On the frontline of gender conflict: One woman’s fight for justice in Kosovo

Changing gender norms in Kosovo continuing to face backlash. Photo: Georgia Macleod

Changing patriarchal traditions in Kosovo is no easy task as women battle economic violence and judicial malpractice.

When I ask if it has been hard speaking out and standing up for gender equality in Kosovo, Luljeta Aliu throws her head back and laughs. “Hard?!” she says, “It has been hell!” Aliu has gone from being in an abusive relationship to leading the women of Kosovo in a fight toward equality. Determined and passionate, often banging the table to emphasise her point, there is a fire in her that refuses to be quelled, despite the uphill battle.

“I feel like somebody has to break this chain of silence, break the taboo. If we don’t talk about it we won’t be able to change it,” says Aliu. “I was myself experiencing the same thing. It began slowly and then it got worse. It began with economic violence, psychological violence and then… well, you know how the story goes.” She lights a cigarette and takes a deep drag, “I decided I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to stay and watch, I’m going to defend myself.

Despite having gender equality written into the country’s legal frameworks, such as the constitution, domestic violence toward women remains a pervasive and highly damaging issue in Kosovo. The justice system is currently considered a barrier in the fight against deeply entrenched patriarchy customs and attitudes, with inadequate police response and judicial malpractice.

On the 8th of March this year, women took to the streets in Prishtina for International Women’s Day. Luljeta Aliu, who is setting up her own NGO called Initiative for Justice and Equality (INJECT), can be seen amongst other women at the front of this march, holding a long banner and chanting “MARCHing, not celebrating.”

Luljeta Aliu. Photo: Georgia Macleod

Stepping out into the streets to protest for such rights is no easy task, Aliu tells me, as many women are afraid of backlash from their family and friends.

“I went to the hairdresser recently and the woman cutting my hair told me, ‘I have seen what you’re doing and I really support you. Do you need our participation in a protest or a march? I said, of course! And she replied, ‘I have just one condition, can we wear masks when we come? Because if my husband sees me fighting for my rights, he will beat me’.”

68 percent of women suffer domestic abuse in Kosovo during their lifetime. According to the Victims Advocacy and Assistance Office, in 2017 there were 1375 reported cases of domestic violence.

It is estimated, however, that up to 90 percent of these cases go unreported. Furthermore, a survey by Kosova Women’s Network (KWN) found that 21 percent of Kosovars believe it is ‘sometimes acceptable for a husband to hit his wife’.

“This was for terrifying…it hit me, how really bad it was,” says Aliu.

“It is a systematic problem. It is the failing of the judiciary system and the police”

“We have so many murders, women being killed or beaten to death. Literally beaten to death. The police don’t react. You can call them and say I need your help, you can call ten times, twenty times and nobody reacts. Furthermore, the nest of organised crime in Kosovo is sitting in the judiciary system.”

Police negligence

Women being killed by their husbands is not an uncommon occurrence in Kosovo.

“Two years ago, a woman was killed by her husband because of negligence over many years by the Kosovo police to her case. And there are many, many other cases. Domestic violence is a huge problem in Kosovo, very huge.” says Valentina Bejtullahu Turjaka, National Programme Officer of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

“The sentence for perpetrators are very low. Often, they are released from prison and there is no place for victims to stay, they have to share the same house with the perpetrator. Therefore there is no trust in reporting their case, they are afraid because as revenge their husband can kill them.”

When asked about inadequate police response, Basri Kastrati head of Victims Advocacy and Assistance Office, says he has good cooperation with the police.

“According to our standard operation procedures, the police are obliged to inform the victim’s advocate for each case. Sometimes maybe they didn’t inform, but I take 24 hours report from the police every day.

“If they have the case, for example, I send it to all seven regional offices and they are obliged to call the police if we have the case in our mandate, as is the case with domestic violence. According to standard operation procedures and the law, they are obliged to inform the victim’s advocate.”

Despite their legal obligations, Kosovar police force still faces the issue of negligence when handling some cases.

“We have read reports that there are victims who are complaining about the way they were approached by Kosovo police. How they were told they should go home, it will be fixed, they should think of their children, this kind of thing,” says Shpresa Mulliqi, National Public Safety and Awareness Officer at the OSCE.

“Instead of working with the problem they were trying to sweep it under the rug. Which is not professionally okay”

“When it comes to the institution, there is an awareness that they should be doing more on this issue. But there is this mentality, especially with older police officers, in whose minds is established that domestic violence is an internal family issue and that it can be easily fixed if the husband and wife talk to each other. Sometimes they even justify it [the violence].”

Steps toward change

Measures have been taken and are still underway in order to change this issue within police departments.

“The institution has done initial steps to cover these cases by establishing coordinators, officers who are first responders to domestic violence cases, they are given priority and usually they send both male and female police officers to take the case of domestic violence.” Says Mulliqi.

