In the first month of her pregnancy, Njomza* knocked on the shelter’s doors, swollen and bleeding. The doors were known to her. She had knocked for help and shelter two previous times, after the constant violence she was experiencing from her husband.
Alongside her were her two children; one aged three and the other a year and a half. She gave birth to the third child at the shelter. Now, 10 months later, she continues to feed her baby there.
Over a period of 18 months, the 31-year-old from Gjakova experienced “double violence,” and now has nowhere to go. She has decided not to return to the house of her husband, to whom she says she was never legally married since the union was never officially registered.
Her biological family has provided no solution for her. Even the state is yet to provide a long-term solution for her.
“My family told me, ‘You can come back home, but we cannot accept the kids.’ And I will not leave my children at any price — never,” she says, exhausted.
Recently, the Municipality of Gjakova has offered to cover the costs of a six month lease with the condition that she finds the apartment herself.
“What am I going to do after I find an apartment and the Municipality has paid my rent for six months?” she says. “I’ll be forced to go back to the shelter again. I have no other place to go.”
Merita* is in a similar situation. Six months have passed since she sought refuge at the Shelter for Women and Children in Pristina. This is the second time the 32-year-old has turned to the center for help after the physical and psychological violence exercised by both her spouse and mother-in-law. She was forced to leave her three children behind, and now she rarely sees them.
“Every day I insist on leaving the shelter, but even if I go out, I have no place to go."
She has also remained without a long-term solution because she has been unable to access any of her ex-husband’s wealth, saying that everything is in the name of his parents. Her own family doesn’t want to take her in and she says they won’t even consider sharing their wealth with her.
“Lately, I have concluded the trial for divorce,” Merita says. “No share of his assets was given to me. Even my family refuses to help me.”
Now, all she wants from the state is housing and a job opportunity.
“I want to start a new life. I miss my children,” she says. “Every day I insist on leaving the shelter, but even if I go out, I have no place to go. I appeal to the state to help me, to find a job for me at least. I know how to cook. I’m good at cooking.”
Despite her pleas, Merita says she has already lost hope that “someone will help.”
There are thousands of women throughout Kosovo who have experienced and continue to experience domestic violence. They remain at the mercy of “destiny” — without housing, and without employment.
In most cases, they have become victims of systematic violence because they have returned to their abusers, unable to find sustainable housing or employment solutions. So far, state institutions have offered only short-term solutions.
Reported domestic violence on the rise
Njomza and Merita are among hundreds of women who have sought shelter in Kosovo at one of the country’s eight shelters.
Last year, 432 survivors were registered at domestic violence shelters. From this total, 75 people, including Njomza, were received by the Safe House shelter in the Municipality of Gjakova.
Shelter director Sakibe Doli says that most survivors are from the Gjakova municipality, but that there are also people from other municipalities such as Malisheva and Rahovec, with the survivors coming from both cities and villages.
The age of survivors, according to statistics provided by the center, ranges from 20 to 70 years, and there are also children up to 13 years old. In over 90% of cases, the abuser is the husband, while in the other 10% it is a member of the family.
Domestic violence — in numbers
Reports to police of domestic violence are on the rise.
In 2017, the highest number of domestic violence cases was noted in the region of Prishtina, with 298 cases in total; the Prizren region had 242 cases, while the Peja region had 211.
In 2018, the Prishtina region again had the highest number of cases with 442; the Prizren region was again second with 251 cases, while the Gjilan region had the third highest number of cases with 211.
Violence most often occurred between spouses in each of these years: 553 cases in 2017, and 727 cases in 2018. The second most common form of domestic violence was between father and son, with 142 cases in 2017 and 162 cases in 2018.
Reports of domestic violence has risen across ethnicities: In 2017, police received reports from 1,045 Albanians; 107 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians; and 87 Serbs. In 2018 those numbers were 1,287 Albanians; 123 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians; and 101 Serbs.
400 people were arrested as suspects in domestic violence cases in 2017; this increased to 499 arrests in 2018.
Meanwhile, five people lost their lives as a result of domestic violence in 2017, and six people in 2018.
*Data from Kosovo Police
Doli says that the causes of violence vary from drug and alcohol abuse to low self-confidence, a prevailing patriarchal mindset and difficult economic conditions.
She explains that last year they sheltered 44 women and 31 children (17 girls and 14 boys), while this year, in the first trimester alone they registered 50 cases — 24 women and 26 children (21 girls and 8 boys).
The growing demand for shelter has coincided with an increased number of domestic violence cases reported to police. Based on statistics provided by Kosovo Police, 1,541 cases were reported in 2018, an 18% increase from the 1,269 cases reported in 2017.
Police data also shows that violence most commonly occurs between spouses, with the second highest number of cases occurring between fathers and sons. In 2017, 818 women and 227 men reported being victims of domestic violence, while in 2018, 1,189 reported victims were women and 308 were men.
Capital city Prishtina has the highest number of reported domestic violence cases.
