Surge in Gender-Based Violence Alarms Western Balkans; Inadequate State Response Criticized

In a disturbing trend across the Western Balkans, instances of violence against women, including harassment, rape, and murder, often at the hands of intimate partners, are on the rise. This uptick in violence has been particularly noted following the region’s 1990s conflicts and subsequent socio-economic crises.

Activists throughout these countries, which include Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo, are calling attention to what they deem a “national emergency”. These nations, steeped in conservative traditions of male dominance, have witnessed high-profile cases, such as a live-streamed murder of a woman in Bosnia on Instagram, stirring public outcry and prompting protests.

Despite the enactment of laws to combat gender-based violence, their implementation is inconsistent and often ineffective. In Bosnia, which ratified the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, lenient sentencing and a perceived culture of impunity continue to plague the justice system. GREVIO’s 2022 report highlights this issue, noting a lack of stringent punishment for perpetrators. The recent murder of a woman in Gradacac, Bosnia, by her former partner on a live video feed has underscored the severity of the situation.

Kosovo, another patriarchal society within the region, faced protests after the rape of an 11-year-old girl and the murders of two women in Pristina. Only one perpetrator has received a life sentence for murdering a woman, despite 66 such killings since 2000 in this nation of two million.

Serbia’s situation mirrors its neighbors. Activist Vanja Macanovic criticizes the lack of institutional accountability and the discouragement this creates for women seeking help. In response to the rising violence, Serbia implemented a special law in 2017 to enhance inter-agency cooperation and prevention efforts. Yet, the system’s structure and the rare accountability for professional misconduct continue to be significant obstacles.

Grassroots organizations and women’s groups have been pivotal in providing support and shelter for victims, but their efforts alone are insufficient against the systemic issues. In Serbia, Minister Tomislav Zigmanov recently acknowledged the need for closer collaboration with civic organizations to create a tolerant society. Kosovo’s government, too, has launched initiatives like text message campaigns to encourage reporting of attacks and has called for harsher penalties for perpetrators.

Bosnia’s legislative efforts, including a law on the prevention of domestic violence, have yet to yield significant results. In a region still grappling with the aftermath of wars and deep-rooted social and political divisions, experts argue that legal changes alone are not enough.

In Serbia, Vesna Stanojevic, who runs a network of safe houses, reports a constant presence of violence, with no noticeable decrease over her 32 years of work. Currently, her shelters house over 40 women and children, some of whom have endured severe abuse.

A poignant example comes from a 26-year-old woman in one of these shelters. She decided to leave her abusive partner after noticing bruises on their baby son. Her experiences of repeated rape, physical abuse, and confinement highlight the grim reality faced by many women in the region.

Chris Morris
Author: Chris Morris

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