Breaking Free: What makes victims of domestic violence survivors?
After marrying her longtime boyfriend, what had been a normal life for 25-year-old Nina* from Sarajevo, became a living hell. Little by little, her husband forbade her from doing most things she used to enjoy, such as going out with girlfriends, having family over for lunch, or wearing close-fitting clothes. The first time he hit her she was pregnant with a baby girl. He had wanted a boy.
Numbers paint a gloomy picture
A patriarchal upbringing, and a society that does not strongly condemn violence are the root causes of perpetuated acts of violence against women.
Indira Mehic Cejvan President, Association of Social Workers of Central Bosnia Canton and Director, Social Welfare Center in Jajce
Data show that women face a greater risk of abuse inside their own homes than outside of it, claims Majda Halilovic, author of Survivor Speak: Reflections on Criminal Justice System Responses to Domestic Violence in BiH. “According to a prevalence study, every third woman in BiH has been exposed to domestic violence. Victims are systematically controlled, dominated, physically molested and psychologically abused.”
So, why do only a handful of victims decide to leave their abuser? “It is usually those ‘honeymoon moments’, a period of apology, gifts and promises that keep the victims inside an abusive relationship. Besides, sometimes they have no choice or at least they think they don’t,” says Halilovic.
It is usually those ‘honeymoon moments’, a period of apology, gifts and promises that keep the victims inside an abusive relationship. Besides, sometimes they have no choice or at least they think they don’t.
Where to seek help
Women who do decide to flee, either on their own or with the help of the police, usually turn to one of the nine safe houses across the country that housed 373 women and children in 2014. The Lara Foundation in Bijeljina was the first organization to establish a shelter for victims of human trafficking in BiH. It has been a safe haven for survivors of all types of violence, including domestic violence, ever since.
“We provide victims and their children with housing, free legal aid and counseling services,” says the Foundation’s Deputy Director Radmila Zigic. “As professionals, we have the responsibility not to judge victims even when they decide to leave the safe house, but rather to support them in reporting the violence.”
Sarajevo-based police officer and President of the Women Police Officers Network Suvada Kuldija says the police have 12 hours after the victim has reported the crime to submit a request for protection measures to a Municipal Court. The measures can include a restraining order, and removing and/or banning the alleged perpetrator of the violence from the residence. “The requests for protection measures are stipulated by the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence, and every criminal offence report submitted to the Prosecutor’s Office must be accompanied by this request.”
What to expect from the judiciary
The OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in its 2011 Analysis of Sentencing Domestic Violence Criminal Proceedings in BiH, reported that out of the 286 cases, 77.2% carried a suspended sentence, while only 8.3% carried a custodial prison sentence, and 13.5% offenders were required to pay a fine. The reason why so many suspended sentences are handed out lies in the summary proceedings, says Adisa Zahiragic, Sarajevo Cantonal Court Judge and President of the Association of Women Judges in BiH.
“The Prosecutor’s Office proposes an indictment with a penalty order that entails a summary proceeding and a conditional release for the defendant. The Court then confirms the indictment and calls on the defendant to take a plea bargain. The case ends there. The Court does not see the victim and is unaware of the long-term consequences for the family.”
She points out that judges should not treat aggravating and extenuating circumstances for domestic violence cases the same way they do in other criminal offenses. “The fact that the offender was under the influence, is unemployed or shown remorse is not a justification for his demeanor. If anything these should be treated as aggravating factors. The court should fine offenders, something they rarely resort to, and insist on testimonies of victims.”
How the system responds
The police play a major role in encouraging victims to press charges, a right granted by the Law on Protection from Domestic Violence, both in the Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska. Sanja Sumonja of the Women Police Officers Network in Republika Srpska says without adequate support victims usually do not press charges, which is a huge issue in practice.
It is necessary to invest more institutional efforts to cease perceiving domestic violence as a private matter as well as to provide victims with the assistance and support in order to empower them to report violence and persevere in proceedings against the perpetrators.
Sanja Sumonja Women Police Officers Network, Republika Srpska
There are significant differences in the response to domestic violence among municipalities in BiH. The laws are applied unequally and not all municipalities have domestic violence response teams. In response, in 2015 the Mission assisted institutions in Federation of BiH to develop a database of domestic violence cases. The Mission also trained over 300 police officers, social workers and civil society representatives on good practices in domestic violence proceedings and the use of the database.
“The database connects the police, social welfare centers, safe houses and the domestic violence SOS line throughout the Federation of BiH, which enables them to track ongoing cases and extract relevant statistical data,” says Elmaja Bavcic, National Programme Officer for Gender Strategies of the OSCE Mission to BiH. “Victims are no longer required to repeat their stories as they go through the system to obtain assistance and protection.” Bavcic says that the Mission is hopeful to work with its counterparts in Republika Srpska to adopt a similar model.
The only way to help victims to become survivors is to have a system of support and protection in place ready for their use.
Elmaja Bavcic National Programme Officer for Gender Strategies, OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Domestic violence is a global problem that calls for greater harmonized action from all relevant institutions as well as the public,” says Bavcic. “This violence is not accepted or tolerated. The only way to help victims to become survivors is to have a system of support and protection in place ready for their use.”
* The name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.