One-on-one | Croatia

Bojana Genov: ‘The church is the biggest obstacle to achieving women’s rights in Croatia’

By - 24.09.2018

Croatian feminist activist discusses how to win over conservative forces that are attempting to renounce women’s rights.

In the field of global feminism, the year 2017 will be remembered for the #MeToo movement.

The initiative, established in the U.S. in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — in which the famous filmmaker is accused of sexually assaulting and harassing dozens of women — expanded to other countries, leading hundreds of thousands of women to publicly say “me too” (I’m a harassment victim), all in order to point out that sexual violence is a widespread and serious problem. Time magazine declared the “me too” movement, or rather those who “broke the silence,” as its person of the year.

Even though “Me too” also reached the Balkans, countries here still also face different battles. The right to abortions, the representation of women in decision-making positions, the presence of women in politics and violence against women are only some of the topics highlighted by feminist activists throughout the Balkans.

In a series of One-on-one interviews, K2.0 has spoken with some of the most prominent feminists across the region about the development and current state of feminism in their respective countries and the biggest feminist issues being faced.

Bojana Genov, an activist and one of the coordinators of the Women’s Network of Croatia, speaks to K2.0 about the most important feminist issues today in Croatia.

Photo: Jadran Boban.

K2.0: You have been very active in the fight in Croatia for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention — the Council of Europe convention against violence against women and domestic violence that was signed in 2011. This was finally approved by the Croatian Parliament in April 2018, after months of protest by conservative associations and certain politicians. Is this the final victory? What should we expect to see in the future?

Bojana Genov: I think it’s great that the Istanbul Convention was finally ratified — not because we expect significant changes to occur overnight, but because at the symbolic level, at the level of relations of social powers between conservative and liberal forces, this victory was terribly important.

As for the application of the Convention, it will neither be swift nor urgent, because the Government of the Republic of Croatia put certain reservations on some of the measures from the convention, which means that it will take some time for the Convention to really be applied.

However, it is exceptionally important that the Convention has been ratified, and that Parliament largely stood on the side of protecting women’s rights, and that the path to its implementation is open.

Which part of the Istanbul Convention was problematic? Why all the mobilization against its ratification?

Conservative forces had issues with the part related to certain values and the presence of those values — those that deal with equality, non-violence, equity of genders, and the like — in the education system.

These same conservative forces have fully taken over the education system in Croatia, and through 25 years of religious education in schools have managed to form the values and attitudes of the new generations. A lot of research on attitudes of young people prove that today they are way more conservative than their parents…

You have often commented that the church is a big enemy of women in Croatia…  

Absolutely, and one should not restrain from stating this publicly. The church is the biggest obstacle to achieving women’s rights in Croatia. It is impossible to expel the church from public areas. The separation of church and state is part of the Constitution, but it doesn’t exist in practice…

"The separation of Church and state is part of the constitution, but it doesn’t exist in practice."

For example, we have heard announcements that the committee for drafting legislation on reproductive rights will include priests or members of the church as constituent parts. This is the paradox of all paradoxes! How could they contribute to the law on abortion when we know that the church is clearly not allowing it to happen, without exception. This is proof that the church and the state are nestled alongside each other.

Do you think that the protests against the Istanbul Convention mobilized more people from conservative circles than previous protests? Or have they simply received more media attention?

In terms of the numbers and the size of the protests, it was clearly shown that most people didn’t even know about the Convention’s content, nor what they were rebelling against. This is expected and normal, since most citizens don’t know what most conventions signed by the state are comprised of because these deals aren’t discussed in detail in the media, and are completed in silence.

At the last big demonstration against the Convention in Zagreb, conservative forces were mobilized, of course also thanks to logistics offered by the church. People were invited during sermons to attend the protest, there were organized buses, people were handing out sandwiches and lunches, so it is understandable that a certain number of people gathered in that manner.

A large number of Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina also joined, even though BiH ratified the Istanbul Convention years ago, which shows that the mobilization wasn’t inspired by the Convention’s text.

Photo: Jadran Boban.

As for violence perpetrated by the conservative circles, female activists are often exposed to threats in this context. We could publish a significant amount of threatening letters which we receive. [Editor’s note: Bojana Genov was herself physically intimidated and verbally assaulted during a protest against the Istanbul Convention, while she was attending a counter-protest.]

I believe that this shows the real face of many who have mobilized against the Istanbul Convention, who don’t want a discussion, but wish to control other people’s banners, other people’s presence, and to physically exclude those who don’t think like them.

Their arguments against the convention are not developed, but they say it is an attack on Croats and their sovereignty because Brussels will dictate their actions. [They say] that it is about asking children whether they want to declare themselves as boys or girls in primary schools, that the term ‘sex’ would be abolished and there would be no clear distinctions between boys and girls…

From the very beginning, you have pointed out that the ratification of the Istanbul Convention is important in order to decrease and prevent violence against women. If we take a look in the direction of countries that have ratified the Convention, have there been any improvements in the field of women’s protection?

