A shelter’s employee hurriedly enters the room and brings a crying little girl to Bardha*. The blue-eyed, two-year-old starts smiling as soon as her mother scoops her up into a hug.
“My daughter used to be very soft and calm; now, she is traumatized. She doesn’t want to be away from me for a second,” Bardha says in a soft, slow voice; with her tiny frame and childlike round face, the 26-year-old mother looks like she could still be at school. “She has become stressed since seeing her father beat me. She was there and when she saw me crying, she came to hug me and tried to push her father away. She screamed at him. She doesn’t know many words, but she pushed her dad in her own language.”
It was about a month ago, when, after being severely beaten by her partner, Bardha called the police and was quickly taken to hospital. Following her treatment, the police suggested taking her to the shelter and she didn’t hesitate to accept.
By this time, she was already familiar with her city’s safe house that shelters victims fleeing violent homes, having first ended up there two years earlier. After spending six months in the shelter, her four brothers had taken her to their family house. But thinking that her partner had changed and that her daughter needed a father, Bardha decided to get back with him — a decision that outraged her brothers, who cut off all communication with her.
Bardha* sought refuge in a shelter for victims of domestic violence after being hospitalized by her abusive husband. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
“My mother doesn’t have the courage to tell my brothers to allow me back,” Bardha says. “Our father died and the house where my mother lives is owned by my brother, so she doesn’t dare tell him to let me in.”
Outcast by her family, but determined to live with her daughter away from her partner’s home, Bardha is aware that the shelter might be her house for the long run.
“I am stuck. I don’t want to get back together with him. If the first and second time didn’t go well, I know that the same will happen on the third or fourth time. The violence will happen again,” Bardha says. “If I somehow have a job and work, then I would live together with my daughter. And then I would renew contact with my sisters and mother. Because I wouldn’t be in my brother’s house, but in mine.”
Finding a Safe House
Safe House in Gjakova is registered as an NGO and was one of the first shelters for victims of domestic violence to have opened in Kosovo. Its activists came together in 2000 after documenting the wide scale of domestic violence in the Gjakova region. Located in a neighborhood away from the city center, between old Yugoslav era houses, a closed circuit television camera installed in front of the house is visible from the front gate. Although addresses of shelters for victims of domestic violence are kept secret, in smaller cities that’s a challenge as word spreads around quickly.
“When different people and activists want to visit us, they often cannot find us. But the perpetrators easily find the house,” says Sakibe Doli, who has been heading the Safe House since its establishment. “But now the house is safer because we have installed cameras and alarms, and they [the perpetrators] get scared.”
Over the past 17 years, Doli has witnessed many occasions when the perpetrators have knocked on the house’s door, day or night, and asked for their wives. But Doli says that close collaboration with the police, who have reacted quickly and come to the front door, has prevented the perpetrators from trying to forcefully take the woman from the house. Meanwhile, the shelter’s staff, as well as the victims themselves, receive training in self defense against perpetrators.
Despite the precautions, the shelter is unable to always provide the women with round-the-clock protection when they go out to complete daily tasks. “If the women are out in the city or at work, there have been occasions when they [the perpetrators] have tried to get them,” Doli says. “Once a perpetrator went to his wife’s workplace and pulled her by the hair.”
The Gjakova shelter doesn’t just provide shelter for victims of domestic violence coming from the city but also those from the municipalities of Malisheva and Rahovec. According to Doli, abused women from the city usually tend to find a solution within their family households, while women from villages and more remote areas rely more on Safe House for a temporary solution.
Those working with women victims of domestic violence say that the vast majority of those who report domestic violence to the police choose the option of going to a shelter. Last year 1,227 Kosovars — over 90 percent of whom were women — reported having suffered domestic violence to the police. However, the actual number of people suffering domestic violence is likely to be underreported.
Currently there are 11 women in Safe House, as well as four children as daughters under 18 and sons under 12 tend to come to the hostel with their mothers. “Children that accompany their mothers, in cases where they have not suffered direct violence from their fathers, have usually witnessed the violence,” Doli says. “When the psychologist works with them, they usually draw a big hand. They say: ‘It is daddy’s hand. It’s big, because he hit my mom.’”
Although the shelter only has the capacity to accommodate 14 people, Doli has become used to overcrowding. Last winter, she needed to accommodate 28 domestic violence victims. One victim has also stayed at the shelter for eight years.
“I have never said no to a woman who needed shelter. I have also had women here from other regions,” Doli says. “The shelter is very important not just for giving a bed to the victim, but the safe house plays an important role in stopping the [husband’s] revenge for leaving him.”
Shifting financial responsibilities
Similarly to other shelters in Kosovo, Gjakova’s Safe House has been struggling for permanent financial sustainability. For its first nine years it survived on foreign donations, then in 2009 the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW) began the process of licensing existing shelters that had been operating as NGOs, following reviews of their managerial and infrastructure capabilities.
As part of the licensing arrangement, between 2009 and 2016, MLSW covered half of the estimated 400 euros monthly cost of sheltering each victim. As of this year, the Ministry has begun supporting shelters in the form of a budget of 25,000 euros a year for each shelter, which needs to be managed by the local management according to needs. For Doli, the previous and current support far from covers necessary expenses.
“When the donations [from international organizations] that we have now stop, I don’t know what we will do,” Doli says. “Donors keep saying, ‘violence is an internal issue — let institutions deal with it.’”
Sakibe Doli has been running Gjakova’s shelter for victims of domestic violence since it opened in 2000. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
Safe House has also received a grant from the Municipality of Gjakova, through which it set up a bakery that operates within the property’s premises. Victims of domestic violence receive professional training to make rolls and breads in the bakery, and every morning these products are sent to small markets and schools.
