Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: Lenient Treatment of Wife-Beaters Deplored

Womens’ groups voice anger at plans to class domestic violence as a “misdemeanour” punishable with a fine.
By Nidzara Ahmetasevic

Sejla - not her real name - remembers family life with her husband all too well. “He threatened to kill me,” she said, twisting her hands nervously.


“He would beat me, insult me, swear at me,” she told IWPR at the Sarajevo safe house where she now lives with her four-month-old child.


“I was under a kind of house arrest, and I couldn’t go out without an escort. One day I couldn’t take it anymore. I ran away early one morning and reported everything to the police, who introduced me to the people from the centre for social work.


“People like my husband belong in prison. They must be prosecuted for what they have done.”


Cases like Sejla’s are increasing at an alarming rate in Bosnia. But instead of punishing the perpetrators more severely, the authorities plan to make wife-beating a misdemeanour offence, on a par with a parking violation and punishable with only a fine.


Critics say that the plans show that domestic abuse is still deemed “acceptable” in a country dominated by conservative nationalists.


“Whether a violent act is treated as misdemeanour or a serious criminal offence shows clearly which set of values the government is trying to protect,” said Fedra Idzakovic of Global Rights, an organisation campaigning for battered women.


Domestic violence is a growing problem in Bosnia as the county struggles with the wartime legacies of high unemployment, post-traumatic stress and limited social services. However, there are only five safe houses for battered women in the country. As a result, the services offered by local support groups are in big demand.


“We had 640 calls in the first six months of our telephone helpline, which indicates the extent of the problem,” said Selma Begic, who works at the Sarajevo safe house now home to Selja.


But the problem is not reflected in official statistics. According to police figures released in 2002, only 147 incidents of domestic violence were reported in the Federation.


Activists believe that a recent nationwide survey conducted by the Local Democracy Foundation gives a more reliable indication of the extent of the problem.


The survey of 4,000 women found that 65 per cent claimed to have suffered family violence and that three-quarters of these respondents had not reported the incidents.


Campaigners say that this reticence is understandable, given the often-dismissive attitude of judges and policemen toward the crime.


A recent report by Global Rights and other NGOs detailing how domestic violence is treated in Bosnia’s courts found that judges tended to punish offenders with minor fines and that prison sentences were an exception.


According to the Republika Srpska, RS, justice ministry, 51 incidents of domestic violence were reported to the Banja Luka police in 2002 alone - but only two people were jailed as a result.


Human rights groups believe that under-reporting of such abuse is part of a wider problem. Global Rights has noted that “behind Bosnia’s civilised and modern façade, there is a deeply traditional and patriarchal society. Family violence forms an integral part of that reality but it is ignored and not discussed in public”.


Campaigners believe this attitude is deeply ingrained in local police forces.


“Even though they are being educated about it, many police officers seem to believe that one has to slap a woman once in a while,” said safe house counsellor Zehrija Zajkovic, adding that some Bosnian men seemed to think that a slap in the face was “nothing”.


Women’s support groups warn that the draft law relegating domestic violence to a misdemeanour charge will do little to change such attitudes.


“The state must effectively punish those responsible for domestic violence,” said Idzakovic. “Nothing will change if you treat family violence as a misdemeanour.”


Global Rights is part of a coalition of more than a hundred NGOs now urging the government not to relegate the crime of domestic violence.


“This hasn’t been presented to the public, nor has there been an open debate about it,” said Sehic. “We object to the definition and treatment of family violence as a mere misdemeanour.”


But government officials insist that the draft law reducing the seriousness of domestic abuse will not be altered. Justice ministry official Dzemal Mutapcic told IWPR, “Such a law allows us to distinguish between minor offences, such as slapping someone in the face, and the more serious ones.”


He said that other laws could be used to prosecute “more serious” offences.


Campaigners acknowledge that provisions contained in other pieces of proposed legislation could be useful in reducing domestic violence.


Under the Family bill currently before the Federation justice ministry, it will be possible to evict abusers from the marital home as well as deny them access to the family. But the question of punishment remains.


NGOs argue that as long as the law states that family violence is a mere misdemeanour and punishable with a small fine, there is little hope of changing the ingrained attitudes of police, judges and the abusers themselves.


Back at Sarajevo’s only safe house, Selja lives in fear of her husband, who remains a free man.


“When I came here I was shattered,” she told IWPR. “Today I live in hope that soon I will be able to leave this place, find a job and start a new life. But I’m not thinking about a new relationship. I’m too afraid.”


Nidzara Ahmetasevic is a journalist based in Sarajevo