In most countries that have ratified the convention, at least in our region, nothing has improved. However, one of the reasons is that there are reservations [on the ratification] concerning finances and it is completely clear that no plan can be implemented without financial assistance. We will have to wait for years for the ‘reservations’ to expire in order to ensure funding that would enable real change…

However, even during that time, some things from the Convention may be applied. Our laws on violence have fallacies, but we cannot say they don’t exist — the issue is always with implementation and political will. This is what we, as civil society, should be monitoring and attempting to be very loud around.

Should we have expected such a mobilization against the Convention’s ratification? It seems that recently in Croatia different conservative associations have been mobilized, especially after the referendum in 2013 in which Croatians voted against same-sex marriage. Where do you see the inception of that campaign?

This process has been going on a bit longer than since 2013. As early as the ’90s we have had members of a strong pro-life movement who brought in ideas from abroad, because these conservatives of ours are only a branch office, they just copy the methods of conservatives from abroad.

What helped their growth in previous years is that the right-wing government has had a weak majority, and it needs support from [ultra-]conservative circles. Let’s not forget that these small right-wing conservative associations even organized into a political party previously, but they have never achieved any success during elections.

Their success was ensured by a slight majority of the governing moderate right, which needed a few more hands in the Parliament in order to secure a majority, hence these marginal conservatives gained space that they would not have obtained during elections or with the public’s support. This is the result of political trade. Once they received a space in the media, they became an awfully important factor in the public arena.

The Women’s Network of Croatia organized the Defend the Right to Choice in protest in 2016, gathering against the notion of banning abortion. A new abortion law is being prepared in Croatia, where access to the right to an abortion could be significantly diminished. What are the dangers that could occur with the adoption of the new law?

For decades, we have been monitoring the application of the right to abortion in Croatia, and we have gradually seen the suppression of these rights. What has happened is that whole hospital facilities are issuing conscientious objections, that women have no access to abortions, and that health care services exist only on paper, whereas in practice it is hardly possible.

"The right to an abortion has already been awfully narrowed, and the adoption of the new law may be problematic."

We have cases where all the doctors in one hospital would issue conscientious objections, and that spreads to the support staff. Abortion has moved into the informal economy; the abortion numbers that are spoken about are not accurate. What also occurs is that certain doctors perform abortions in private clinics, whereas in public hospitals they issue conscientious objections.

The right to an abortion has already been awfully narrowed, and the adoption of the new law may be problematic — the introduction of counseling for pregnant women who want an abortion is mentioned, for example. So far, abortion has only been allowed in the first 10 weeks [of pregnancy], and now [if] we also have educational counseling, it will be easy to pass this deadline. So, even though abortion [would be] theoretically possible, in practice it could be completely impossible.

We believe that the counseling is absurd, and that it’s a rejection of the legal competencies of women. Women are moral and conscientious beings, and we don’t think that there are any reasons for somebody counseling a woman and saying that she isn’t capable of making such decisions. This kind of tutorship is unacceptable, and in practice it will be destructive for the application of reproductive rights. I believe that the law must not be allowed to contain this part about counseling.

What is the most problematic thing about it in your view?

In Croatia, we don’t have sexual education in schools. Paradoxically, the parliament announces that they will provide counseling to pregnant adult women with formed personalities, rather than letting them perform the abortion, while they don’t even take a second to teach young developing girls, who are just starting to learn about the decisions they will make in the future, about reproductive and sexual education.

They are not given any knowledge about reproductive health and rights. This is the paradox that we point to — young women in the education system are not gaining the knowledge they need, but are being sanctioned later on in their lives.

Photo: Jadran Boban.

There were also many young people present at gatherings against the Istanbul Convention, and many women. How can you explain that so many women have taken up conservative views on this issue?

The re-introduction of patriarchy in society has already taken place, and it is an increasing trend. In our country, the woman has to first affirm herself as a mother, invited to reproduce the nation, because the nation is disappearing, and the number of Croats is decreasing. As if it only had to do with women and giving birth…

This trend was introduced in schools through the education system, and this is why we strongly demand the reform of the education system, which conservative forces resist.

The public image that is imposed on women is becoming a more and more private image: The image that women have of themselves. No matter their successes in education, that, according to statistics, they are more successful in schools than men, that many have enviable careers… the primary task of woman [in Croatia] is to be a mother! Hence we have arrived at this medieval attitude toward women’s rights, and we have to continue fighting for this view not to prevail!

This is the fifth one-on-one interview in our ‘Talking Balkan Feminism’ series on the position of feminism in the region. Check back next week for another interview with a leading feminist from the Western Balkans.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Croatian.

Feature image: Jadran Boban.