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Path to Justice for Survivors of Kosovo’s Sexual Violence

During the war that tore apart the Balkan state, many people were victims of sexual assault. Siobhan Hobbs of U.N. Women discusses working with the government to help the survivors find redress for their ordeal.

Written by Christine Chung Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Part of an art installation called 'Thinking of You,' by Kosovo-born artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa, in Pristina stadium, Kosovo, June 10, 2015. Mripa hung thousands of dresses and skirts across the stadium's field in a tribute to the estimated 20,000 sexual violence survivors from Kosovo's war for independence from Serbia. AP/Visar Kryeziu

The war that raged in Kosovo between February 1998 and June 1999, following Serbia’s crackdown on ethnic Albanian resistance, was one of the final conflicts sparked by the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Human rights violations were widespread before, during and after the fighting, including many examples of sexual violence. According to the U.N., conflict-related sexual violence takes many forms, including rape, trafficking, enslavement, castration and forced nudity.

Many Kosovar women who suffered through the ordeal survived only to be met with stigmatization and domestic violence. But now there are national-level efforts to help them rebuild their lives by giving them reparations.

Siobhan Hobbs, gender specialist with the U.N. Women’s Project Office in Kosovo, is working on a program with the National Council for Survivors of Sexual Violence, the government of Kosovo and survivors of conflict-related violence. Her report, “The Conflict Did Not Bring Us Flowers,” will be published on August 31. Hobbs spoke to Women & Girls Hub about the process of making amends.

Women & Girls Hub: Can you explain the background to the conflict-related sexual violence in Kosovo?

Siobhan Hobbs: During the conflict, reports of men and women being separated were common. Sexual violence appears to have occurred in the lead-up to, during and after the armed hostilities in Kosovo. A large number of people were sexually violated; the exact number is unknown, because there was not a lot of documentation at the time. Those survivors of sexual violence have as yet to receive any sort of formal recognition or reparations.

The National Council for Survivors of Sexual Violence was set up by the fourth president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, in 2012. It brought together a cross-section of ministerial and civil society representatives, and helped to pull them under the one banner. President Jahjaga [Kosovo’s first female president] was quite involved in bringing a lot of international support, but also showing state support to the survivors.

Women & Girls Hub: What is the reparations program?

Hobbs: A number of efforts have been made to establish a reparations program for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Primary and secondary legislation was passed that provides for a commission to be established that will verify the status and recognize survivors of sexual violence. As yet, the reparations program that has been designed by the legislation has still not been implemented. But movements are under way to establish the commission, and we’re hopeful that will happen at least by the end of this year.

Women & Girls Hub: How common is it around the world that survivors of sexual violence in conflict receive recognition and reparations?

Hobbs: It’s fair to say that sexual violence has existed probably in every war to date, but it hasn’t been recognized. The Balkan wars were the turning point, and particularly the conflict in Bosnia. In terms of designing reparations programs, it’s still in its infancy, globally speaking. Several countries have designed either specific or more general frameworks, in which survivors of sexual violence can receive benefits, but they’ve been implemented to various degrees, and then have had varying levels of success.

In 2014, the U.N. secretary-general developed the Guidance Note on Reparations for Sexual Violence. That was really an attempt by the head of the U.N. to pool together the lessons learned, not just from the specific field of sexual violence, but also from reparations in general.

Women & Girls Hub: What progress has been made to date in Kosovo?

Hobbs: A lot of progress has been made, and much is attributable to [former] President Jahjaga, both by bringing it to the political level and as a state representative going back out to the community level, recognizing and meeting with survivors, making them feel like they matter, that this cause will be taken up on their behalf.

I’ve met with a lot of survivors over the past year. Most of them tell stories about how it felt when they first met [former] President Jahjaga, about how either it was life-changing or certainly made them feel more empowered. If she was going to pick up the cause, they could continue to fight themselves. In some instances, survivors noted that the president being a woman, in their minds, enabled this to happen, that she somehow understood their suffering.

There are also male survivors of sexual violence in Kosovo, but as yet, there are not many services dedicated to supporting them, and there haven’t been as many reports. The majority of people that are collectivized, at least with the civil society organizations, are female survivors of sexual violence, and given the time frame since the conflict, they are all adults now.

Women & Girls Hub: What types of services have been provided to survivors?

People are pretty ingenious about trying to meet their own needs and those of the people around them who are in need of care. Some of the women’s groups, particularly those that operated during and after the war, were providing urgent medical assistance, sexual and reproductive healthcare needs. Some of them facilitated statement-taking or linking with police or other authorities, for criminal justice mechanisms.

These days, there are about four organizations mainly focused on psycho-social healthcare. Some have started small-grant economic empowerment projects, setting up cooperatives, trying to organize free training for some of the survivors. The issue of stigma is really huge in Kosovo, as in most areas. Many survivors fear being put out by their families or have in some way been shunned by them or society, so accessing employment opportunities has been particularly difficult.

Women & Girls Hub: You mentioned taking statements or linking with authorities. How do reparations intersect with criminal justice action on the sexual violence?

Hobbs: U.N. Women also supports an access to justice program. When the National Council for Survivors of Sexual Violence was formed, it was one of the four areas of the council’s focus, so a national access plan was developed and is being implemented. It’s probably the area where there has been the most progress, certainly in terms of providing physical access to criminal justice mechanisms, training for persons in criminal justice mechanisms.

But in terms of cases, there haven’t been that many, and it’s unlikely that there will be a large number, given the political climate, the location of alleged perpetrators and the public nature of proceedings. Therefore, survivors who don’t wish to be identified would be more reluctant to engage in the processes.

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