Nov 23, 2021 - World

Activists in Balkans raise alarm on rising violence against women

women in kosovo protest femicide

Protesters march with the slogan "Murder of women should be treated as national priority!" in Pristina, Kosovo on Aug. 26. Photo: Ferdi Limani/Getty Images

Sheila Bakia was 19 when she was killed in Montenegro. Albanian Sabrina Bengaj was killed at 23. Marigona Osmani was just 18 when was she beaten to death in Kosovo. Authorities believe all three women were killed by their husbands or ex-partners, and all three recent murders have sparked mass calls for change.

The big picture: As the world prepares to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women this week, activists across the Balkans are highlighting how the systemic failures to monitor and prevent femicide have allowed violence against women and girls to continue unchecked.

  • Femicide is broadly defined as the intentional killing of women and girls because of their gender, according to the World Health Organization.
  • But some countries use narrower definitions, and very few specifically mention femicide in their legal codes.

By the numbers: One in two women murdered in the Western Balkans last year was killed by her husband or partner, according to a recent report by several NGOs in the region.

  • In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United Women Foundation (UWF) found that 10 women were killed by their partners or family members in 2019, and six in 2020.
  • In Serbia, 26 of the 44 women killed in 2020, were murdered by their husbands of partners, according to Autonomous Women's Center Belgrade.
  • In Albania, after a pandemic drop in 2020, 16 women were killed in the first nine months of 2o21, matching the 2018 annual total, per Aferdita Prroni, the director of the Human Rights in Democracy Center.

Similar trends have been seen in the wider Balkans.

  • Croatia has witnessed a nearly 50% increase in the number of women killed by intimate partners each year since 2018, according to Croatia's Gender Equality Ombudsperson, Višnja Ljubičić. Fourteen of the 19 women killed last year were classified as femicide, she told Axios.
  • In Romania, 45 women were killed by their partners in 2018, and 52 in 2020, according to Camelia Proca, the founder and director of Romania's Association for Liberty and Gender Equality.

Yes, but: Analysts warn the numbers likely represent undercounts since many official institutions don't differentiate between femicide and homicide.

  • The lack of accurate data can have major implications for policy decisions about how best to address violence against women.

Between the lines: Reporting domestic violence continues to carry cultural stigma in many Balkan countries. When cases are reported, police and other officials often don't treat them seriously enough, women's rights advocates say.

  • In Albania, for example, many victims had restraining orders against the perpetrators, according to Ines Leskaj, executive director of the Albanian Women Empowerment Network. "These are the cases that demonstrate that the protection system is not functioning or has failed," she told Axios.
  • Both Sheila Bakia and Sabrina Bengaj reported threats or abuse prior to their murders, per local media. Marigona Osmani's husband, meanwhile, had a lengthy criminal record, and activists say he should have not been out of prison at the time of her death, Euronews reported.

The bottom line: Until Balkan countries impose harsher punishments for domestic violence, invest in better data collection and foster a shift in thinking around violence against women, analysts fear femicide rates will continue to increase in the region.

  • It requires an "entire system" change, Croatian ombudsperson Ljubičić said.
Go deeper