Bread, peace and roses
"Bread, peace and roses" demand these women, demonstrating in Podgorica on International Women's Day, March 8, 2017. (Photo: Women's Rights Center/EFE)
Niksic, Montenegro (EuroEFE).- Marina decided to leave her home when her husband, a Montenegro policeman, asked her to decide whom he should beat up that day: her little daughter or her. She, along with her two little children, took shelter with the nonprofit SOS Niksic, a place of care and hope for abused women in a country where a female judge, as in Marina's case, can reprimand a plaintiff for kicking up a storm "over a slap."
Before fleeing her tormentor, Marina (not her real name) had faced brutal violence, like when her abuser broke her nose in front of their two children, while insults, humiliations and snubs were a regular occurrence.
Policeman and abuser
Two years ago, Marina, with her two children then aged five and seven, approached SOS Niksic, which looks after victims of violence against women. The NGO is located in Niksic, the second-largest city in Montenegro.
Founded in 1998, SOS Niksic set up the first helpline against domestic violence in the country, and since 2015, it has coordinated a free and anonymous line funded by the state.
Its shelter in Niksic, opened in 2009, receives around 100 women each year and survives on international aid, including funds from the European Union, and gets public support only from time to time.
At the shelter, whose location is kept a secret for safety reasons, Marina found a roof over her head for eight months, as well as legal and psychological assistance. She now works there helping other women.
While her voice is firm, her eyes are unable to hide her anguish: despite a judicial order granting her guardianship over her children, they remain with her former husband.
He is an influential person and in Montenegro everything works through contacts, she said in an interview with EFE.
Her case of domestic violence has already stretched on for more than a year, and she denounced being pressurized to arrive at an agreement with her aggressor. The judge hearing her case even criticized her for "creating a fuss over a slap."
She has had no support except her family and SOS Niksic. "The institutions do not respond," she said.
Marina now only sees her children two hours a week at a social center. Her husband follows her in a car after the visits and insults and threatens her. During those moments, she feels that her life is in danger.
Patriarchal society in a country aspiring to join the EU
Marina's story sums up many activists’ complaints in Montenegro, a patriarchal society in which violence is accepted and considered a private matter, even by authorities. When sentences are given out, they are usually lenient on the aggressor.
Institutions downplay the problem and do not consider it a priority, while police do not compile specific data on domestic violence. Therefore, other than studies by nonprofits, there is no data reflecting the magnitude of the problem.
The NGO Women's Rights Center has figures compiled from media reports. Since 2015, it has counted five women murdered in cases of domestic violence. Four of them had earlier reported the situation.
"Lack of official statistics shows that the problem is not taken seriously by the government," criticized the Center's director, Maja Raicevic.
According to a study this year by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), half of women in Montenegro have been victims of gender-based violence at some point in their lives, and one in five had been victims last year. The study included physical violence (17 percent), sexual violence (7 percent), economic violence (20 percent) and psychological violence (38 percent).
The UNDP report also stated that one in every three women claimed that their partner wanted to know their whereabouts at all times, one in five said their partner got angry when they talked to other men, and one in 10 complained they were not allowed to meet friends.
A good law not applied
SOS Niksic coordinator Natasa Medjedovic explained to EFE that despite all shortcomings, the legal framework in Montenegro is not bad. The problem is that it is not implemented due to lack of resources, coordination and political will.
In 2010, Montenegro approved a law on gender-related violence similar to other countries in the region, and Parliament has adopted a strategy to prevent it.
The European Parliament delegation to Montenegro, during a visit last week, listened to Medjedovic's complaints regarding inaction by the government, which is happy to leave the problem in the hands of civil society.
The subordinate role of women in Montenegro, a country with an Orthodox Christian majority and which aspires to join the EU in the next decade, can be witnessed in their scant presence in business and political activities.
Kaca Djurickovic, who runs UNDP's equality programs in Montenegro, explained that only 10 percent of business people in the country were women. The figure touched 30 percent in Serbia and 27 percent in Albania, while in the EU it was situated between 30 and 38 percent.
Since 2016, the EU has contributed some 730,000 euros (around $870,000) to UNDP programs to promote equality, including entrepreneurship among women in Montenegro.
British Member of the European Parliament David Martin of the Labour Party, who led a seven-member delegation to Montenegro on December 18 and 19 to learn about advances for the integration into the EU, underlined that the Union's treaties oblige the Balkan country to ensure equality between women and men.
"In Montenegro there is clearly a patriarchal society where men have dominated. Women have not been encouraged to form a part of the business community, they were expected to remain at home," Martin told EFE, adding that there was a lot of work to be done to improve the situation of gender equality in the country before it could reach European standards.
"It has been clear after the conversations we have had that domestic violence, unfortunately, is almost a part of the culture or is accepted as something cultural. (...) There is a lot of work to be done to help Montenegro to prepare in this regard to become a member of the EU," he added.
Austrian MEP Thomas Waitz of the Group of the Greens underlined that equality policies were a priority for the European Parliament and the projects supported by the EU had "real effects on education and women's empowerment."
However, a lot needs to be done to achieve effective equality, as evidenced by the fact that only 5 percent of women inherit family property.
"It can be affirmed that Montenegro is the most traditional country in the region, especially regarding inheritance," explained Mladenka Tesic, who is in charge of human rights programs at the EU representation in Podgorica.
In Montenegro, property is usually inherited by men and it is seen as a guarantee for continuity of the family lineage.
Tesic recalled that although women make up 64 percent of university graduates, their representation in Montenegro's economic and political sphere, especially in leadership roles, continues to be modest.
Like India or China
Last month, the nonprofit Women's Rights Center launched the campaign "Unwanted," which had a regional impact, to put the focus on selective abortion of female fetuses, a scourge Montenegro, with its 630,000 inhabitants, shares with nations such as China (owing to its one-child policy) and India (where the system of dowry makes daughters a burden on the family).
"Dear Unwanted, your parents wanted a boy and that's why you didn't get a chance to be born. Forgive them," read one of the posters of the "Nezeljena" campaign, containing an obituary with a faceless picture on a pink background.
Campaign director Maja Raicevic recalled that the Council of Europe had urged Montenegro to look into the matter of selective abortions, but the country is yet to do anything in this regard.
Although Raicevic admitted that the situation had improved in recent years, she echoed the sentiments of other activists saying that the changes can be accelerated if the EU puts more pressure for an effective implementation of the law against gender violence and in favor of equality.
"What we need now are more emphatic messages from European Union officials on women's rights and gender equality," she stressed.
By Luis Lidón, edited by Julia R. Arévalo
Translated by Shubhomoy Chatterjee
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