Ignjatovic, a psychologist at a non-governmental organisation that helps victims, says legal measures are in place to combat domestic violence.

But Serbian police are largely understaffed and lack the necessary training to address abuse, said the expert at the Autonomous Women’s Centre (AZC).

The country’s judicial system has also been saddled by frequent delays, dragging out trials, which often causes further trauma to the survivors.

Out of 26 women killed in Serbia last year, the vast majority had experienced domestic violence, according to AZC data.

One in five victims of femicide have previously reported being assaulted, the centre says.

Serbian authorities do not keep records of instances of femicide, with advocacy organisations relying largely on media reports and surveys for data.

A 2019 report compiled by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe showed that 22 percent of Serbian women had experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.

Like during the #MeToo movements across the globe in recent years, more women in Serbia are going public after being ignored or silenced by authorities.

In January last year, Serbian actress Milena Radulovic made waves after she accused her former drama teacher of rape, prompting thousands of women across the Balkans to come forward with their own stories, united online under the banner “You are not alone”.

Ignjatovic, the psychologist, said the outburst was encouraging.

“The sheer number of women and their willingness to share traumatic experiences, while knowing that they will be subjected to misunderstanding and condemnation, shows that the process of speaking out is irreversible,” she told AFP.

THEY ‘DON’T BELIEVE WOMEN’ 

But, despite the fact that many women have said they feel heartened by online advocacy, the latest social media campaign has not resulted in an increase in calls to hotlines for domestic abuse victims, says Biljana Stepanov, who runs a network of call centres in northern Serbia.

Stepanov argued that social media alone cannot reverse the tide of domestic violence, saying online platforms are “limited and closed networks” where users are generally more aware of their rights.

“Imagine if women in their 40s and 50s who don’t have smartphones, computers — maybe who don’t even know what Twitter is — spoke out, how many of them there would be,” said Stepanov.

Over the years, Serbia has passed a raft of legislation aimed at protecting victims of domestic abuse and punishing the perpetrators of violence.

But activists argue deep-seated prejudices held by officials and bureaucrats continue to undercut the system.

“We have institutions that don’t believe women and simply refuse to take up reports,” Stepanov said.

“The system depends to a large extent on the knowledge and opinions of the individual members of these institutions.”

By Miodrag Sovilj and Marion Dautry

© Agence France-Presse

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