Despite the legislative framework being up to standars, Croatia lags far behind in terms of actual protection of women victims of violence in the home. Our analysis
Back in 2003, the Croatian media were served a hot potato. French national Magali Boers accused her husband, former Croatian Ambassador to Belgium and former Secretary of the European Movement Party of Croatia, Ljubomir Čučić, of prolonged physical and psychological abuse.
The case represents a turning point in the approach to the issue of domestic violence by the Croatian media and public discourse. In a conservative country, proud of its Catholicism and adherence to traditional christian values, domestic violence was (and still is to a large extent)considered a “taboo” not discussed in public.
The Boers- Čučić case, to an extent, also helped contrast the misconceived view that domestic violence was mainly caused by the great social upheavals of the past 20 years, the deteriorating social situation and growing poverty, etc.
“The main reasons, of course, lie in the patriarchal relations in the society and the relationships of power among genders. Domestic violence is not just social, but also a major political problem. Difficult social situations, alcohol and drugs are, of course, triggers for new waves of violence against women, but they can’t be seen as the actual causes”, says Neva Tolle.
Maja Vukmanić says that children in Croatia are indoctrinated with stereotyped gender roles and values, which are also enhanced by the strong influence of the Catholic Church.
“Despite some progress in terms of society's attitudes towards domestic violence, the view that it is a private matter towards which citizens in general should turn a blind eye is still the main one“, says Vukmanić.
Tolle says that women who seek protection from the Autonomous Women’s House Zagreb (which runs its own shelter for women victims of violence) come from all layers of society, regardless of education, age, social and economic backgrounds. “All women can become victims of a violent partner”, she adds.
“The majority of victims hold high-school diplomas, followed by university graduates, and only then we have women who only completed elementary school and high-school drop-outs. That goes against the established prejudice that only uneducated women, living in difficult social and housing conditions, can become victims of violence”, Tolle says.
A study conducted by the Autonomous Women’s House in 2003 reported that 41% of Croatian women have experienced some form of physical abuse by their marital or extra-marital partners. The data held by the Croatian Ministry of the Interior indicates an increase in reported situations of abuse from 7,200 in 2002 to over 19,000 in 2007, followed by a slight drop to around 17,800 in 2008.
Up-to-date legislation is not enough
The State reacted with a series of legislative initiatives. In addition to being generally prohibited by Article 23 of the Constitution, the Criminal Code - adopted in December 2000 - criminalised violent behaviour in the family. Amendments to the Criminal Procedures Act, adopted in May 2002, enhanced protective measures for victims of domestic violence, including a set of restraining orders against suspects and perpetrators of domestic violence and stricter detention regulations.
In 2003 the Croatian Parliament passed the Law for Protection against Violence in the Family, which - in its definition of family violence - includes physical abuse, psychological abuse, intimidation, sexual harassment and restriction of freedom of movement or communication
“Alas, in spite of the solid legislative framework, the implementation of laws and other legal provisions (platforms, strategies, action plans, etc.) often still ends up being at the expense of the victims and in favour of the perpetrators. Women reporting violence are often not taken seriously, their experiences and fears are doubted upon, leading to additional structural victimisation of women by a system designed to assist and protect them”, Neva Tolle says.
As a result, Tolle adds that Croatia's murder rate of women who decided to leave violent partners, by the latter, is very high.
In recent years civil society organisations have become very involved and have greatly contributed to the fight against domestic violence. A survey conducted in 2010 by Women’s Room NGO shows that there are 32 organisations in the country actively providing support and assistance to victims of violence. Of those, 12 offer shelter services, 18 offer counselling services, one works as a centre for victims of sexual violence, and one offers counselling over the phone.
“In addition to the eleven shelters run by CSOs, there are seven shelters founded by district or municipal administrations, and yet, the total capacity falls well short of the Recommendations on protection of women from violence drafted by the Council of Europe. Also, there is no national, 24/7 phone line, and of the needed 11, we currently have just one Centre for victims of sexual violence”, Maja Vukmanić from Women’s Room says.
The shelter operated by the Autonomous Women’s House Zagreb offers a wide spectrum of services, from safe accommodation, mediation between women, their children and the competent institutions, free and anonymous psychological counselling and therapy, free legal advice and paralegal services, and free representation in court proceedings.
In April 2011, six autonomous safe houses for women victims of violence found themselves in grave danger, after their public co-funders failed to pay their respective contributions.
Neva Tolle says that the problem, which is a repeat of the situation in 2010, lies in the fact that the funds for January were paid only in June 2011, adding that the funding was further reduced. She adds that the Autonomous Women’s House Zagreb was able to survive thanks to the €40,000 award it won from the ERSTE Foundation.
“I really don’t know what 2012 will bring us, but there is a real danger that all the shelters could be closed. Without minimal funds, and I mean truly minimal funds, we can’t carry out this work”, Tolle says.
Vukmanić adds that the seven autonomous shelters (Autonomous Women’s House Zagreb, Brod Association – Women Human Rights Group from Slavonski Brod, Korak from Karlovac, Women Help Now from Zagreb, Safe House Istra from Pula, Adela Women’s Centre Sisak, UZOR Rijeka)have prepared a draft Law on financing of autonomous women’s shelters and counselling offices run by CSOs.
“The Draft requests regular and continuous financing in order to ensure the quality of services provided by the shelters. We hope that the Law will be adopted, although the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare has already expressed its scepticism”, Vukmanić says.
Despite the State not doing nearly enough in the fight against violence against women, Tolle affirms that some State-lead initiatives, which started as far as 1998, such as the training programmes for police officers on violence against women, have been successful. These trainings also focus on the role of CSOs and informal networks for cooperation of government institutions and NGOs in the fight against sexual violence.
In fact she believes that this approach should be extended to social work centres that also lack capacities for long-term support for victims of domestic violence. In Tolle's eyes they should indeed establish better cooperation with the CSOs that have the necessary skills and capacities.
“The situation in Croatia still demands the full attention of the CSOs and the public at large. In spite of some progress, we are still far from true protection of the rights of women victims of violence and true gender equality in Croatia”, says Vukmanić.
In less than two years, on July 1, 2013, Croatia is set to join the European Union as a full fledged member. The country has met all the criteria, completed and closed the negotiations and got the desired award. However, if the fight and prevention of domestic violence had been set as main membership criteria, it is doubtful that Croatia would have advanced so far on the road to integration into EU.
Article written by more than one author in collaboration with Oneworld SEE