In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the public reporting of cases of gender-based violence and femicide in Kosovo, especially within the family. This has turned peoples’ attention towards the responsibility of institutions and their inaction in defending women, girls and other oppressed groups.
In August last year, the rape of an 11-year-old girl by five men and boys in a public park in Prishtina made the headlines. Along with massive protests there were also reactions from the government and Assembly. Soon after, there was a second revelation regarding the case. Kosovo’s internal affairs minister, Xhelal Sveçla, announced in a press conference that the 11-year-old girl had been raped before. The incident that became public in August 2022 had not been the first.
It was made known that the 11-year-old girl had been a victim of trafficking a few months before the incident in August. Months before she was raped in a public park in Prishtina, she had been assigned supervisors from the Center for Social Work (CSW).
This means that the second incident happened under institutional supervision. It turned out that the victim was reported missing at the police station early in June 2022. The moment she was found by the police, the first institution that was notified about the case was the CSW — the police, the prosecutor’s office and the courts cannot conduct procedures in such cases without the presence of a social worker.
The CSW was a key institution in the handling of both for the first and second incident and is therefore partly responsible for the failures.
Apart from the two cases involving the trafficking and rape of the 11-year-old girl, the CSW should also be the held partially accountable in cases such as: the rape and murder of an 11-year-old from Fushë Kosova, Kujtim Veseli from the Ashkali community; the murder of Hamide Gashi by her husband in the yard of the gynecology department at the University Clinical Center; the physical attack on a woman in a retirement home in Peja; and the sexual harassment of Medinë Dauti by a high school teacher in Gjilan.
Although we are used to hearing about the courts, the prosecutor’s office and the police when such incidents happen, the CSW is a key and rarely mentioned institution in the prevention of violence in such cases.
Where should CSW have been?
To illustrate, let’s go back to the case of the 11-year-old girl and how things were handled and how they should have been.
The second incident involving the minor was a failure of the CSW. If the CSW had cooperated with the police, parents and the school according to the regulations and guidelines and if a real plan was created for the reintegration of the minor, the 11-year-old girl would have been protected and the likelihood of a second incident would have been reduced.
However, information about the case has generally been kept limited, mainly on the grounds that the victim was a minor. In June 2022, two months before the incident in August, she was sent to a shelter.
A victim must be sent to a shelter by the social worker. After being housed, the shelter in cooperation with a social worker assigns a case manager and develops an individual reintegration plan for the victim.
The social worker has the duty to supervise the case by visiting the minor in the shelter every week, or as seen fit by the shelter. The CSW then facilitates the contact between the minor and the parents, which takes place under the constant observation of the social worker. The minor is only moved from the accommodation at the discretion of the shelter and the CSW case manager.
In the case of the 11-year-old girl, there is no data on which assessment and rehabilitation plan she was released from, nor how long she stayed in the shelter. In any case, shelters provide accommodation for only six months.
However, when a victim leaves a shelter, the shelter and CSW must inform the victim’s family, police and victim’s assigned monitor to follow the case further. The CSW also has the right to propose the removal of parental custody to the court, based on their evaluation throughout the process. The course of events in this case shows that the CSW did not make a proper assessment the first or the second time.
No explanations were ever provided for these failures, even by the Ministry of Finance, Labour and Transfers, which is responsible for monitoring the CSW. The Law on Social Services requires that the ministry must establish an investigative commission which “conducts its work publicly and publishes its conclusions and recommendations” to the CSW when it comes to “incidents or circumstances that arouse serious public concern or when important issues with public interest happen in the field of social services.” This case was one of them.
The creation of this commission was one of the main demands of the protesters, who filled the streets of Prishtina on August 31 and September 5, 2022, demanding responsibility for this incident.
Inside Social Work Centers
Before 2009, what was then the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, through the Department of Social and Family Policies, managed and provided social services through these centers.
In 2009, through a Memorandum of Understanding between the labor ministry, the finance ministry and the Ministry of Local Government Administration, the responsibility to manage the CSW was transferred to the municipal directorates for health and social welfare. Although decentralization was done in the name of increasing the quality of social services, the situation does not seem to have changed for the better. Data shows that social services provided today continue to be poor.