Since the shelter was re-opened in June 2018, after an 18 month hiatus, there have been 55 new cases that required shelter, according to newly-appointed director Zana Hamiti-Asllani. She says that most of them are from Prishtina municipality, but that there are also survivors from other municipalities such as Fushë Kosova, Lipjan, Obiliq, Drenas and Podujeva.
In most shelters in the country, a survivor can stay for up to six months — in some for up to a year — depending on the internal status and capacity of the centers, as well as the resources that they have at their disposal.
However, very often survivors stay for longer.
Director Doli says that in the center in Gjakova, in which survivors can technically stay for up to 12 months, some have stayed for up to three years.
Hamiti-Asllani says that there is a similar situation in the center in Prishtina. She says that they cannot leave survivors who have experienced psychological or physical violence “on the streets.”
“The reason that a victim continues to stay in the center for more than six months is because she has nowhere to go, her family members do not accept her and she cannot survive if she does not have any income,” Hamiti-Asllani explains. “We have a domestic violence case in which the victim is no longer physically endangered but is still here with us because she has nowhere to go and social workers have not yet managed to find housing for her.”
The social workers are from the Center for Social Work, which functions within the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW). They work as liaisons between the survivors in the shelter and the municipality, as the latter is tasked with providing housing. MLSW is additionally responsible for licensing shelters, because they are registered as non-profit organizations.
Up until last year, half of the costs of shelters were covered by the Ministry, and the other half by municipalities but lobbying by women’s rights activists has led to an increase in budget allocation from central level funding.
From the beginning of the year, 60,000 euros were allocated from the 2019 budget for licensing shelters. According to Kosovo Women’s Network, an NGO that has advocated for the inclusion of this budget line, the sum was allocated based on estimations conducted by shelter representatives regarding annual costs.
To date however, KWN says that the shelters have only received half of the funds that have been allocated to them, while recurrent cases remain without long-term support.
Shelter without long-term support mechanisms
Shelter in itself does not provide long-term solutions, and this is especially true for women who are survivors of continuous violence.
According to Hamiti-Asllani, many of the survivors who have found refuge in the Prishtina center are recurrent cases. She says that this is happening particularly because they are not being provided with housing and as such “they are being forced to return to their abusers.”
As the institution that drafts social policies, the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare was contacted to learn more about the reintegration of survivors and settlement of their housing issues. However, according to Musa Demiri, head of the Ministry’s Public Communication Office, although the Ministry provides grants for sheltering, rehabilitation and reintegration of domestic violence survivors in eight shelters, responsibility for housing falls on the municipalities.
“Social services address every case of domestic violence based on their mandate, including coordination and providing advice on cases without exit strategies, but it is the responsibility and mandate of municipalities to provide long-term housing for citizens when they are already victims of violence,” he says.
The National Strategy for Protection from Domestic Violence and the 2016-2020 Action Plan determine that municipalities are responsible for providing sustainable solutions for long term rehabilitation and reintegration of domestic violence survivors, including long term housing solutions.
However, according to a 2017 KWN report, “representatives of municipal institutions lacked knowledge regarding the relevant legal framework and their responsibilities. None of the municipalities examined had set aside a budget for implementing the [National Strategy] or any other programs for persons who have suffered gender-based violence.”
According to KWN, in essence this situation has not yet changed.
Regarding the issue of housing, officials from the Municipality of Gjakova said they had no requests from survivors in 2018 regarding long term housing.
“All cases of violence are referred by the police and the Center for Social Work to the Safe House in Gjakova for sheltering,” says Blerta Qela, an official at the Municipality of Gjakova. “The Municipality didn’t receive any case in 2018. In 2019, we have had one case in which we will pay the rent for the victim.”
Meanwhile, based on statistics for 2018 and the first trimester of 2019, officials from the Municipality of Prishtina’s Directorate for Social Welfare stated that they have not provided long term shelter to any survivor of domestic violence because they have not received such requests.
“In identified cases of domestic violence in the Municipality of Prishtina, mainly through social workers, we have managed to intermediate reconciliation between parties, and in cases in which this was not achieved, the victims returned to their biological families,” says Premtim Fazliu, coordinator at the capital’s Directorate for Social Welfare. “However, upon request, we provide all victims with long term housing opportunities, by subsidizing their rent or securing donations to build houses for those that have [land] under their name.”
NGOs such as KWN estimate that the state’s failure is due to a lack of will to allocate funds, as well as a lack of awareness for dealing with these cases more seriously.
Fazliu adds that in this year’s action plan they foresaw a project for social housing, with the objective of providing long term housing solutions.
“This is for all cases of homelessness, including people who are victims of domestic violence,” he says. “As for short term housing cases, there are only three of this kind. For these cases, we have subsidized the rent of victims for three to six months.”
However, NGOs such as KWN are more critical regarding attempts to find more long term solutions. They estimate that the state’s failure in this regard is due to a lack of will to allocate funds, as well as a lack of awareness for dealing with these cases more seriously.
“Municipalities hesitate to secure housing for victims,” says the organization in its response to questions. “Only recently have courts started to realize the rights of victims through the compensation fund. Employment Centers have failed to prioritize women who have experienced violence.”
