Real lives

Real lives


Tackling Domestic Violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina through Awareness and Cooperation

One year ago Zejna’s life began falling apart in a way that even today she doesn’t understand. Her husband of 23 years suddenly became violent. He would beat her but Zejna would suffer in silence, afraid to leave her home and hopeful that her husband would again become the man he once was. For six months she tolerated his rages. Then in December 2003 her husband threw her out of the house where she had raised her four children.

Bereft, she sought the help of friends, doctors and psychiatrists. Her 11 year-old son, who had stayed with her husband, ran away from home. When he was found he was placed in a children’s home. It became too much for Zejna, and she began contemplating suicide. One evening while wandering the streets of Zenica, a depressed former steel town in central Bosnia and Herzegovina, a police officer noticed her confused state and brought her to one of the shelters run by the NGO, Medica Zenica.

“When I came here, I felt that nobody wanted me,” she said. “But Medica rebuilt my life and my soul. I saw lots of doctors before I came here but nobody could help me. At Medica everyone from the cooks to the receptionists listens and helps.”

Medica Zenica was established in 1993, while war raged in Bosnia to provide, assistance and counselling to women survivors of war torture and rape. Today it has two centres in Zenica, that can provide temporary shelter for up to 20 women. A third centre in the town of Visoko provides drop-in and out patient services. Most of the women who come to Medica Zenica today are victims of domestic violence and child abuse. According to Marijana Senjak, a psychologist at the centre, reported incidents of both have been steadily increasing since the end of the war.

“There’s more alcohol and drug abuse since the war,” she said. “While the men were fighting, the women stayed and ran the households. When the war ended and the men returned, many couldn’t find work and struggled to find their place in society.”

The women who come to Medica’s shelters stay, on average, for four to six months. During that time they’re offered psychological support in group and individual sessions. Legal assistance and help in finding new accommodation is also provided. An outreach programme to vulnerable areas, such as where families have returned to homes they fled during the war, ensures contact with women who lack access to Medica’s centres.

“Most of the women we see in our outreach programme are victims of domestic violence. But increasingly we’re reaching women who are talking about their war rape experiences for the first time. We’re reaching war rape survivors today that we couldn’t during the war,” said Marijana Senjak. 

Domestic violence was only made a crime in the two Entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina last year. Previously, the police could intervene only if the assault was considered a public disturbance.

Little data exists on violence against women and children in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Research conducted by Medica Zenica, UNICEF’s key NGO partner in addressing domestic violence, revealed that 23 percent of women have been beaten by their partners, while 20 percent have been threatened with violence, often repeatedly.

In 2003, UNICEF, in cooperation with Medica Zenica, sponsored a capacity building programme on gender-based violence aimed at improving the knowledge and skills of over 300 professionals from fields such as the police, the judiciary, social work and the media. Roundtable discussions were held with professionals to examine means of raising awareness and sensitisation of those working with victims of domestic violence. 

UNICEF also supported assessments of local child protection mechanisms in 15 municipalities. The assessments included a review of legislation, local policy practices and the views of service providers from the governmental and non-governmental sectors.

“Through our work with UNICEF we hope to promote better integration between government and civil sectors in tackling violence against women and children,” said Medica’s Marijana Senjak.

Emira came to Medica’s Zenica shelter with her seven-year-old daughter two months ago after her alcoholic partner tried to stab her. Her daughter is attending a local school and often brings children back to the shelter to play. Emira is planning to take vocational training and is attending regular group therapy sessions, which she says, “shows women that we’re not alone.”

“At the moment, I feel free,” she said. “After all I’ve been through I have survived. I have hope for the future.”

The fragmentation of government services in Bosnia for victims of gender-violence means the availability of support for victims is not evenly distributed across the country. Through training and the promotion of cooperation between the various stakeholders working the field, UNICEF has a crucial role to play.   

By Tim Irwin for UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina



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