The decentralization found the municipalities unprepared to manage social services. According to the 2019 annual report from the Ombudsman and according to a 2020 report from the Coalition of NGOs for the Protection of Children, centers for social work suffer from a number of problems. These include inadequate funding, lack of personnel, work overloads on existing personnel, lack of necessary equipment (such as vehicles), infrastructural problems and inadequate spaces.
All these translate into a failure to protect those who need social services.
Across all municipalities in Kosovo, there are a total of 40 centers for social work that provide social services at the municipal level for 47 categories of people. These categories include adult or minor victims of sexual crimes, domestic violence, trafficking, children without care, child beggars, children doing manual labor and those with mental health problems.
Today, centers for social work remain places that children, young people, women and minority communities see as simply administrative spaces for social assistance schemes and not as bodies that provide social and psychological support and maintain the well-being of vulnerable citizens.
The fact that nothing is being done to change the situation is also demonstrated by the fact that the centers do not have websites where people can find the nearest location and get information about the services offered. Although the website of the Municipality of Prishtina contains the locations of the centers, in most other municipalities’ websites, accessing information about social centers is difficult and the addresses are often not available. There are some municipalities that have not shared any information about their centers.
Furthermore, the facilities in the centers are mostly in terrible condition. Even the main CSW in Prishtina is dark and cold, there are files covered in dust and the rooms are small. Apart from the fact that it is unfriendly inside, some cannot enter at all. The facility is located on the second floor and is accessible by stair, violating a fundamental right of a group that the CSW should protect — disabled people.
Another problem faced by the centers is the general lack of workers and especially social workers.
Apparently, anyone can be a social worker, except those who hold a degree in the field. Those who work in centers for social work, especially after the exacerbation of human rights issues with the pandemic and an increased need for these services, are forced to fill all roles, serving as psychologists, counselors and social workers all at once.
Social work is one of the career paths with the most responsibility. Therefore, specialization and experience are required, especially considering that they have the obligation to address the specific needs of different sensitive and vulnerable groups.
Despite this, over the years, neither the successive governments nor Assembly sessions and committees have produced a long-term plan for creating policies that serve the well-being of each and every one of us.
In January 2023, the services provided by the CSW were transferred to the Ministry of Justice. There is no public information on how exactly this process will be carried out and groups have started to object to this decision.
On April 3, 2023, the Kosovo Women’s Network, through a letter addressed to the Prime Minister; the Minister of Finance, Labour and Transfer the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health expressed their concern about this transfer, problematizing the “lack of consultation with the main stakeholders.” Among other things, the Network expressed concern and doubt about whether the Ministry of Justice has the capacity and expertise to ensure the provision of quality services. According to them, the provision of social services is outside the mandate of this ministry.
Transfers of social services from one ministry to another, delays with social policy and legislation, repeated failures in the institutional chain for the protection of victims and the dire situation in the centers all show that people’s welfare continues to play a peripheral role in institutional attention.
Where is the welfare?
Social welfare in Kosovo seems to be often understood only as providing help to those in need, such as food aid or financial support. But the ultimate goal is to promote the overall development of society through ongoing policies and initiatives.
Instead, well-being has been transformed into a number or into salary and transfer decisions. It only appears in the Assembly Committee for Health and Social Welfare, limiting well-being to health.
Social services aim to promote the well-being of individuals and communities on an ongoing basis. Transferring them to a ministry that mainly deals with the implementation of the law and the punishment of crimes risks reinforcing the idea that policy makers do not see social welfare as care and prevention, but as a reaction to crises and a means of controlling them.
The government must build mechanisms that directly call for the preservation, protection and improvement of social welfare. The lack of these mechanisms and the lack of inter-institutional mobilization to increase and improve these services have weakened the centers for social work for years and now their role is reduced to exceptional interventions in cases of violence, social assistance and other administrative services.
Social welfare through the centers only makes sense when the services of social workers reach wherever needed and especially in the places that society still sees as private — in homes, workplaces, nursing homes and in schools. Until this happens, these spaces will remain places where abuse and mistreatment occur freely and out of the state’s sight.
Feature Image: K2.0.