Tuesday, 25 November 2014

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Blog by Bojana Balević, Gender Equality Programme Coordinator

Since a few years ago every 25th November has been marked in Serbia as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This day is marked not only by the civil sector, as it was in the beginning, but it has now become a practice of public authorities and institutions. In the period 25 November-10 December, during the campaign 16 Days of Activism, a large number of conferences, performances, public debates and other events will be organised to address the following topics: violence against women, disadvantaged position of women, social contexts leading to that, etc. Civil society representatives will once again present data and examples from practice illustrating the situation of women's rights; state representatives will confirm whether there is room for improvement, that there are differences in the position of men and women - primarily economic, but will also stress that Serbia does not lag behind the developed countries to a great extent, that the situation in the European countries is similar, that there are some worse than us.

However, the life before and after the campaign tells us that all those things debated during the campaign are changing slowly, and that in some segments there is stagnation and even regression.

The current situation in judiciary is such that the procedures in which women seek protection from violence are unacceptably lengthy. Thus, for example, it takes one year on average to issue an indictment for the crime of domestic violence after the filing of criminal charges. The criminal proceedings, depending on the type of crime, last from one year to as long as four years. The reasons for lengthy court proceedings are numerous, and we have most frequently encountered these: inability of delivering summons for the main hearing to the accused, scheduling main hearings at intervals of one to several months, non-attendance of summoned witnesses, delay in submission and submission of incomplete findings and opinions of expert witnesses in relation to the types and severity of injuries, etc. This period of time leaves room to the abuser to stalk the victim forcing her to withdraw from the proceedings. Besides the length of proceedings, victims of domestic violence were often dissatisfied with the judgments by which, in most cases, a suspended sentence was pronounced to perpetrators. According to the Criminal Procedure Code, the injured party does not have a possibility to appeal against judgement when the public prosecutor considers that it is not necessary. In cases where a suspended sentence is pronounced, the victim of violence simply cannot influence the altering of sentence. In cases where victims of violence had property claims in criminal proceedings, the court usually instructed them to initiate a civil procedure to exercise that right, which practically delays for several years the completion of all procedures relating to domestic violence.

As regards civil procedures for the purpose of exercising the right to protection from domestic violence, the situation is no better. On average, somewhat more than a year passes from the moment of filing the lawsuit to the final judgment, which constitutes a serious violation of legal provisions. In fact, the majority of civil procedures in which we have represented victims of domestic violence are those related to family relationships, which were urgent under the Law on Family. That means that there will be, as a rule, a maximum of two hearings within the civil procedure, whereas the first hearing is convened so as to be held within 15 days of lawsuit and request being received by the court, and the appellate court is obliged to render a decision within 30 days of filing an appeal. Even when the right to judicial protection is exercised, i.e. when the measures of protection against domestic violence are imposed, it does not mean the end of troubles for individual victims of violence. For example, we had a case that measures of protection against domestic violence were imposed on the abuser: measure of eviction from the home, restraining order at a distance of 150 metres around the place of work and residence, and the prohibition of any further harassment. However, every day he parked his car in front of the house from which he had been evicted at a distance greater than prescribed and observed the victim. The police did not react to calls; they said that their hands were tied and that they could only talk to try to persuade the abuser not to do that again. They went so far as to say to the victim that they did not understand why it bothered her when the abuser was doing nothing. In the event that the abuser violates the court order and does not comply with the imposed measures of protection against domestic violence, new criminal charges are filed and another court procedure is initiated, exhausting for the victim of violence.

All this is especially important to mention in the light of the fact that Serbia ratified the Istanbul Convention, which entered into force on 1 August 2014. As a reminder, the Republic of Serbia has made a reservation in respect of two members of the Istanbul Convention. Article 3 of the Law on Ratification of the Convention reads: "The Republic of Serbia reserves the right not to apply the provisions of Article 30 paragraph 2 and Article 44, paragraph 1 point e), paragraph 3 and paragraph 4 of the Convention until it has harmonised its national criminal legislation with these provisions of the Convention."

The Istanbul Convention requires the States Parties to be guided by the due diligence standard in the prevention, protection, prosecution and punishment of acts of violence.

In the field of protection of the victims of violence, the state should ensure to place the needs and safety of victims in the focus of all measures and to prosecute and adequately punish the perpetrators of violence against women. This means that the states are obliged to take necessary legislative or other measures and to ensure that victims have adequate civil legal remedies against perpetrators, but also against public authorities that have failed to respond to violence in accordance with their powers. More specifically, the States Parties are expected to harmonise their legislations with the provisions of the Convention, and the Convention envisaged, inter alia, the following: introduction of criminal offence of stalking in domestic legislation; introduction of urgent measures for protection from violence (granting the power to the competent authorities to order to the perpetrator, in situations of imminent danger, to vacate the residence of the victim for a sufficient period of time and to prohibit the perpetrator from entering the residence or contacting the victim), to ensure the right to legal assistance and free legal aid to the victim in accordance with national legislation and others. In that process of protecting victims the state should create a system to protect at all times the rights and interests of the victim in order to prevent them from being exposed to secondary victimisation.

Serbia is still without the Law on Legal Aid; stalking is not defined as a crime in our legislation; there are no urgent protection measures that may be imposed by the competent authority, but they have to be sought in court. It should also be noted that the judicial system in Serbia has been blocked for more than two months because the Ministry of Justice did not find a way to solve the problem faced by the legal profession and (in)directly by citizens.

Moreover, in Serbia there is a lack of services for victims of violence - hotlines, shelters for victims of violence, crisis centres for rape victims and others.

Combating violence against women is not just immediate protection but primarily work on the prevention and elimination of harmful gender stereotypes and prejudices, customs and traditions, which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or the application of stereotypical gender roles.

The question is whether, in this retraditionalisation of social relations that we have been witnessing in recent years, we as a society can respond to the challenges and protect the most vulnerable?

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Praxis means action