High unemployment, economic hardship and broken family ties have fuelled domestic violence in post-war Bosnia

By Julie Poucher Harbin in Sarajevo

A plastic crate full of "evidence" stored in a corner of her office constantly reminds the director of a 24-hour domestic violence hotline in Sarajevo of another growing problem in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Certain that repeat victims may someday finally decide to go to court, the director, Jagoda Savic, keeps meticulous records of the assaults.

She pulls out a jagged black rock used in an attempted homicide, and then a cell phone broken by a child's father as she tried to make an SOS call to report he was hitting her mother.

Other pieces of incriminating material include the bloodied pants of a young journalist whose jealous husband beat her, a hairbrush used to assault a woman and her four-year-old child, and the shell of a bullet misfired by a drunken man during a fight with his wife.

Savic heads the SOS Helpline for the Sarajevo region, which assists victims of domestic violence in getting police and emergency services. She does phone counselling and referrals to psychologists and runs a five-bed shelter. A 25-bed refuge in Sarajevo operated by a Spanish NGO picks up the constant overflow and is always full.

Savic, as well as other local and international experts and organisations, are concerned over the increased number of domestic violence cases throughout Bosnia since the end of the war in 1996. Due to a combination of the subject being taboo in Bosnia's patriarchal society and substandard statistical agencies, it is hard to establish the extent to which the problem has worsened. But local human rights groups report shockingly high percentages of domestic violence against women and children.

In an effort to tackle the problem, The UN Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina recently launched a public awareness campaign together with specialised police training. "Don't Suffer in Silence" is a message to women and children, whose images are eerily portrayed on television with taped mouths, in pamphlets and on television.

The campaign tries to persuade victims that abuse committed by household members is a crime, and that it is acceptable to speak out in public about what has long been held to be a private matter. It urges women and children, the majority of its victims, to report abuse to the police. Just like in the rest of the world, women and children in Bosnia face a greater threat of violence inside the home, than outside.

Social welfare officials and NGOs cite high unemployment, financial hardship, changes in social structure and family hierarchy, coupled with the weakness of the legal system brought about by war and the transition to democracy, as reasons for the increase.

Many men have remained unemployed since coming back from the war. Add to that the high incidence of weapons in the home and addiction to alcohol and drugs.

"A man without a job is unsatisfied, insecure," said Memnuna Zvizdic from local women's NGO Zena Zenama. "They feel lost. They are angry. And they take out their frustrations on their wives."

A hotline in Mostar last year even recorded an increase in the number of mothers being abused by their sons, according to a report issued by the US Agency for International Development.

Women aren't the only victims. Criminal investigator Mladen Milosavljevic argues that the rise in the number of broken homes since the war has resulted in an increase in cases of physical, psychological and sexual abuse of children. The Bosnian Helsinki Committee says while hotlines throughout the country have helped save children, parents tend to keep sexual abuse a secret.

Over the past year, local newspapers have been full of accounts of domestic violence, ranging from bruises, black eyes and broken noses, to extreme cases like multiple cigarette burns, a perforated lung, and an unwanted stepchild who was set on fire.

While newly-founded hotlines and shelters are starting to ease the pain, old perceptions of domestic violence as a private matter remain.

Before the war, family violence was often "handled" across the country through an informal network of family and friends. Victims never went to the police, and state social services were weak.

However, as a result of the war, thousands were displaced and old social and family networks broke down. Local and international NGOs filled the vacuum where the government's centres for social work couldn't provide a safety net.

Madeleine Rees, head of the Bosnia's office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said those centres remain underused, starved of cash, and technically and professionally under-equipped.

The criminal justice system also needs an overhaul. The Bosnian Federation's criminal code distinguishes between an "assault" and "light bodily injury committed by a spouse or cohabitant". In the case of the latter, the victim must bring a prosecution against the perpetrator. The state typically doesn't intervene.

In order to fall into line with the European Convention on Human Rights, domestic violence cases (whether minor or serious assault) should simply be prosecuted by the state as assaults, asserted Rees.

As the Federation and the Republika Srpska criminal codes undergo review, the central Bosnian town of Zenica has started to prosecute domestic violence cases as assault cases and has had great success. "To hell with this light bodily injury thing, people are getting prosecuted and put away," Rees said.

Big changes in policing are also changing the perception that domestic violence is not a serious crime.

The human rights division of the UN's International Police Task Force, IPTF, with the support of both entity police forces, has started training local officers on how to respond properly to domestic violence calls. They are taught to be prepared to arrest the perpetrator, to compile thorough notes for court officials and how to administer assistance to the victim.

This sort of training is happening with greater frequency and in more cities largely as a result of a successful IPTF-coordinated pilot project in Zenica, involving a number of different local officials and agencies. The hope is that any woman or child who suffers domestic violence can expect the support no matter who he or she turns to first.

But while women and children increasingly contact shelters and hotlines, they still tend to distrust police. The SOS Helpline refers only 19.5 per cent of its cases to officers, as they have an obligation to do so only if victims request it. Since the new IPTF recommendations, Savic has noticed that police have been more cooperative when she makes these referrals.

Unfortunately, says Savic, there continues to be a huge tendency for victims to "hide violence because they want to hold on to their marriages". For the same reason, victims who bring cases to the point of prosecution often deny the abuse to judges, and cases are dropped.

As patriarchal attitudes still prevail in Bosnia-Herzegovina, perpetration and acceptance of violence is hard to change. "They [men] do what they want and women are obliged to listen," Savic said. "You have a victim who is always afraid to protest against violence because she is influenced to obey, not protest."

Julie Poucher Harbin is a Sarajevo-based freelance reporter and frequent contributor to IWPR.


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