Women’s rights protests have surged in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, after recent cases of abuse and femicide
Women in cities across the Balkans have been protesting for their rights, and for significant legislative and governmental change, since late September. The reasons that sparked the protests differ between countries, but the women’s anger is the same.
In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, protests have been going on for more than a month. What started as a howl of rage against a pro-government tabloid for publishing an interview with a serial rapist led to a series of wider demonstrations for women’s rights. These protests, which are being called ‘the women’s revolution’, began on 28 September and have taken place most Fridays since.
Across the border to the east, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, women in multiple cities took to the streets in mid-October to raise their voices after the most recent case of femicide, proclaiming: “Enough – no more”.
Serbia: interview with rapist
Women’s Solidarity, a feminist collective from Belgrade, initially called for action following an interview with a rapist in Serbian newspaper Informer. Recently released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence, the unrepentant rapist described the rape he committed and gave ‘advice’ to women on how to react if he decides to attack them.
The collective’s Jelena Riznić pointed out that women who survived violence remain invisible, their experiences are not in the public eye, they do not get justice – yet the rapist got his exclusive.
“That’s why we decided to react – and practically. We wanted to take the rebellion to the streets and loudly announce that this is unacceptable,” she said.
It wasn’t just the interview, Riznić said; the protests also targeted the entire social and institutional set-up within Serbia, “in which women are not trusted, in which they are blamed for the violence they have suffered, in which they are humiliated and left to live with a sense of fear and insecurity because the institutions will not protect them”.
Among the messages of anger seen on placards and banners were ‘no more’, ‘rage in the streets – justice for women and girls’, ‘these witches don’t burn’. People also chanted ‘women’s revolution’, ‘educate your sons’ and ‘woman to woman solidarity’.
“The past year was filled with ‘mass triggers’ – testimonies of surviving violence that came from the most diverse contexts, from the most diverse women, which showed that violence can take many forms and that women are not safe anywhere,” Riznić said.
Women in Belgrade became fearful after the rapist’s release; information on his location was even shared on social media. This highlighted the real problem – the system fails to deal with this type of offender once they have left prison.
That’s why one of the protesters’ demands is to create a legal “registry of all rapists and abusers” (based on one that already exists for paedophiles), explained Riznić, “in cooperation with women’s organisations that deal with these issues”.
Other demands are: remove the Informer interview from all platforms; stop public funding of tabloid media that report unethically on violence against women; require all media to follow the guidelines on such reporting drawn up by the group Journalists Against Violence.
The demands have not been met, so the protests will continue, organisers say. Another protest is scheduled for Tuesday 1 November.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: femicide
“Our pain, your shame!” shouted women at the protests that erupted spontaneously across Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) two weeks ago, in reaction to the femicide of a 32-year-old woman by her husband in the north-west town of Bihać.
The fact that “women took to the streets in 19 cities and municipalities in BiH in less than 48 hours is a big success,” said Milica Pralica from Oštra nula, an NGO based in the city of Banja Luka. She added: “In Sarajevo, women blocked the road and marched. We came out for each other, to say ‘Enough!’”
The main message from the Bosnian streets is that crimes against women must be called by their real names – so it’s not a crime of passion but a femicide, not a family tragedy but a murder.
“We are here to say, we are not your mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. We are nobody’s business or private property. We are our own, noisy and determined to defend each other. We are here to say that we are not guilty,” Enisa Raković from the NGO Voice of Women told openDemocracy.
“For us activists and fighters for women’s human rights, this was more than an alarm that we must raise our voice, united and stronger than ever before,” said Raković.
We are here to say, we are not your mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. We are nobody’s business or private propertyEnisa Raković, Voice of Women, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Bosnian women protesters have demands, too, like their counterparts in Serbia. They are calling for a legal definition of femicide (currently not recognised in Bosnia) and its introduction as a criminal offence; the application of the Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women); and the revision of penal practices to include tougher and more consistent sentences for perpetrators. They also want state institutions to work together to provide better prevention and protection against violence against women.
A cross-border fight
Women from both sides of the border support each other and feel their fight is the same fight, a universal fight for women’s rights.
“The problem of violence against women is a problem that transcends national borders – and we had messages at the protest that took place on the same day to support friends from Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Riznić.
All the women interviewed by openDemocracy, in both countries, stressed the weakness of their judicial systems, which face multiple obstacles despite having laws in place that are, in theory, good.
Milica Pralica believes that society in BiH, which is deeply traditional and patriarchal, still does not recognise and acknowledge the contribution of women in the fight for basic human rights.
In Serbia, Riznić believes religion is standing in the way of women’s rights. “The Serbian Orthodox Church and other conservative institutions have a strong influence on the value level, so many laws that nominally exist do not mean much in reality,” she explained.
In both countries, for change to happen, particularly when it comes to sexual violence, “there is a serious need to improve legal and sub-legal documents”, said Sanja Pavlović from Serbia’s Autonomous Women Centre.
First, she said, the criminal definition of rape must be changed so that it “is no longer defined by the use of force, but by the absence of consent to sexual intercourse”. She is also advocating for the introduction of “a new criminal offence, ‘misuse of a video of sexual content’, which would include so-called ‘revenge pornography’”.
Pralica and Riznić also agree on the existence of a patriarchal heritage in these Balkan countries.
“In terms of violence against women, this means that much still depends on what police officers or social workers think, and not what is guaranteed by law. So, although women’s safety must come before individual opinions and feelings, in reality this is often not the case,” Riznić explained.
Meanwhile, in Serbia, where all the recent protests have been held in Belgrade, feminist groups want to see the movement become more widespread across the country – as is already the case in BiH.
“There is potential for the Serbian protests to be decentralised. I am encouraged by the fact that the fear of women is being transformed into anger, and anger into concrete demands for change,” said Pavlović.
“Femicide knows no borders. It does not know age, skin colour, religion, ethnicity or nationality, place of residence. On every part of the planet, abusive men tell women – you’re only good if you’re dead. And we say ‘No more!’ We will not live in fear. We will not die in silence,” Raković points out.