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29 May 2017

Women’s rights heroine Sofije T.: “I want our voice to be heard.”

During the Kosovo war she was raped. Today she is fighting for justice for women who survived sexualised violence. Sofije T. is a client of our partner organisation Medica Gjakova. Her story is sad but also encouraging.

Sofije T. lives with her husband and five children near Gjakova in Kosovo. However, because she was not wearing a wedding dress at her wedding, she still doubts whether she really is married. That was in 1999, during the Kosovo war. Sofije’s father had arranged for her to be married at the age of 14, in the hope that her husband would be able to protect her.

However, when the soldiers came, Sofije and her mother-in-law were alone at home.

“I couldn’t fight off 30 men. I tried to defend myself, grabbing one of them by the arm, but I couldn’t escape.”

Four of the men raped her. Estimates suggest 20,000 women were raped during the Kosovo war. Today the survivors of sexualised violence still have no official recognition or compensation for the injustice they underwent.

A war pension for survivors

At 33, Sofije T. is now a client of our partner organisation in Kosovo, Medica Gjakova. She is working together with the Kosovan women’s rights organisation to fight for a pension for women who were raped during the war. Although there are plans to introduce a monthly pension for survivors, the political implementation is faltering. “A pension would mean a lot to me. Of course, it cannot heal my mind or spirit. But I would be able to afford to buy my medicines regularly and give my children a few things they want,” said Sofije, sitting upright as a smile spread across her round face.

“My head is bleeding, my body is bleeding.”This is her reply when asked how she is. The perpetrators stabbed her in the leg with knives and a hole in the back of her head is evidence of being hit with the butt of a rifle. Doctors diagnosed epilepsy and last month she had a heart attack. It was only in 2013, some 15 years after the attack, that Sofije heard about the assistance on offer from Medica Gjakova. She says she benefitted greatly from the one-to-one and group sessions with the psychosocial counsellor Fehmije Luzha.

Women’s rights work at Medica Gjakova

 Gynaecologists and counsellors from Medica Gjakova visit the villages around Gjakova several times each month. They organise events where they can provide information on health issues or domestic violence, and by doing so they establish a sense of trust with the women. Then they can address the issue of sexualised violence. Sofije attended one of these events.

“I realised that there is a place where I can share my pain and where everything is dealt with confidentially.”

Sofije speaks about violence against women

It took six months before the young woman was ready to speak about her experiences – in one-to-one sessions at first, and then in one of the groups organised by Medica Gjakova. “We meet once a fortnight. Often I can hardly wait for the next meeting.” “If she is not feeling well between the meetings, she can reach for the phone. She says that hearing my voice helps her to calm down,” says her counsellor Fehmije.

Sofije first heard of the war pension in one of the group sessions. At home she spoke about it to her husband. He knows about the rapes – she told him – and he supports and encourages her. “I want to apply for the pension. I could use the money to pay for the medicines I urgently need.” Before Sofije heard about Medica Gjakova, she hardly went out. Receiving the organisation’s support is helping Sofije: “I have learnt to say ‘stop’ and how to behave in conversations or discussions. But I still hurt because of what I experienced.”

In order to make her voice heard, Sofije travelled to the capital Pristina to attend the women’s rights conference ‘Empower Women Now’. There she stood up in front of politicians and ambassadors to tell her story.

“I want our voice to be heard. Not just here, but all over the world.”