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15 May 2011

Medica Kosova: Breaking the silence

During the Kosova War, Serbian members of the military raped thousands of Kosova Albanian women and girls, and Albanian militiamen committed acts of terrible violence against Roma women. The military razed houses, destroyed fields and killed men and boys. What remains are many war widows and women who have to date not managed to speak about what happened to them. For rape is regarded as a “violation of honour” in traditional Kosovan society. It is a taboo subject.

Immediately after the war, in 1999, medica mondiale opened an interdisciplinary counselling centre for women in rural Gjakova, an area that was known for particularly merciless massacres. This centre developed into medica Kosova (mK), an independent Kosovan women’s organisation that is today a symbol for the sensitive and innovative support for traumatised women on the one hand and for the brave effort in favour of their rights at government level and in the media on the other hand. Almost 2,000 women have so far received psychosocial counselling, gynaecological treatment and legal assistance. Thanks to the medica Kosova team of 30, many women have started to cope with their war time experiences and to develop prospects for the future.

Breaking the silence – psychosocial counselling

Even after the war, women are not relieved from their burdens. War rapes are a taboo in the strongly patriarchal society of Kosova still today. Women must remain silent about what has been done to them – otherwise they risk being stigmatised and excluded from society. By offering consultation and therapy, mK helps women to overcome their traumatic experiences and to gradually regain mental stability. The ten mK counsellors assist women in looking for possibilities to earn money and places to train or in applying for social welfare. In addition, they support mourning women, whose dead family members have only in recent years been retransferred from Serbian mass graves and buried.

Gynaecological care with psychosomatic orientation

There are hardly any women’s doctors in Kosova – much less trauma-specialised gynaecologists. Women having experienced sexual violence and assaults are often left to their own devices as regards the consequences this entails for their health. mK’s gynaecological out-patient department – a bus converted into a gynaecological treatment room – is currently calling at nine villages around Gjakova. About 2,000 gynaecological consultations and treatments per year are carried out there and at the gynaecological practice at the medica Kosova centre. The doctors working there are psychosomatically trained: they watch out for trauma symptoms in the women and refer clients to counsellors.

Agricultural project and support groups

The rural region of Kosova is still governed by the old customary law of “Kanun”. According to this law, war widows are tied to the deceased husband’s family for good, are not allowed to remarry or lead an independent life. MK opposes this great restriction by setting up support groups in nine villages. Over 200 women – almost all of them widows – have started small agricultural production projects: they engage in beekeeping, sell hay and milk, gather sweet chestnuts for the local market. The grief about their husbands, sons and other family members may be omnipresent – but building up their own livelihood as farmers gives the women a prospect and lends them strength.

Help for ethnic minorities

Women belonging to an ethnic minority bear a double burden in Kosova. Roma, Sinti or Askhali are exposed to violence and discrimination almost all over the country. In addition, most of these women live in abject poverty and under difficult social conditions. A violent atmosphere that is particularly tough on women often reigns in their settlements. Since the end of the war, medica Kosova has been supporting minority women in Kosova offering them medical and psychosocial counselling.

Legal assistance

Kosova’s constitution guarantees women and men the same rights. In practice, however, court rulings are still strongly influenced by the centuries-old tribal law of “Kanun”, which puts women at an extreme disadvantage – especially in rural areas. With her work, mK’s lawyer shows the deep rift between statute law and the law that is applied in reality by demanding the actual implementation of rights for women in court. She counsels women and supports them in particular in matters of custody, alimony and inheritance.

Politics for women

medica Kosova campaigns for strengthening and implementing women’s rights also at political level. In particular, medica Kosova has embarked on lifting the taboo of sexualised violence in war and taken up the fight for compensation for victims of war rapes. Numerous campaigns, media reports, radio and TV programmes inform the public about the situation of women raped in war. In order to increase pressure on the government and the international community, medica Kosova is now tying bonds with other women’s organisations in the “Kosova Women’s Network”. Together they fight for a compensation fund.