With new generations of police recruits, there is hope for the continued improvement in police operations when it comes to the matter of domestic abuse.

There is also hope that changing the legal status of the crime, will streamline cases and cause fewer instances of reoffending. Under the law in Kosovo domestic abuse is considered to be a civil matter, as opposed to a criminal one. If a person makes a case for domestic abuse, a protection order for the victim is issued.

“If the protection order is not respected, then automatically it is turned into a penal case,” says Basri Kastrati, “Maximum punishment is 6 months in jail or 2000 euros fine. If there are also physical crimes committed, then this punishment increases.”

In order for a domestic abuse case to be considered as a criminal offence, the victim would, therefore, have to suffer at the hands of their abuser a second time.

“There is a proposal,” says Kastrati, “Currently in the parliamentary assembly, to change domestic violence to be automatically treated as a criminal case… I think yes, it will pass because we have so many proposals from different agencies, different international organisations.”

Economic restrictions

Aside from stigma and fear, a major factor in women feeling unable to report cases of domestic violence is due to economic reasons that restrict them from reintegrating back into society.

“We have monitored the role of the victim advocate, shelter staff, healthcare providers,” says Valentina Bejtullahu Turjaka.

“What we have found, is that the main gap in this referral mechanism and protection from domestic violence is reintegration. There are no long-term solution programs to reintegrate victims of domestic violence.”

According to Luljeta Aliu, economic barriers that cause women to stay in abusive relationships and restrict their reintegration is the most important topic which needs addressing. Economic violence, which can be defined as the abuse through control over another person’s financial resources makes it impossible for many women to leave.

“I think the most important topic is the economic violence – women are totally dependent on the man’s financial resources. It is marital property that they gain together with their husband during the marriage, that they don’t have access to. Financial, material or property resources is denied to women,” says Aliu.

Kosovo is one of the poorest states in Europe, with roughly one-third of its population living below the poverty line. Only 12 percent of women who are working age are employed, compared to 39 percent of men. Another crucial factor is property rights, despite men and women have equal ownership rights to property under the law, women only make up 8 percent of property owners.

“I started to analyse the family law. The law says that equal partners have equal shares in the marital property. If they divorce the shares they take have to be counted, not only by the material income but also the contribution of the kids and the maintenance of the house. Work at home and gainful employment should be valued as equivalent according to the law,” says Aliu.

“On paper, it looks like women have rights, but in reality, they get nothing. They get nothing. Legal practice is discriminatory, when you get to the courts they misinterpret the law.”

Aliu’s main fight is for women to gain equal property rights, to amend the law so it does not allow for misreading.

“I prepared an initiative. It is paragraphs regarding property rights, I want them to be amended, to be clarified. The main point here is that I want to have an equivalence stated in the law. I want one of the articles to state that family work and gainful employment outside of the house is equivalent. Full stop. If we do that, the judges and the courts cannot misinterpret, they cannot abuse it.

“This would be also a very easy way to give a value to family work. In every country, it’s very difficult to measure the value of public and private work. This is what I want to get through, it is now at the committee for legislation. They have worked on it and they are drafting the law. I hope it will get voted, but I’m not very optimistic. Because I know how people think here.”

A change in the law and to women’s overall economic status would also benefit them when it came to domestic violence cases.

“They do not have any property under their name, they are not working most of them and their families will not take them back,” says Aliu.

“Women who cry out and want to leave, they get into these women’s shelters. But the conditions there are miserable. The shelters are closed from time to time, the state doesn’t finance them enough.”

The way Aliu sees it, the whole economy would be set to benefit from greater participation of women.

“It will have an impact not only on thousands of women, but it will also have an impact on economic development. Because right now we are stuck in this misery in Kosovo, we are not developing as a state at all. One of the reasons for that we can change is this.

“If only 50% of our population takes part in economic development we cannot develop, forget it! The other 50% which are women, they are not taking part in economic or social development. How the hell do you expect to develop.”

When I ask her the hardest parts of her fight, she tells me “I’m getting very bad messages right now, from people who are threatening me by saying, ‘Oh you have two daughters, the little one is really cute! Can I go get her?’ There were also women asking me in the beginning, aren’t you afraid to do this? Now I see, it’s really not easy.”

Despite the constant battle and threats to her family, Aliu persists. She sees a change in perceptions, with the younger generation.

“It’s changing faster with the younger women than with the younger men. But there are also younger men who fight it, who see the interests of women. It’s not only women who would be better off. It’s a social issue if you have equal rights to access to justice and economy and decision making then the whole society will develop faster. But there are not enough of them who see this. I have to lobby a lot.”

At one point in our interview, a male friend tells Luljeta Aliu, “You should be less radical and more diplomatic if you’d like to change something.”

“No.” she throws back, “We have to tell the truth. I’ve been diplomatic long enough.”