Meanwhile, Doli says that the Law against Domestic Violence determines that coordinative mechanisms must be established in municipalities so as to facilitate more efficient coordination with shelters. She believes that up until now this cooperation has been hampered by a lack of will from municipalities.
Additionally, Doli sees another issue in the lack of engagement toward the reintegration of survivors, for example through employment by state institutions. This is one of many gaps that her center tries to fill through foreign donations and memorandums of understanding.
“We offer training courses for victims in the Vocational Training Center, including trainings for different occupations and skills, such as tailoring, hairdressing, administration, accounting, cooking, beekeeping, knitting, embroidery and English language courses,” she says. “Additionally, the women can also work in the city as janitors or babysitters, and keep the income that they earn for themselves.”
Serb community with limited access
Despite there being eight shelters around Kosovo, for women from the Serb community, accessing these shelters is difficult.
Both Doli and Hamiti-Asllani say that they have not received a case from the Serb community in years. Meanwhile, the shelter that was established in Novobërdë last year and that has been supported financially by UNMIK, KFOR and the OSCE, has yet to be functionalized, with its professionals still in the process of receiving their licenses.
However, it seems that the most problematic issue is in the northern part of the country, where there are no registered shelters.
Regarding this situation, Tijana Simic, manager of the Center for the Protection of Women and Prevention of Gender-Based and Domestic Violence, which provides free legal and psychological aid as well as reintegration services, says that last year there was a surge in the number of violence cases compared to 2017.
“Our center has provided services to around 800 clients in the last couple of years,” she says. “But the increase in the number of cases does not necessarily mean that there is more domestic violence.”
Instead, Simic believes that the establishment of the court in the north could have motivated women to report abuse.
According to Simic, survivors of violence in the north often seek shelter in the Shelter Center in the South of Mitrovica, which is run by Albanians.
“We have good cooperation with that center, however, victims hesitate to go there,” she says. “It’s another trauma for them. Nevertheless, they do receive the necessary care.”
Regarding housing solutions for survivors, Simic says that they have no general information about whether or not any of them have been provided long term housing, but adds that solutions of this kind have not been provided for survivors that have been received in her center.
She believes that difficulties arose the moment the court in the north started to function under the patronage of the Republic of Kosovo in late 2017.
“We need to raise awareness, we need to train service providers — police, medical staff, prosecutors, judges, social workers.”
Simic says that before this most marriages were legalized in the Serbian court in the north of Mitrovica, and mothers gave birth in the Serbian hospital. After the court was integrated in the Kosovo system, the system no longer recognized those marriages or the birth certificates that were issued by the Serbian system.
Moreover, the court did not recognize decisions issued by the Serbian court before the judicial reintegration.
“We had a case in which the woman could not file for divorce because she registered her marriage at a Serbian court, and she couldn’t even seek custody or visiting hours for one of her children because the child did not have a Kosovo birth certificate. So the child was not recognized by the system,” she explains.
“This happened around a year before the issue of document recognition was solved. In the negotiations in Brussels, these issues were not foreseen. The negotiators did not think about the practical changes that would happen during and after the transition.”
Simic also highlights the “complicated process,” adding that some women with whom she has talked have been discouraged from going through the courts due to the lengthy procedures involved.
She believes that to provide solutions in this regard, the state must approve and implement the Istanbul Convention — the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence — which Kosovo is attempting to become a signatory of.
The Convention determines the role of the state, institutions and NGO service providers.
“It is imperative that we review relevant laws to adapt them in accordance with the Istanbul Convention,” Simic says.
Overall, she believes that the issues facing the Serb community when it comes to domestic violence, as well as the potential solutions, are broadly similar to those facing other communities.
“We need to raise awareness, we need to train service providers — police, medical staff, prosecutors, judges, social workers,” she says. “We need to recognize organizations that are directed by women, which provide specialized support services in collaboration with local authorities.”
KWN agrees that strong action is required when it comes to tackling domestic violence, supporting survivors and changing the culture that often treats survivors as the ones to blame.
“The most common reason why a man is a recidivist of violence is related to punitive policies for the perpetrators of violence and the culture of victim-blaming,” KWN says.
“So, there is an attempt to minimize violence, and women’s statements are not taken into account. When the abuser sees that the state does not take any action, they continue to repeat violent behaviors against their family members. Meritorious punishment for this category significantly affects the minimization of recidivism.”
Information about domestic violence, especially about the approach and final court verdicts regarding such cases, was requested from Kosovo Judicial Council. However, in their response they did not provide this data. Some statistics on offenses related to marriage and family were provided, most of which are in regard to child-related obligations as well as illegal marriages, while statistics on cases of violence were excluded.K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
* The names of the domestic violence survivors features in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
This article was written as part of the “My house, my rights” project, implemented by the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AGK) and supported by UNMIK (Confidence Building Measures Project – CBMP). The content of this publication is the responsibility of the author and can in no way be considered to represent the position of UNMIK or AGK.