“It’s a long story. It’s a twenty five-year-long story, actually.” As long-time women’s rights activist Nela Pamukovic explains, Croatia’s newest law on sexual violence is long overdue.
On May 29th, the Croatian parliament passed the first law in the country that recognizes rape as a war crime – the Act on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence during the Military Aggression against Republic of Croatia in the Homeland War. Set to go into effect in January, the law will compensate war rape survivors with a monthly financial stipend and access to free counseling, as well as legal and medical aid.
Throughout the war for independence in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, systematic rape was used as a weapon to intimidate communities and assert power over women. In the twenty years since the formal end of the war in 1995, survivors of sexual violence have had no status as civilian “victims of war” in the eyes of the Croatian government – meaning they have had no rights to compensation or to psychological or medical services.
“Women survivors, with the exception of rare cases, were generally without financial support, unemployed, and with significantly decreased labor capacities as a consequence of survived trauma,” explains Nela Pamukovic, co-founder of the Centre for Women War Victims (ROSA) in Zagreb, Croatia, a long-time Global Fund for Women grantee. “They have been living with their traumas kept inside.”
Founded in 1992 by Pamukovic and other women’s rights activists who were focused at the time on ending gender-based violence and elevating women’s voices in the anti-war movement, ROSA is focused on empowering women – including survivors of sexual violence in conflict – on many levels. ROSA offers economic and leadership activities, access to legal services, and psychological support, and works to advance women’s rights and equality in Croatia.
In 2010, ROSA started the Women’s Court Initiative – together with six other women’s groups from the former Yugoslavia – in order to give women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence a safe space to share their stories and learn their rights, to provide access to legal services for those filing criminal charges against perpetrators, and to strengthen cross-border solidarity between women. While this is helping more women speak up and share their stories, the stigma remains – even twenty years after the war.
“Before this law, the problem [of war rape] was not visible and if women spoke out about it, there was a stigma,” explained Pamukovic. “But now – if they can get something to improve their lives and the lives of their families – they will have some motive to ask for their rights.”
ROSA has been working to make the issue of sexual violence in conflict visible since 1992, and has been a proponent of the new law since 2009.
“We recognized that we should [take action] about the status of women who survived rape and became invisible,” said Pamukovic, explaining how ROSA began to focus its advocacy efforts on the new law. “Nobody was interested – even among our colleagues in women’s networks. Some of them said, ‘the war is over, why do we have to go back?’ or ‘we have more urgent issues’.”
But ROSA was determined and began collaborating with other organizations that supported women survivors of war rape.Because of its advocacy efforts over the years and its work providing legal and psychological services to war rape survivors, ROSA was appointed to the working group created by the Ministry of War Veterans to draft the new law.
Over two years, ROSA made several critical recommendations as part of the working group, elevating issues the organization had been documenting since the end of the war. ROSA also lobbied and intervened after each of the two readings of the draft law in parliament – last year and this year.
While the version of the law that was passed has several shortcomings, according to ROSA, it does incorporate some of ROSA’s language recommendations and reflect its advocacy efforts. For instance, the Ministry of War Veterans, in the first draft, wanted to provide only a one-time payment to women survivors so ROSA joined with other organizations to lobby that this was not sufficient. They proved that women survivors needed monthly stipends in order to raise their quality of life.
“Many of these women survivors live in very poor conditions; many of them are deeply traumatized by the situation – they haven’t told anyone,” expressed Pamukovic. “Many of them hadn’t even asked for their basic rights that they have as poor citizens because they are so traumatized.”
Still, Pamukovic emphasizes that the fact of financial compensation – though a major step in the right direction for Croatia and for women who experienced sexual violence in conflict – is not an end goal for war rape survivors. Pamukovic shared the story of one of the women ROSA works with: “One of our clients who lives in the countryside – her good friend came to her [after the law was publicly announced] and said, ‘Oh, now you will have lots of money’ so she stopped talking to this friend and said, ‘my trauma is so deep and this cannot really heal me’.”
ROSA will continue to fill a critical gap in Croatia by providing women with a safe space to share their stories, meet other women who were raped during the war, and access legal services and psychological and medical counseling sessions led by other survivors of gender-based violence.
With the goal of empowering women driving its work forward, ROSA has a key role to play as Croatia’s new status law is implemented. Women will have to submit applications to be recognized as survivors in order to secure compensation, and ROSA will support them in submitting the applications, guiding them through government requirements and providing psychological support.
“I’m afraid – what kind of experiences will women face when they apply [for financial compensation under the new law]? Because we know, that’s why we’ve worked from the beginning supporting women survivors of violence – because in any institution they come to ask for their rights, they are not understood, they are not supported, they are not trusted. They are very often harassed,” said Pamukovic. “I believe it will happen with this law.”
ROSA will now focus on addressing issues in the final version of the law because, as Pamukovic explains, it “is not in favor of the victims” and narrowed the scope of rights for survivors, removing mention of housing assistance or the right to continuing education, for instance. In addition to these advocacy efforts, ROSA plans to set up a special website to try to reach as many women as possible who might be able to access rights under the new status law. ROSA will also reach out to psychiatric hospitals where many women go for trauma counseling and support, and will train doctors and the directors of hospitals to provide information on the new law.
“These women have been living in silence, at the margins of our society, surrounded by their painful memories. They did not speak at all, or spoke very rarely about their hard experiences,” expressed Pamukovic. “Therefore it is of great importance that this law was finally brought, even after more than 20 years from the time when the crimes were committed.”