Imprisoned By Fear

Serbia’s legion of secret, battered wives are at last speaking up about the daily violence many of them endure, but social workers and support groups warn that there is much work still to be done.

“Had I known about the hell awaiting me in this marriage, I would never have married him in the first place,” said Vesna Aritonovic, 38, from Vranje in southern Serbia. “He started beating me as soon as we married, almost daily, without any serious reason,” she added. “He would hit me with his fists, kick me, or throw things at me.”

It took 18 years before Aritonovic plucked up the courage to leave behind this life of casual, routine torture. One reason why she stuck it out for as long as she did is because she had no one to turn to – an orphan, she had no close relatives. Her husband’s parents naturally took their son’s side and even joined in. They, too, used to hit her now and then.

Aritonovic said she never knew quite when or why violence would start. It might be because he did not like the lunch she had made, or because she had moved a shirt from where he had left it.

“Once the beans I cooked were not salty enough,” she recalled. “First he threw the pot through the window and then he started hitting me all over my body with his fists. Scenes like this happened every day. I was scared stiff every time I heard him unlocking the gate at night. He would start beating me as soon as he entered, without explanation.”

Her one ally was one of her daughters. Now a secondary school student, it was she who persuaded her mother to run away with her seven months ago. They took a rented apartment, though even there, life was far from secure. Her husband found her address and tried to break in on several occasions. It is only now that he has been hospitalised at the Neuropsychiatric Ward in Vranje Hospital that she feels temporarily safe.

Aritonovic’s story is not unique to Vranje. Her experience is replicated in remarkably similar terms by women victims of violence all over Serbia. Research by the Victimology Society of Serbia suggests physically abusive marriages are all too common and that as many as one in every three women has, at some stage, experienced physical violence within the family.

Women’s organisations say the incidence of violence is not necessarily on the rise – it is the number of reported cases, and awareness of family violence as an issue, that is going up. Partly this is a response to the media, which is reporting on the phenomenon more and more often and urging women victims to contact helplines. However women’s activists say the media can only raise consciousness of the problem – it is for the government and the courts to do more to combat the violence. They say judges are reluctant to hand down serious jail sentences for family violence and that lengthy court procedures often mean victims give up, as they usually have to remain under the same roof as the offender in the meantime, for the simple reason that the man is normally the breadwinner. {mospagebreak}

Lack of coordination presents another hurdle. Institutions dealing with family violence, such as the police, social workers and doctors do not co-ordinate approaches and tactics, or share information, except at local level and in a handful of municipalities. Finally, prejudice against the victims continues to be a formidable obstacle to the identification of this form of violence.

A good law – but is it used?
In March 2002, family violence was designated a criminal offence in Serbia. Three years later, in 2005, parliament passed a Law on the Family, which defined family violence as “behaviour by one of the family members that endangers the bodily integrity, mental health or peace of another family member”.

The criminal code in Serbia, as of 1 January 2006, stipulated sentences for such acts of violence, ranging from fines to (up to) 12 years in prison in the case of death of a victim. In addition, the Law on the Family introduced several protective measures for victims, the most important being the expulsion of the offender from the family home and restraint orders preventing him from contacting the victim at home, in the street or at the workplace.

Women’s rights activists say the new law is satisfactory and complies with European standards, but the real problem lies in the field of implementation. Ivana Slavkovic, coordinator of the Autonomous Women’s Centre in Belgrade, says although police are now obliged to respond to every call, they still do not have standardised protocols for handling family violence.

“Sometimes they come to the place where violence has been committed and file a report for disturbance of the peace against both the husband and the wife, so the victim of violence is punished too,” said Slavkovic. She also said that this explained why only a minority of cases were qualified as family violence, while most were logged as injuries or, in more extreme cases, as murders. It also explains why there are no accurate statistics on the number of family violence cases in Serbia.

Suzana Antic-Ristic, president of the Human Rights Committee in Vranje, which hosts a Legal Counselling Service and an SOS telephone line for women and children, said the police often failed to intervene in time, believing violence was an internal family matter.

