Throughout this recent period of Coronavirus lockdown, the malign correlation between internal confinement and domestic violence has emerged ubiquitously throughout international society. Despite being an issue which affects both genders, women are significantly more likely to be the targets of such abuse. For many European countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing institutional and structural inadequacies pertaining to women’s rights and gender-based discrimination. However, Balkan nations have been wrestling with the consistent maltreatment of women in their communities; now more than ever, they are at their most isolated and jeopardized.
In Serbia, at least 30 women are killed in domestic violence every year. In 2019, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conducted a quantitative survey that found 48 per cent of Bosnia’s women had experienced some form of abuse since the age of 15. Marginalized communities such as the Roma are almost totally neglected by the state; viewed simply as itinerant pariahs, they are deemed unworthy of safeguarding. Last year, the Roma Women Centre BIBIJA found that in Serbia as many as 92 per cent of Roma women have experienced some type of physical or sexual violence since the age of 18.
In Kosovo, the Agency for Gender Equality has estimated that up to 90 per cent of domestic violence cases go unreported. Deep-rooted customary laws and archaic mindsets suppress any resistance to this horrific injustice. The Kanun – an antiquated code of ethics observed by ethnic Albanians – not only strips a woman of her property through enforced patrilineal secession, but also removes her agency with regard to sexual violence. Instead of being a locus of support, familial structures socialize women to feel excruciating personal shame for the criminal acts men commit. Such abuse is thus readily internalized by these women, who remain deserted by the state and silenced by their immediate relations. This persisting cultural stigma surrounding rape and marital abuse absolves the perpetrator of all condemnation, transferring this guilt and remorse wholly onto the victim.
The break-up of Yugoslavia during the 1990s was typified by competing forms of aggressive nationalism. Since the battle lines were drawn on ethnic and cultural identities, traditional perspectives on gender were simultaneously reinforced within a fiercely martial milieu. Violence and male power were no longer the preserve of the battlefield, as warring soldiers approached the private sphere in the same vein. It is roughly estimated that anywhere between 20,000 to 50,000 women were sexually abused during the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces. However, most of these rapists remain unprosecuted and very much present within civilian society. They act as a constant reminder of past abuses, stealing any solace from those whose lives they destroyed.
Unfortunately, the initiatives focused on addressing these past atrocities are proving far from effective. In August 2019, following a petition made by a Bosnian Muslim woman raped by a Bosnian Serb soldier in 1993, the U.N. Committee Against Torture (CAT) found that Bosnia and Herzegovina had neglected to aid and compensate those who had faced wartime sexual violence. For those women who are immediately experiencing abuse, the insufficient number of refuge shelters means that there are limited opportunities to fully escape their tormentors. Whilst lobbying in 2019 has seen an increased budget allocated from the central government to establish such shelters, the NGO Kosovo Women’s Network says that only half the funds have been received. It is clear that the rectification of both past and present crime against women is not high enough on the state’s agenda.
What’s more, Kosovo’s current political environment is not at all conducive to the enactment of meaningful change. The ousting of a progressive cabinet – containing a record number of six female members – has undermined a galvanized attitude towards combatting gender injustice. Viosa Osmani, the speaker of Kosovo’s parliament and one such cabinet member, stated that the new administration’s focus was on “creating conditions for women in our society to find a job and get economically empowered.” Despite such a brief period in office, great promise had already been displayed. In a response to claims of women experiencing poor treatment and discrimination whilst on maternity leave, 400 inspectors were dispatched from the Ministry of Labour to investigate; previously, there had been only 10 such inspectors with the same remit. Unfortunately, the unceremonious muting of such a mandate demonstrates how Kosovo’s political sclerosis readily impedes urgent social policy.
Although the situation is bleak, there is reason to be hopeful; innovative approaches are emerging which seek to eliminate gender-based violence from below. The Ndal – Stopp (“stop”) project in Kosovo helps women previously subjected to violence to work through their experiences using theatre. The Snaga–Stärke project in Bosnia has provided various new shelters where women affected by violence can receive psychological counselling and support. As well as offering protection, these institutions provide education and training for these women to find full-time employment and escape poverty. Rather than just palliating the effects of domestic violence and sexual abuse, there needs to be more work done to radically alter patriarchal attitudes and ingrained notions of harmful masculinity. Balkan boys and men need to break the fetters of tradition and gender stereotypes, paving the way for a safer, more prosperous, and more equal society for all.