Doli says that the bakery’s income is saved for what she calls ‘a reserve fund,’ which is used in times of emergency, such as when the house is overcrowded or the Ministry is delayed with its support.
“For instance, this year we received the money from the Ministry in March,” she says. “There were two long winter months, where we needed to find solutions on our own.”
Another complicating factor toward the financial sustainability of the shelters and providing of financial needs to victims of domestic violence stems from the continuous shifting of responsibilities between the central and local levels.
Following the 2009 decentralization process, significant powers were transferred to municipalities. As such, representatives at the MLSW say that municipalities need to do much more to help victims. Meanwhile, representative at the municipalities say that the government itself does not provide sufficient budget in this regard.
Adile Shaqiri, a senior official from the MLSW’s Department of Social and Family Policies believes that the Ministry is making continuous efforts to help victims of domestic violence, but that many of those in the highest positions within central and local government institutions still aren’t taking the issue of gender-based violence seriously. She adds that municipalities should pay more attention to providing specific budgets.
“In a professional sense, I think that municipalities should take more responsibility,” Shaqiri says. “It doesn’t have to be a huge grant, but something ongoing for their NGO partners. Then at the regional level, smaller municipalities need to provide finance for sheltering victims coming from [those places]. If, for instance, a victim is from Dragash and she is sheltered in Prizren, the municipality of Dragash needs to secure a budget — let’s call it a modest budget — to treat citizens from its municipality.”
Meanwhile, Nazim Cakolli from the Directorate of Health and Social Wellbeing within the Municipality of Prishtina says that municipalities don’t have any designated budget from the central level for the category of domestic violence victims, and as a result lack staff and power.
“None of the municipalities have this funding — the budget is at the central level,” Cakolli says. “Of course it doesn’t exclude municipalities from being involved. But it cannot be in the form of ‘[the municipality] must.’ But it needs to be ‘here is the money and you will need to do this.’”
Financial assistance from the municipalities is usually in the form of providing small grants from different budget lines to shelters or NGOs who deal with victims of domestic violence, such as the one provided to Safe House to set up its in-house bakery. But to date, consistent gender budgeting and financial policies aimed at assisting victims of domestic based violence — be it at the central or local level — have failed to materialize.
In 2013, a document clearly setting out and coordinating the responsibilities and actions of the various institutions with a responsibility to help protect, empower and full reintegrate victims of domestic violence into society was published; the Agency for Gender Equality within the Prime Minister’s Office launched the Standard Operation Procedures for Protection from Domestic Violence, which was based on the Kosovo Program and Action Plan Against Domestic Violence (2011-2014).
According to these standards, implementation procedures begin at the moment the victim is identified and last until their full-integration back into society. In practice re-integration includes rehabilitation, finding a living solution far from the violent household, and employment.
Through this chain of institutional responsibilities, municipalities offer permanent social housing for all those in dire social or economic circumstances. In this regard, the procedural standards point out that all municipalities should give priority to victims of domestic violence within its housing program for vulnerable people, and that Employment Offices should prioritize assisting unemployed victims that have suffered violence.
But to date, municipalities in Kosovo have failed to set aside resources for social housing for persons who have suffered domestic violence. Similarly victims face challenges in terms of economic empowerment: A 2015 report into institutional response to domestic violence highlights that women are generally placed less often into work by Employment Offices than men, creating additional challenges for victims of domestic violence.
“Employers hesitate because of the danger that comes from the husband and it then causes problems with the [employing] company,” says Vebi Mujku, director of the Center for Social Work in Prishtina, a municipal-level public institution responsible for supporting and empowering victims of domestic violence and ensuring the wellbeing of their children.
Vebi Mujku, director of the Center for Social Work in Prishtina, says that his institution does not have the backing required to improve social services in Kosovo’s capital. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
However, due to a lack of financial resources, such municipal centers struggle to provide even the most basic of services, such as counselling — only three psychologists cover all of the centers for social work throughout Kosovo.
Mujku is particularly critical towards the Municipality of Prishtina, which he says is not paying any attention to improving its social services.
According to Mujku, across Prishtina’s three social work units, there are no psychologists and just 15 social workers, who need to deal with all vulnerable groups, making it harder to provide social services to victims of domestic violence.
Women’s rights activists point out that issues such as a lack of financial support for social services, lack of social housing and lack of adequate opportunities for securing employment, contribute to women returning to violent households, thereby undermining the whole rehabilitation and reintegration process.
According to Doli institutions need to stop showing off documents and the legislative framework and to start doing work on the ground. “Every municipality needs to have victims as a social priority, safe houses need to have sustainable funding, and not just when they [institutions] feel like giving [money] or not,” she says. “Then everybody included during the rehabilitation and reintegration of the victim in society, from institutions to workers, need to work according to their hearts and not just according to laws.”
In many cases counselling, psychosocial treatments that are crucial for rehabilitation, and vocational courses that are important for finding a job and respective integration of victims into society, are limited to the work carried out within shelters.
At Safe House in Gjakova, as soon as women step in, they are introduced to psychologists and different courses such as tailoring, beekeeping, computing and English courses. Additionally, the shelter helps victims to find jobs in cleaning or caring for elderly people, incomes that women draw upon during the process of reintegration after leaving the shelter.
“We are literally doing the job that institutions are supposed to do,” Doli says.K
* Name changed to protect the identity of the victim.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
This article is a response to reader questions during our #IWantToKnow campaign on domestic violence shelters and the rehabilitation of victims. The#IWantToKnow campaign has been supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kosovo.