By Neida Lazo
More than 20 percent of women in Serbia – one in every five – is a victim of physical violence at some point during her lifetime. Women's rights activists in Serbia have diligently campaigned for years to address this staggering statistic. Since 1991, when the first SOS women's crisis hotline was established, women's groups have helped to secure a 2002 law criminalizing domestic violence, which was revised three years later to secure better legal protections and options for women survivors of abuse. These changes in the legal treatment of gender-based violence has encouraged greater public awareness of the issue. As a result, increasing numbers of women have summoned the courage to report abusive acts.
It is against this backdrop in 1996 Zene na delu (Women at Work) was founded to draw a "clear connection between women's economic independence and violence." Using a variety of public education, cultural and collaborative activities aimed to empower women and women's rights organizations, Zene na delu promotes women's role as creative, capable and powerful economic and social change agents.
Through its programs, Zene na delu has organized economic empowerment programs for more than 500 women ages 15 to 22, conducted annual nationwide public performances and awareness-raising activities during the 16 Days to End Violence Against Women, and trained more than 400 lesbian, gay and youth activists to use theater for education.
Several years ago, Zene na delu noted the strain placed on women activists staffing crisis support hotlines and advocating for the rights of women survivors of violence. Absent consistent and adequate funding, which comes almost exclusively from international donor organizations, crisis shelters and hotlines often operate on shoestring budgets. They depend on the energy of a small core of usually underpaid staff and a cadre of generous and passionate volunteers to conduct their programs.
Day after day, these women confront the traumas suffered by survivors of domestic violence, rape and other acts of gender-based violence while struggling to fundraise for their efforts, run their organizations and contribute actively to the wider women's rights movement. In addition, they often suffer the consequences of working to uplift and empower women within a patriarchal society: harassment, stigma and other forms of abuse. Increasingly, these activists are succumbing to burnout, physical illness or the need to step out of the wider movement for women's rights.
Supported by the Global Fund for Women, Zene na Delu is organizing three-day workshops, lectures, and consultations for women human rights defenders from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in order to infuse new vigor and sustainability into women's efforts to transform suffering into strength. It has also published a manual that other women's groups can use as a tool for developing for self-care programs and as a guide for individual activists on taking care of themselves in their work with abused women.
With Zene na delu, women's rights activists have been able to find the inner reservoir behind their actions and to draw from it more effectively to promote peace, whole health and growth amongst women striving to realize security, freedom and opportunity.
Neida Lazo is a student at the University of San Francisco and a service-learning intern at the Global Fund for Women.