“We had one case of a husband beating his wife, who managed to call her mother, who then called us,” said Antic-Ristic. “We called the police immediately, who asked us to explain how we knew what was going on and how we found out the husband was beating his wife. They asked also why the victim did not call the police herself.”

Apart from the police, social workers and the courts have had difficulties in adjusting to the new family law. Ivana Slavkovic said social workers still operated on models of practice taken from the 1970s, when family violence did not exist as a separate offence. {mospagebreak}

The Autonomous Women’s Centre is working to achieve closer cooperation between social work centres, police, courts and non-governmental organisations, NGOs. But Antic-Ristic says it will take years before such cooperation is routine. “It will take at least ten years to standardise practices over the whole of Serbia,” she said. “For the time being, it is up to individual initiatives at municipal level.”

The following local examples show that such cooperation is possible and also that it can deliver successes:

In Sombor, in northern Vojvodina, police and the local social work centre have been cooperating for several years. They go on calls together, are both available 24 hours a day, and prepare statistics jointly, which is unique in Serbia. Silvija Kranjc, director of the social work centre in Sombor, said their joint work had yielded results.

“Thanks to this cooperation, the competencies of our institution have been expanded – people are getting used to receiving quick and immediate help and they are more willing to report cases of family violence.”

Milan Glumac, police chief in Sombor, said the incentive to cooperate was provided by the rise in the number of reported cases of family violence. He said the biggest obstacle now was drawn-out court procedures and the inadequate training of judges for family violence cases.

Women’s activists agree. “We have victims of family violence who have been staying at a counselling centre for months and the court has not yet even scheduled a divorce hearing,” said Vesna Stanojevic, who runs a counselling centre and a safe house for women in Belgrade.
Ivana Slavkovic, of the Autonomous Women’s Centre, said that in addition to slow procedures, another problem was a legal requirement that women should appear as witnesses in court.

“Without the testimony of the woman the procedure cannot be completed and in the meantime the victim has no protection from the state, except for accommodation in a shelter, and this cannot go on forever,” she said. “Court procedures may take as long as a year, and it may be two years before the case even comes to court,” she added. “In this period many women change their minds and decide not to testify, because of guilt or pressure from their environment,” she added.

Although the new Law on the Family was passed in 2005, Maja Jovanovic, a lawyer at the Counselling Centre for Victims of Violence in Vranje, says not much has changed in practice.
“The Municipal Court in Vranje says that since September 2005, five procedures for protection against family violence have been taken under the new Law on the Family. One procedure ended when the motion was withdrawn, and the other cases are pending.”

Ljubisa Nikolic, a municipal prosecutor in Leskovac, said the courts were right to intervene as little as possible in marital breakdowns. “We should always try to save the marriage,” he said. “Colleagues with years of experience, and myself, believe the marriage should be saved and court procedure avoided.” {mospagebreak}

Dependent women can’t leave home
Along with the poor coordination of institutions and sluggish court cases, a key factor that forces many victims of violence to remain under the same roof as their assailants is economic dependence. Analysis of employment policy in Serbia by the Council of Europe last August said the percentage of women in salaried work was dropping fast in Serbia. From 47 per cent of women in 1997, the percentage had dropped to 36.7 per cent in 2004, the report said.

Research on domestic violence shows that even in countries with more efficient judicial systems, women find it difficult to leave their abusers on account of their economic dependence and their fear of being unable to support their children. In Serbia, too, women hesitate to leave abusers because they cannot support themselves or their children and have no alternative accommodation.

Vesna Aritonovic, who left her violent partner in Vranje only after 18 years, says she was close to packing and leaving many times, but was afraid her salary of about a hundred euros a month would not provide food and board for her children. “You need first to pay the rent and all the other expenses – only then can you spend the rest on food,” she said. “I put up with this tyranny because at least my children were safe, as my drunken husband never touched them,” she added. “Even now I still cannot file for divorce because I don’t have enough money,” she went on.

