During the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s, tens of thousands of women and girls were raped, tortured and sexually exploited. Although Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo began to take a conscious look at their own history, gender-based violence remains a widespread problem.
Women’s rights in Southeastern Europe
- Memories of wartime terror, internment, abuse and brutal rape still shape the lives of tens of thousands of Bosnian women. During the Bosnian war (1992-1995), soldiers and paramilitaries raped approximately 20,000 to 50,000 women and girls, many of them a number of times and over many weeks and months. Most of them remain heavily traumatised since then, suffering from chronic diseases or anxiety disorders which have strong impacts on their daily life and make it impossible for them to work. Without outside support they are affected by extreme poverty.
- Compared with their peers, children of rape survivors are more likely to suffer psychological problems including depression, angst and low esteem. They often experienced emotional neglection, when their severely traumatised mothers were incapable of giving them the care and attention they needed. Also they are confronted with other everyday problems: it is difficult to register as students, for example, when birth certificates do not contain the name of the father.
- 11 percent of all women in Bosnia and Herzegovina have experienced physical or sexualised violence by their partner at least once in their lifetime. Laws for the protection of women exist, but are only implemented inconsistently. As a result, those affected cannot rely on the law and report violence less often. Two thirds of women consider violence against women to be common, and a quarter of women think that domestic violence is a private matter, that should be dealt with in the family.
- There are hardly any women’s doctors in Kosovo – 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.
- Kosovo’s constitution guarantees women and men the same rights. In practice, however, court rulings in cosovo-albanian communities are still strongly influenced by the centuries-old tribal law of “Kanun”, which puts women at an extreme disadvantage – especially in rural areas.
Thanks to the great efforts of the opposition party and the political advocacy activities of the Kosova Women's Network (KWN), the law on war victims was amended in February 2014, so it now includes persons who experienced sexualised wartime violence. Since February 2018 survivors can apply for a monthly pension of 230 euro. The survivors have to apply for compensation by 2023. Affected women, now living abroad, are also eligible. However, many survivors of rape and sexualised violence still see themselves confronted with severe problems concerning access to rehabilitation services, compensation and legal assistance. Thus according to Medica Gjakova the provision of legal support for women is the most important goal of the project.
- Women belonging to an ethnic minority bear a double burden in Kosovo. Roma (0.5 percent of the population), Sinti (less than 0.2 percent) or Askhali (0.9 percent) 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.
- According to a 2008 study, 46 per cent of women in Kosovo have experienced domestic violence at least once. In 91 percent of the cases the violence was perpetrated by men (mainly husbands). Corresponding laws such as the "Gender Equality Law" or the "Anti-Discrimination Law" were hardly ever applied in practice. Since the Penal Code was revised in 2018 and domestic violence is considered a specific criminal offence, more and more women are reporting domestic violence. This now officially includes physical, psychological, economic or sexualised violence. An important step, because gender-based violence committed in the context of domestic relationships was often treated as a civil law case and perpetrators usually went unpunished.
- In Croatia, according to UN Women 13 percent of women are affected by physical or sexualised violence in relationships. The Criminal Code distinguished between rape and "sexual intercourse without consent", according to which, for example, sexualised violence in marriage was not treated as rape and perpetrators got off with low penalties. After nationwide protests in 2019, the government announced that it would toughen the laws.
- 17 percent of women in Serbia have experienced intimate partner violence. There is a law against domestic violence, but it does not offer protection to all those affected. For example, the law does not apply to violence by an ex-partner if there are no children, or if the (ex-)partners do not live in the same household.
(Last updated: 2020)
In 2019 Medica Gjakova held 454 one-to-one psychosocial counselling sessions.
By the beginning of 2020, in Kosovo 766 survivors of sexualised wartime violence were receiving a war pension.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Medica Zenica, Vive Žene, Forgotten Children of War, Center of Womens Rights, SEKA Goražde, Budućnost, Maja Kravica, Snaga Zene, TRIAL International
Kosovo: Medica Gjakova, Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT)
Serbia: LINK Sombor, Roma Novi Becej
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Zenica Doboj, Central Bosnia, Una Sana, Bosnian Podrinje, Tuzla, Sarajevo and Herzegovina-Neretva, Republika Srpska, Brčko District
Croatia: whole country, priorities in Zagreb
Kosovo: whole country
- psychosocial, medical and legal care as well as income-generating measures
- training and competence building for staff in the healthcare and judicial sectors
- advocacy work on reparations for survivors of sexualised wartime violence
- support for expertise exchange and networking of women’s organisations
Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
Federal Foreign Office
Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ GmbH)
Foundation of War Trauma Therapy
Anne-Marie Schindler Foundation
Louis Leitz Foundation
Source: annual report 2019
The wars in former Yugoslavia may have taken place more than 20 years ago, but nationalism and discrimination still characterise political attitudes today. In these circumstances, any process of coming to terms with war and violence will only make slow progress. Our partner organisations work to counter this tendency with programmes calling for participation and reconciliation.
Dealing with the Past
The Western Balkans are still characterised by the wars of the 1990s and 2000s. Media and political speeches strongly feature nationalist narratives, and in recent years these seem to have increased rather than decreased. This imagery of heroic nations obstructs the attempts to take a more differentiated approach. Women who have experienced sexualised wartime violence are still frequently left with the feeling that they share the guilt for this. Another legacy of the war is a high incidence of gender-specific violence.
In the projects in south-east Europe, medica mondiale particularly focuses on dealing with the past – both at the level of society and of the individual survivor of sexualised wartime violence. Advocacy work on reparations for survivors of sexualised wartime violence plays a central role.
In Kosovo our partner organisations Medica Gjakova and KRCT support survivors, for example by helping them to apply for the war pension. Others such as Vive Ženeand Snaga Žene in Bosnia and Link Sombor in Serbia organise exhibitions and youth meetings to encourage a critical approach to values, norms and biographical realities. Vive Žene is also committed to the prevention of transgenerational trauma through workshops and interethnic dialogues between women and students of different ethnic background. In Serbia, the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC) represents survivors in war crimes trials.
Holistic support for survivors
In order to achieve a sustainable impact and long-term improvement for those affected, survivors of sexualised violence are supported holistically through psychosocial, medical and legal care as well as income generating measures.
In Bosnia, Budućnost is committed to the economic empowerment of women and girls through income generating activities and further education in entrepreneurship and agricultural production. CWR offers free legal advice for women affected by sexualised violence. SEKA offers psychosocial trauma therapy for survivors of war related gender-based violence. And at Vive Žene, survivors not only receive psychosocial and legal support but also medical care.
Training for professionals
The holistic approach of our work also includes the training of professionals in the health and justice sectors. The organisation TRIAL International trains and sensitises judges, public prosecutors and lawyers for a trauma-sensitive interaction with survivors of sexualised violence in court proceedings in Bosnia. Medica Zenica trains health care workers in the stress and trauma-sensitive approach of women and girls who experienced sexualised violence. SEKA offers training and further education for employees of institutions.
Working together with like-minded partner organisations is decisive if we want to increase political and social influence. Thus, medica mondiale supports the expertise exchange and networking of women’s organisations in the region. In November 2019, representatives of all partner organisations in the region came together for a symposium in Sarajevo to discuss ways of working with family systems. This will continue as will their aim to further develop these approaches.
(Status of: 2019)