of

Women’s Safety House: Protecting Women in Montenegro

January 18, 2022
by
Antonio Prokscha
6 min read
Late one night in the fall of last year, two police officers drove a woman to a hospital in Podgorica, Montenegro.

Earlier in the evening, her husband had forced himself on her. She went to the hospital to be examined and to gather evidence of the rape.

However, the doctor who received her refused to examine the woman, claiming that there were not enough doctors at the time—which later turned out to be untrue. Instead, she was taken to Women’s Safety House (WSH), an organization for victims of violence, and not examined until the next morning, risking loss of evidence.

After the incident, she remained in the WSH shelter, and the organization gave her psychological and legal support. WSH also put public pressure on the hospital and the doctor who refused to examine the woman. This could not happen again.

“We raised the awareness that this shouldn’t happen, that they have protocols that every time that a woman has become the victim of rape or any kind of sexual violence, she should be examined immediately,” says Jovana Hajduković, program manager for public advocacy at WSH.

The hospital relented, and WSH members discussed the case with the hospital’s director. As a result, the hospital issued a public statement saying that victims of sexual violence would be cared for with no delays.

Thanks to WSH’s work, the treatment of survivors of sexual violence in one of the country's largest hospitals improved.

Thanks to WSH’s work, the treatment of survivors of sexual violence in one of the country's largest hospitals improved. Unfortunately, cases like this are no exception in Montenegro, and the Women’s Safety House still has many such struggles ahead.

Services, Advocacy, Campaigning

Women’s Safety House began in 1996 as Montenegro’s first emergency hotline for victims of domestic violence, initiated by renowned women’s rights activist Ljiljana Raičević.

The hotline revealed the extent of domestic violence in Montenegro. Raičević saw the need to establish a haven for victims of domestic and sexual violence. In 1999, she opened the first women’s shelter in Montenegro.

Since then, the shelter has housed more than 5,000 individuals and more than 11,000 people requested assistance—a considerable number for the relatively small Montenegro. Today, WSH operates two homes for women and their children, as well as an emergency hotline offering psychological and legal support around the clock.

The organization actively advocates for women’s issues in Montenegro, documenting the challenges facing women and pushing policymakers to adjust the legal framework concerning violence against women.

The organization actively advocates for women’s issues in Montenegro, documenting the challenges facing women and pushing policymakers to adjust the legal framework concerning violence against women.

WSH also promotes education on the issue of violence against women and children through work that includes publishing several manuals on sexual and domestic violence, organizing seminars to train officials (such as police, prosecutors, and social workers), and running awareness campaigns.

Blending policy with practice has helped make a difference. “The direct contact is the best, because we have the information at hand, and that’s how we get ideas for our projects, because we know exactly what women need,” says Hajduković.

All this is carried out with a shockingly small team: WSH has five employees, two part-time experts (a psychologist and a lawyer), one social worker in the shelters, and just five volunteers.

Every Second Woman in Montenegro

The work of Women’s Safety House has been crucial in a country where conditions for women remain far from ideal. According to the latest United Nations Development Programme study, every second woman in Montenegro has been a victim of violence at some point in her life, while every fifth woman has suffered from violence in the past year. In addition, new problems related to social media have emerged in recent years, such as revenge porn and cyberbullying.

With the support of GMF’s Balkan Trust for Democracy, WSH recently conducted a study on the perception of sexual violence against girls and women in Montenegro. The results were startling: from a sample of 80 cases of sexual violence included in this study, only 10 were reported to the authorities. Of these, only two were processed, while the perpetrator was punished in just one case.

“Sometimes they feel discouraged,” explains Zvezdana Radulović, assistant coordinator of the shelter at WSH. “Often they have to testify multiple times about what has happened, which is really exhausting to them, and then sometimes they just give up.”

Besides that, there are many other reasons why women are afraid to report.

Victims of sexual violence are often stigmatized, Radulović explains. Montenegro is a small country with a population of about 600,000 and most towns have only a few thousand inhabitants. This makes it easy to know when something happened, who did it, and to whom it happened.

“Because of this, many do not feel the courage to report or remain silent for a long time, and when they report, people ask them, why they waited so long? Are they lying? Who would be quiet about something like this?” Radulović says.

Nevertheless, WSH continues to encourage women to report violence and offer them legal support in dealing with prosecutors, police, and the courts.

“We know how important it is for the women to have someone by their side,” Radulović says. “Sometimes they don’t know their rights, they don’t know how to behave, and are afraid of the institutions. Also, many told us that the staff of those institutions behaves better when some of us are there than when the women are alone.”

At the same time, the authorities need to adjust. “We need institutions that recognize this kind of violence, respect and believe the survivors,” Radulović states. “We are aiming to put some pressure on these institutions, especially prosecutors and courts. They need to deal more with this topic.”

“Some Generation of Our Women Will Be in a Better Position”

Public campaigns through social media are changing perceptions, though. WSH has collaborated with Montenegrin visual artist Andrijana Vešović, better known by her pseudonym Zombijana Bones, who illustrated graphics for some of their campaigns.

Thanks to Zombijana’s considerable number of followers (over 200,000 on Instagram alone), her work attracted much attention and people began to engage with the topic.

For many, domestic and sexual violence is still taboo, notes Vešović. “I know we all like to see positive stuff on the internet,” she says. “But sometimes we need a reality check and to see something that is happening next door, in our neighborhood, or even in our houses.”

Through Vešović’s support, WSH saw a huge response, receiving numerous comments, with many people reaching out to them directly through the social media platforms.

Women’s Safety House has found that people are more responsive today than in earlier times.

Women’s Safety House has found that people are more responsive today than in earlier times. More people are coming forward, the issue is slowly being more acknowledged, and people are more open about the topic.

On Zombijana’s Facebook page, under a post saying “A woman cannot provoke you to rape her. All responsibility is on the perpetrator,” one of her followers commented: “As long as we are a society that always blames the victim for everything, we will not progress much. I believe that education and teaching are the key to a better future, but I can only hope that someday, some generation of our women will be in a better position.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Zombijana Bones (@zombijana)

Balkan Trust for Democracy

The Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD) is an award-winning transatlantic initiative supporting democracy and civil society in Southeast Europe. As part of this, BTD funds Sigurna ženska kuća [Women’s Safety House], an organization committed to the protection of women in Montenegro. For more than 20 years, the NGO has been supporting survivors of violence and advocating for women’s safety—and is now seeing the impact of its work.