Merima, a mother of two from Novi Pazar, in the Sandzak region, also endured humiliation and abuse from her husband because of her economic dependence. She says her husband took advantage of her plight, telling her: “go, if you can find a place where you’ll be better off”. Unlike Aritonovic, she has parents, but they cannot help.

“My parents barely make ends meet and I have a sister who is divorced,” she said. “I don’t dare even think of moving in with them with my two children.” Merima said she would need about 200 euros a month just to rent a decent apartment, “which is the best I could hope to make if I found a job. But how would I then feed my children?”

“Maybe I deserve it”
Besides their economic dependence on their abusers, society’s ingrained prejudices prevent many women from reporting crimes of domestic violence and even from recognising when they are victims of violence. Silvija Kranjc, of the Social Work Centre in Sombor, says women conceal the violence they experience because they are embarrassed to report it, having been brought up to keep quiet about the rougher side of marriage.

“There is a general opinion in society that ‘normal’ women wouldn’t put up with violence, or they are masochists, or mad, or just deserve it,” she said.

Ivana Slavkovic, of the Autonomous Women’s Centre, says women often are not even aware they are victims. “Women often say ‘It’s alright when he hits me when I deserve it, but it bothers me when he hits me for no reason’,” she said.

Suzana Antic-Ristic, of the Human Rights Committee in Vranje, says victims of violence routinely resist turning to anyone for help out of strong feelings of shame and embarrassment. “Women come to our offices for help only when violence becomes unbearable,” she said. “Many women unfortunately think that they deserve torture and abuse, and that it’s normal. What also gets in women’s way is an inability to recognise and define violence,” she added. “I’ve had women tell me their husbands slapped their faces ten times that year, and they see that as normal.”

A separate problem she raised involved ethnic Albanian women from southern Serbia. As culturally conservative Muslims, from a society that is in conflict with Serbia, they face a particular dilemma of their own. Antic-Ristic said even when they called the SOS line they never dared visit the office in person. {mospagebreak}

Vesna Aritonovic was imprisoned by her own shame for years, she now believes. “I didn’t want people to find out about our shame,” she said. “Now I think of how many times I skipped work just because I didn’t want colleagues to see bruises on my face.” She added: “My husband drank all day, spent his time at the bar, fooled around with other women and neglected the children. But, I believed that staying in the home was better for them. Was I wrong!”

Besides fear of being condemned by wider society, many abused women face pressure from their own family to stay with their abusers, as many parents see a daughter’s divorce as their own personal shame.

Mejra Kuc, 40, from Novi Pazar, who left a violent partner after almost 20 years of marriage, says over the years she got used to being battered daily by her husband because her parents would not countenance her suing for a divorce. Her patriarchal family said they would be ashamed. Her mother merely advised her to put up with everything because that is exactly what she had done.

“The first beating came as a shock, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Later it became a habit, and I stopped feeling pain. First he hit me with his hands, then his fists and later he used different cords – even the vacuum cleaner extension tube,” she added. “God knows what would have happened if I hadn’t heard the advertisement for the SOS line and talked openly to someone about my problem.”

Suzana Antic-Ristic adds that Vranje residents would be very surprised if they knew just how many of their most respected and prominent citizens had a tendency towards acts of family violence.
“You see these people out in the streets, looking happy, with smiles on their faces, but it’s a facade,” she said. “Many wives of respected husbands are our regular clients “

Antic-Ristic cites the example of one respected retired doctor who she says physically battered his wife, his divorced daughter and even his baby granddaughter. She only found out when the wife and daughter turned up at the centre and reported what was going on.

Only a minority follow Vesna Aritonovic in fleeing their abusers. She has no regrets, and although she struggles to make ends meet on a salary of 90 euros a month, she says she is happy she finally escaped from what she calls her family hell.

This article was produced with the kind cooperation of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network: