On the 23rd of October, the First international conference on sexual violence in Croatia was held in the Croatian Parliament. It was organized by the Women’s Room – Centre for Sexual Rights, in partnership with the Governmental Office for Gender Equality and the Centre for Education, Counseling and Research (CESI). The focus of the conference was on the system of public policies and support for victims of sexual violence.
The conference was opened with introductory speeches by Helena Štimac Radin, Director of the Governmental Office for Gender Equality, Višnja Ljubičić, Gender Equality Ombudswoman and Maja Sporiš, Deputy Minister of Social Policies and Youth.
The first lecture was delivered by Liz Kelly, Director of the Department of Studies on Violence against Women and Children at the London Metropolitan University. Liz Kelly has been actively involved in the issue of violence against women and children for forty years and is the author of the book Surviving Sexual Violence. In this book, sexual violence is defined as a continuum, which means that it is only a “natural” continuation of heterosexual relationships and that it is regularly experienced by all women and girls. She condemned the depoliticizing practice of placing sexual violence in the context of domestic violence, as well as using the term date-rape.
The following lecture was delivered by Catherine Le Magueresse, lawyer and former president of the European Organization against Violence against Women in the Workplace (Association europèenne contre les violences faites aux femmes au travail – AVFT). She mentioned some court cases in which the defendant had been released, for instance due to lack of evidence, and consequently charges would be pressed against the victims for defamation. As key points in the prevention of sexual violence Le Magueresse underlined the education of boys and girls, exhaustive work on the transformation of public opinion and the reorganization of the judicial practice, primarily by standardizing to process of collecting evidence and bringing an end to the limited period for application in cases of violence.
Independent researcher and consultant from Serbia, member GREVIO – the independent expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) by the Parties, Biljana Brankovic, stressed the obligations of States Parties to the Council of Europe. States are obliged to provide the necessary legislative or other measures in order to prevent, investigate, penalise and provide reparation for acts of violence covered by this Convention. Furthermore, she pointed to the proportion of victims of sexual violence in Serbia that remain without institutional care and support. Data shows that the amount of criminal charges, indictments and convictions for the crime of domestic violence in Serbia in the period from 2004 to 2014 has consecutively grown, while the reporting of rape, as well as condemnation, had been extremely low.
Lepa Mlađenović, feminist and anti-war activist from Belgrade, co-founder of the lesbian organisation Labris and the anti-war group Women in Black, apologized for all the crimes Serbia committed during the war in the 1990s. She noted that it is crucial to break the silence about sexual violence, as well as to ensure not only help and support, but also fair trial procedures. She emphasized that silence is a political issue because the state deliberately chooses not to believe in the experience of women who experienced sexual violence, while the basic need of the victims is to be believed, to be heard and supported.
As for the Croatian context, the psychologist and coordinator of the Women’s Room, Maja Mamula, presented the results of a research study led by the Women’s Room in 2006. According to this study, 17 percent of women in Croatia have experienced rape or attempted rape, which is about 300 000 women. Furthermore, 95 percent of experienced violence has not been reported, and 91 percent was never mentioned by the victim to anyone. As the primary reasons for not reporting, Mamula stated the fear of the perpetrator, as well as of the reactions of relatives and friends. She especially noted the trauma to which the women are exposed during the reporting process. Also, the police officers responsible for taking testimony, despite substantial progress, are still not being systematically educated. Until the first hearing, the victim will have to repeat her statement up to 10 times, and there is a possibility that the truthfulness of her testimony will be verified by polygraph. Furthermore, the process takes between 3 and 6 years on average, with a rather small percentage of convictions and small prison sentences. Mamula also warned about the insufficient psychological assistance offered to women victims of sexual violence, stressing the Women’s Room as the only centre that provides this kind of support, and warning that, given the number of women in the Republic of Croatia, there should be at least eleven such centres.
The speech delivered by Hrvoje Đuran, employee of the Ministry of Interior, focused primarily on the necessity of cooperation between the police and the victims. Đuran stressed that the police officers are often the first official persons the victim encounters, but cooperation in many cases is not achieved, partly because of the victims’ distrust towards the police officers, and partly because of the officer’s lack of preparedness for action in a given situation.
At the end of the conference judges Lana Peto Kujundzic and Branka Žigante Živković criticized the existing case law, in particular the previously mentioned duration of the court proceedings. They also discussed the role of the assistant who is supposed to be offered to the victim during the process, which so far has not been a regular practice.
Some conclusions of the conference were the following: it is necessary to make the trial sensitive to the needs of victims by shortening the duration of the procedure and informing the victims, for instance, about the option of using a video link; it is important to support the existing centres for victims and open new ones; it is important to strengthen the mutual cooperation and respect for all stakeholders working to combat sexual violence and providing direct assistance and support to victims; it is necessary to emphasize the importance of cooperation between institutions and non-governmental organisations; sexual violence is a specific form of violence and therefore there should be a compulsory and systematic specialized training for persons who work with the victims and it is the responsibility of the state to ensure all the necessary conditions for such education to occur; it is necessary to provide the monitoring of the implementation of Rules of Procedure in Cases of Sexual Violence; and finally, it is extremely important that institutions continuously work with survivors of sexual violence.
At this conference, sexual violence towards women was conceptualised as a manifestation of hetero-patriarchy and therefore only perpetrated by men. This view, based on an ahistorical vision of patriarchy, prevents us in the understanding why the violence also happens between same-gender couples. Impediments that transwomen victims of violence face were also not addressed. Nevertheless, the fact that experts from different fields were brought together to discuss the problem of sexual violence in the Croatian Parliament is a very important step in raising awareness about this problem.