Violence against women in the region: Femicide - a word that hurts and warns

protest u Prištini femicid
Source: Kosovo Online

Throughout the world, from November 25th to December 10th, the "16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence" campaign is promoted to draw greater public attention to the increasingly serious problem of violence against women and the alarming number of femicide cases. The campaign symbolically begins on November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends tomorrow, on International Human Rights Day. Unfortunately, this year's events, especially the commemoration of December 6th, the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre observed as the International Day for the Elimination of Femicide, were marked by two major tragedies - in Skopje and Pristina.

In Pristina, on November 30th, Liridona Murseli, the wife of the advisor to the former president of the provisional institutions of Pristina, Behgjet Pacolli, was killed, and a few days ago, on December 3rd, 14-year-old Vanja Djorcevska was killed in Skopje.

Both of these events have sparked tremendous public outrage and protests, with North Macedonia even organizing an online petition seeking the death penalty for the perpetrator of this brutal murder.

However, these two cases are just the latest in a series of horrific crimes that have shaken the region in recent years.

Femicide has become a word that hurts and warns, unanimous voices from Kosovo Online from Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia emphasize.

Everyone agrees that the problems are the same regardless of differences in language, culture, or religion and that the root of the problem lies in deeply ingrained patriarchal norms, victim stigmatization, and ineffective institutions that should timely identify issues and prevent tragic outcomes.

However, it is concerning that there are no accurate data on the number of women, victims of violence, or femicide.

Vanja Macanovic from the Autonomous Women's Center in Belgrade says that this is not only the case in the Western Balkans.

"The issue of femicide is a global, worldwide problem, the solution of which depends on the states only in terms of how successful they have been in eradicating what is called traditional values, which is why femicide happens. Why certain men feel entitled to kill a woman or a child, and that is because of the belief that they are the property of a man. Then they believe that a woman cannot decide to leave an abuser or get divorced. This comes from a serious traditionalism that varies in different countries", Macanovic stated for Kosovo Online, adding that mostly women's organizations collected data on femicide, and in that case, the number of femicides was observed in relation to the population.

"In Italy, for example, 106 women have been killed so far this year, but there are ten times more inhabitants there than in Serbia. That is the serious difference that shows we have three times more killed women when looking at the number of inhabitants. However many mistakes may happen there, there are fewer of them. As an organization, we conducted research with data for 2020 and 2021, and according to that, Serbia, unfortunately, leads in the number of killed women, followed by Albania, then Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and finally Montenegro", Macanovic says.

According to data from this organization, the latest femicide victim in Serbia died at the beginning of this month. On November 13, she was shot by her unmarried partner as she was going to work. She is the ninth victim killed by firearms, while an equal number of women were killed with knives, and in seven cases, they were beaten or strangled. In one case each, femicide victims were killed with a hammer, a wooden stick, and an axe.

This grim statistic reveals that women over 46 years old are at a greater risk of being killed, not only in familial or partner relationships but also as a result of resisting attempted rape.

Autonomous Women's Centre statistics also show that ten female murderers committed suicide after the murder or murders, and one attempted suicide.

The latest relevant global and Western Balkans research was conducted in 2021.

According to UN data, 45,000 women and girls were killed worldwide in that year. This alarming statistic indicates that one woman is killed every 11 minutes!

The report "Femicides in the Western Balkans Region", conducted two years ago, was a part of the project "Institutionalization of Quality Rehabilitation and Integration Services for Women Survivors of Violence", funded by the Austrian Development Agency through the Austrian Development Cooperation.

According to these data, at least 106 women were killed in family-partner relationships in the Western Balkans during 2020 and 2021. Half of this number, is 46, in Serbia, 21 in Albania, 16 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 10 in North Macedonia, nine in Kosovo, and four in Montenegro.

"Every second woman was killed by her husband or partner in their common home/apartment, while a quarter of women were killed in their home/apartment not shared with the perpetrator. Women in the age group of 46 to 55 are most often victims of femicide, while among the victims, every fifth woman was younger than 30 years old, and every fifth woman was older than 60 years. In 61 percent of cases, the murders of women occurred in cities, despite the availability of general support services provided by public institutions, as well as specialized support and assistance services provided by women's organizations", the report states. Macanovic notes that no new research has been conducted in the meantime.

"We currently do not have data on the number of femicides from other countries for the year 2023, but what the data in Serbia show us is that we have had 28 cases of femicides so far. When we compare this to 2021, which ended with 20 cases of femicide, for us, this is a serious increase. We monitor how much violence against women was previously reported in these cases, whether women sought help from institutions, and whether institutions made a mistake and did not protect them, which we had four cases of this year. In other cases, practically, women did not turn to institutions for help and support, even though it was clear from everything that could be read in the media that their surroundings, family, and close ones knew that the woman was living in violence, but they were not encouraged to report it. This is a worrying fact for us that women in Serbia have lost confidence in reporting violence to institutions. It is worrying because we in women's organizations are losing confidence that women's lives will be protected when they report violence to institutions", Macanovic says.

Macanovic explains that in four cases that ended in tragic outcomes, individual responsibility was lacking due to the wrong assessment by professionals from relevant institutions. Macanovic says that the lack of complete information about violence against women and femicide has prompted a global initiative to form a national body called "Femicide Watch", which would track femicide cases. This way, she explains, much more concrete data could be obtained than what official statistics offer, as they always show a smaller number of cases of violence against women than what NGOs collect by gathering information from the media or citizens.

"State statistics do not count cases committed by perpetrators who have committed suicide. This does not enter the femicide statistics because you have a perpetrator who killed himself, and criminal offenses are registered based on the perpetrator. When you don't have a living perpetrator, then, in fact, you don't have that crime. This year, we had some cases that wouldn't even fit into the criminal offense of murder or aggravated murder. A few days ago, there was news that a 90-year-old woman died from severe bodily injuries after an attempted rape, as determined by the Higher Public Prosecutor's Office in Pancevo. In fact, the perpetrator is prosecuted for rape that ended in a fatal outcome. This entered our femicide statistics, but you won't find it in the criminal offenses of murder or aggravated murder", Macanovic says.

Mirela Arqimandriti, Executive Director of the Gender Alliance for Development Center (GADC) in Tirana, emphasizes that despite good legal solutions in Albania and other countries in the region, the data on femicide in the Western Balkans are alarming, and the roots should be sought in various cultural, social, and economic factors.

"Femicide has deep roots and is primarily linked to dominance, power, and discrimination deeply ingrained in people's attitudes towards women and girls. Over the years, there have been various campaigns against femicide and gender-based violence. The legal framework in our country, in the Western Balkans, is well-regulated enough, but it should be reiterated that when it comes to femicide, the numbers are alarming. In Albania, 11 women and girls were killed in 2023, while according to data in Serbia, 27 women and girls were killed, and there were 11 such murders in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and so on in other countries", Arqimandriti says.

From 2010 to the present, according to the report from the "Women’s Network" in Pristina, 53 women have been killed in Kosovo.

Adelina Berisha, the program manager for combating violence in this organization, presents the disheartening fact that every third woman in the world is a victim of a certain form of violence. However, she also reiterates the opinions of other interviewees that it is difficult to say whether femicide is on the rise in Kosovo and Western Balkan countries because there is no official data.

The truth, Berisha says for Kosovo Online, is that not a year goes by without several women being killed in Kosovo.

"The situation in the region is similar, and we, as activists, create joint reports with our sisters from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. We have partnerships with all of them, had joint projects, and what we see is that the situation is more or less the same everywhere in these countries", Berisha says.

The rise in violence against women is contributed by patriarchal norms, Berisha emphasizes and claims that it often happens that women are killed because institutions do not react, resulting in a lack of trust among the victims.

"Due to this patriarchal mentality, sometimes women do not receive support from institutions, and that's why we sometimes have a situation where even when a woman goes to report violence, her words are not understood adequately. People in institutions do not believe that report, and that's why femicides occur. In Kosovo, we have cases where women were killed because institutions did not believe their statements and did not take them seriously, and that is the reason we have such a high number of femicides and violence, both in Kosovo and in the region", this activist emphasizes.

Ana Avramovska Nuskova, the project coordinator in the Executive Office of the National Network to end violence against women and domestic violence in Skopje, warns that femicide is one of the most severe forms of physical violence against women, and that six such murders have been recorded in North Macedonia this year.

"When we talk about femicide, we must know that it is one of the most severe forms of physical violence that can be committed against women simply because they are women. In January alone, we had three cases of femicide, another femicide was reported in the media in August, and in September, there was one more. This year, there was also an attempted femicide. In terms of numbers for this year, we hope to stop at six women killed in Macedonia, simply because they are women", Ana Avramovska Nuskova says, highlighting that North Macedonia is one of the countries in Europe with the fewest reports of violence, especially domestic violence. However, the reality is quite different.

She believes that the reasons for this situation can be found in patriarchal values, shame, and stigma in the environment, as well as systemic issues—specifically, the lack of action or insufficient action by institutions, and the inadequacy of specialized services that the state should provide to protect women.

"This problem is systemic, not only related to femicide but to all forms of violence that may occur—physical, sexual, economic, psychological as one of the most prevalent forms of violence. There are two reasons, maybe more. One aspect is our traditional, patriarchal aspects, shame, and questions like 'What will others say' and 'Can this really happen to me'. And the other thing is the response of institutions, what and how can be done.

All our interlocutors emphasize that the issue of violence against women is regulated by laws, but the problem lies in judicial practice.

Mirela Arqimandriti, Executive Director of the Gender Alliance for Development Center (GADC) in Tirana, sees this as a serious problem, along with the fact that the tradition of keeping firearms and cold weapons is widespread in Western Balkan countries. She emphasizes that the failure of state structures is that this is not being controlled.

"However, a very significant problem is the enforcement of laws, and different policies by various institutions that should fight with a comprehensive approach. It should be the struggle of all institutions, all civil society organizations, and state institutions, as well as businesses, and media. It is necessary to create a very high degree of accountability among people regarding gender equality, and respect for women, but also in relation to all other aspects that are formed in youth based on entrenched norms. That's why education for young generations is needed", Arqimandriti says.

She emphasizes that besides education and various campaigns being implemented, and then legal solutions, it is also necessary for the issue of violence against women to be a media topic not only when a tragedy occurs but when the entire community is involved in it and that it is given a comprehensive approach.

"However, this cannot be achieved if competent institutions such as the court, prosecution, police, employees in public health, or all municipal institutions which, in the case of Albania, have a very significant role in the functioning of mechanisms in the fight against gender-based violence, do not perform their duties properly within the law. Femicide and murderers need to be treated according to the criminal code of Albania or other Balkan countries. What our organization and others can help with is to educate young people on this topic through various educational programs daily", Mirela Arqimandriti, the Executive Director of the Gender Alliance for Development Center concludes.

Domestic violence is a criminal offense, reminds Adelina Berisha from the Pristina NGO "Women's Network", stating that there are specific penalties for it. However, she emphasizes that in practice, such penalties are often reduced after an appeal.

"We have cases where men who killed women received life sentences, but after an appeal, they were reduced. So far, the highest prison sentence for the murder of a woman is 25 years. That is what we know. Our opinion is that if the existing law is applied, then we will not have problems. However, it happens that judges reduce sentences for perpetrators of violence or murder, and then it seems like we are sending a message for them to continue committing violence - we have no penalties for you. We take the woman to a shelter, and we leave the perpetrator free, living as if they have done nothing", Berisha explains.

When it comes to the treatment of women, it is poor at the global level, Berisha emphasizes, adding that every third woman in the world has experienced a certain form of violence.

"I think now is the time for all women to come together, to help each other, and to tell men that we will no longer endure it, and it is the last moment for them to change their attitude and treatment towards women because it goes against human rights. We, as women, need to remain in solidarity, be sisters, help each other, and be the voice of victims to change the situation so that women can have a life that befits them", Berisha said.

Ana Avramovska Nuskova, project coordinator in the Executive Office of the National Network to end violence against women and domestic violence in Skopje, says that North Macedonia has excellent laws regarding the prevention and protection from violence against women and domestic violence. These laws also include provisions for improving protective measures from the previous law.

There are, she says, urgent and temporary measures that social welfare centers and police officers can propose to the court, providing initial protection when reporting any form of violence.

However, she emphasizes that theory and practice often differ.

"I assume that insufficient awareness or knowledge or an insufficient number of training sessions by professionals from the relevant institutions know how to give the right answer. And that is why we need to work. It is one thing to have laws, but their implementation is very important. When we tell the victim to go to the Center for Social Work or contact the nearest police station, they are the ones on the front line who should provide initial protection. So, in the first moment, a risk assessment should be done to see in what situation the victim is and what measures should be taken to provide adequate protection", Nuskova says, mentioning that North Macedonia amended the Criminal Code in February this year, aligning it with the Istanbul Convention. She says that North Macedonia is one of the few Western Balkan countries to include the new criminal offense - "stalking", which could prevent more serious criminal offenses, especially femicide. However, more concrete data will be available after at least two years of implementation.

Commenting on existing legal provisions that sanction this type of crime, Macanovic believes that the certainty of punishment is much more important for reducing femicide than increasing penalties.

"What is the best prevention when it comes to any form of violence against women is the certainty of punishment. Not how severe the punishment will be, but that those who are perpetrators of these crimes know that they will be held accountable for their actions and will face punishment. Unfortunately, we see that this is not the case in Serbia, and we have perpetrators who receive very lenient sentences. The problem is not lenient sentences; the problem is that there is no supervision over them. For the criminal offense of domestic violence, we have a conditional sentence imposed in 70 percent of cases. This conditional sentence has no control. Then women tell us, 'Why did I go through that process that lasted three or four years for him to get a conditional sentence that no one monitors, and the situation remains the same?'" Macanovic says.

She emphasizes that when proceedings are initiated due to violence against women, or when physical violence stops, other forms of violence, especially psychological violence, which is much harder to prove, come into play. "In some other cases, you can see that even in sexual offenses, the penalties are sometimes so minimal. If we have a monetary fine for the criminal offense of prohibited sexual acts, then it is clear why we have a large number of perpetrators of more serious sexual offenses. Some criminal offenses are still missing, such as revenge porn. So, not just the severity of the penalty, but the certainty of punishment should discourage perpetrators", Macanovic explains.

Ana Avramovska Nuskova, project coordinator in the Executive Office of the National Network to end violence against women and domestic violence in Skopje, says that the role of the media in each of these events is crucial, but unfortunately, sensationalism in reporting still persists. Avramovska Nuskova: Sensationalism in reporting is unacceptable.                                                       "Sensationalism must be set aside. Such a way of reporting is unacceptable, and we should always start with the victim, and see her life and her path. No excuses should be found for the perpetrator, such as cheating or leaving, or presenting her as an immoral person to justify the acts of murder", Nuskova says, explaining that professional organizations have been pointing out this problem for a long time because the consequences are immeasurable.

"There have been articles where instead of reporting on the murder of a woman, they talk about a 'love drama' or the title is 'from quarrel to murder' or 'he killed her because she cheated on him'. A lot needs to be done, and caution is needed because the media not only have an obligation to accurately present the facts but also have a responsibility, in accordance with international standards and our laws, to prevent future violence and domestic violence", Nuskova emphasizes.Top of Form

What is still encouraging, says Nuskova, is the fact that that cyberbullying is still a topic that is little known and discussed, but much has been done when it comes to recognizing sexual violence online.

"This is an excellent question because it has been widely discussed. You know that we had several cases like Public Room and Gevgelija Hub, and then there was the case of Roma women on Facebook. These are cases with photos of women and girls taken from their social networks where they are public, captured, and forwarded in groups with sexual connotations, along with their personal information (where they live, phone numbers), a rather high form of sexual harassment and violence. A lot of work has been done on recognizing sexual violence in all forms where it can occur, not only in cyberspace but also in public space and public action. Our legislators have recognized the need to criminalize this act. Although we haven't followed the case yet, I think the statistics speak for themselves; I have the latest data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The statistics show that it is starting to be reported as a criminal offense and is beginning to be prosecuted. When we talk about forms of violence, the methods of execution change with the changes in technology, and this must be taken very seriously. Since the majority of social media users are minors, adults cannot always have insight into what is happening", Ana Avramovska Nuskova says, coordinator of the project in the Executive Office of the National Network to end violence against women and domestic violence in North Macedonia.