BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A man in Bosnia killed his wife and streamed the murder live on Instagram. In neighboring Serbia, 27 women were killed in gender-based attacks this year, despite efforts to raise awareness and reverse the trend. Activists in Kosovo say violence against women there is a “national emergency.”
Throughout the Western Balkans, women are harassed, raped, beaten and killed, often by their partners and after repeatedly reporting the violence to the authorities. The region is staunchly conservative, with a centuries-old tradition of male dominance, but the problem surged following the wars in the 1990s and the political, economic and social crises that have persisted since the conflicts ended.
In response, women’s groups in the region have organized protests to draw public attention and demand action. They have set up help lines and shelters for women. But activists blame authorities for not acting more decisively to protect women and counter a culture of impunity.
The public in Bosnia and in the wider region was brutally shaken into reality in August, when a woman in the northeastern Bosnian town of Gradacac was shot in the head by her former partner, in a live video on Instagram.
The murder was “so gruesome and so tragic” that it was an “eye-opener," said Jadranka Milicevic, from the Cure (Girls) group.
In the Western Balkans, most countries have passed laws and regulations to combat violence against women but implementation remains incoherent, activists say.
Bosnia, for example, was among the first countries to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women, but the problem has only grown since then, Milicevic said.
“Violence against women and domestic violence are a global phenomenon. They exist everywhere, but it is the state response to the violence that is the key issue,” said Vanja Macanovic, from the Autonomous Women's Center in Serbia. “Unfortunately, what we see here (in the Balkans) is that violence is approved. It is a model of behavior that is not sufficiently condemned in public."
“We have signed all relevant international declarations, resolutions and conventions but their application is questionable,“ said Milicevic. "Too many people still perceive (domestic) violence as a private issue, a private matter between two people. They do not understand that it is a social problem.”
Observers cite Bosnia's lenient sentences for violence and killing of women as one of the key problems. A 2022 report by GREVIO, an expert body monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, said such court practices feed a “sentiment of impunity” that is felt strongly by both the perpetrators and their victims.
Only once was a murderer sentenced to the 40-year maximum in a case where a woman was the victim, Milicevic said. A total of 65 women have been killed in the past 10 years and five have survived attempted murders in the country of 3.3 million people, local data shows.
The situation is similar in Kosovo, another highly patriarchal and male-oriented Balkan society. There, the rape last year of an 11-year-old girl by five assailants triggered street protests demanding safety for women, which led to the resignation of the police chief.
But protesters were out in the streets again later in 2022, angered by two killings in the capital Pristina. A 63-year-old geography teacher was killed by her ax-wielding husband, while a pregnant woman was tracked down outside a hospital by her husband, who killed her while she was waiting to give birth.
A total of 66 women have been killed by partners or husbands since 2000 in Kosovo, a nation of 2 million, while only one perpetrator has been sentenced to life in prison, official statistics show.
Serbian activist Macanovic believes part of the problem is that “institutions are not being held responsible" and there is no consequence for mistakes in handling the cases. This discourages women from turning to the state for help, especially in smaller communities, she added.
“We do not have a well-structured system of responsibility for every professional for wrongful action, or rather lack of action,” she said. It is rare for police officers, social services, prosecutors or court officials to be held to account if mistakes are made and a woman is later killed.
Faced with a surge in violence and killings of women, in 2017 Serbia began implementing a special law to deepen cooperation between agencies, take immediate measures against attackers and set up local working groups on the prevention of violence.
Serbian Minister of Human and Minority Rights Tomislav Zigmanov pledged further efforts at a recent meeting in the capital Belgrade marking a global campaign to fight violence against women. Zigmanov called for cooperation with grassroots organizations in preventing violence and monitoring the penal process.
“We must also have civic organizations as partners when it comes to creating a tolerant society of mutual respect and understanding,” he said.
In Kosovo, the Ministry of Justice was sending out text messages to warn against violence and urge women to report attacks. Top officials there have publicly called for tougher sentences for perpetrators and criticized past practices.
“We need the entire justice system to prioritize cases of violence against girls and women,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti said at a conference on Tuesday titled “United against violence — It's enough!” Kurti cited “cases when criminals are released and the crimes are repeated even worse than the first time.”
Bosnia, too, passed a law on the prevention of domestic violence several years ago and authorities have promised to do more. But in the societies that went through wars, where economies and institutions have crumbled, and where ethnic, political and social divisions are often fueled by authorities rather than countered, legal changes alone are not enough, say experts.
Violence has persisted and will continue, believes Vesna Stanojevic, who runs a chain of safe houses for women in Serbia. “Sometimes we take in women who are beaten so hard that they cannot walk or move their head, who have come after being in a hospital, who are about to give birth, have stomach injuries,” she said.
"Where did they (attackers) learn that? Who are role models for our children"?" she asked. “We should educate and we (societies) obviously are not doing it."
Currently, more than 40 women and children are staying in the shelters run by her organization, she said. “In my 32 years of work, I haven't seen violence decline. ... Sometimes there is more, sometimes less, but generally it is always there."
In one of the shelters, a 26-year-old woman said in an interview she decided to leave her partner when she noticed bruises also on their baby son. The woman, who wouldn't give her name for security reasons, said her partner repeatedly raped her, beat and choked her, and kept her and the baby locked in their flat for hours at a time.
Upon leaving, the woman ended up in a hospital with chest injuries and bruising. The man has now been detained. “The last (beating) was really bad," she said. "I knew that if it happened again, neither I nor the baby would remain alive."