Healing and hope for victims of sexual violence

Wartime sexual violence victims in Croatia
Wartime sexual violence victims in Croatia. Photo: UNDP in Croatia

Like many other survivors of sexual and gender-based violence during Croatia's violent conflict between 1991 and 1995, Ana has been struggling to deal with her traumatic experience for more than 20 years. "I used to feel so powerless," says the unemployed widow, now in her mid-fifties.

In addition to dealing with the violent legacy of the war, many victims in Croatia remain afraid to seek legal redress or compensation, and are often stigmatized within their families and communities. Though the country of little more than 4 million inhabitants counts an estimated 2,200 survivors of sexual violence as a result of the war, fewer than 150 victims have come forward to claim their rights. And despite the frequent incidence of sexual and gender-based violence during times of conflict, most perpetrators continue to go unpunished.

Highlights

  • 2,200 people are estimated to have suffered severe forms of conflict-related sexual violence in Croatia, however only 147 cases have been reported.
  • Even where survivors have testified, only 36 prosecutions have been started and only 15 convictions handed down.
  • UNDP in Croatia supports the development of a new legislation that will provide victims of wartime sexual violence with the recognition, compensation and support they need.

As part of a UNDP-supported pilot project, Ana recently joined a programme providing psychosocial support for survivors of sexual violence and abuse during the war. Called 'I am much more than my trauma,' the project's approach is broader than typical trauma therapy programmes. From helping participants improve their confidence and perceptions of themselves, to providing training in conflict resolution, the project's ultimate aim is to improve the overall quality of life of its participants. Instead of analyzing and reliving their trauma, participants focus on resuming their normal lives.

In addition to workshops and therapy sessions, the programme offers women a space to meet and to organize discussions.

“The programme really did enhance the women’s psychosocial wellbeing,” says Branka Devčić, a therapy team leader. “All of the women show a much greater recognition of their own needs and most have already adopted a new and more constructive way of tackling difficult situations and emotional challenges. Their ability to regulate and express feelings of anger, fear, anxiety and depression has improved.”

UNDP Croatia Resident Representative Louisa Vinton stressed the importance of empowering survivors . “What we believe and what we know now from two years of experience is that survivors of sexual violence are not helpless victims to be pitied and comforted and somehow hidden from public view, but resilient women and men who stand ready to reclaim their lives if offered the proper support, encouragement and recognition,” she said.

UNDP has also supported the Croatian Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs to develop new legislation that will finally provide victims of wartime sexual violence with the support, recognition, and compensation they are entitled to  in accordance with UN and European standards.

The Law on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence in the Homeland War, which is expected to take effect in 2014, will assign a special status to survivors. The law will also provide additional psychosocial assistance to victims and their families, and will authorize financial reparations for the suffering inflicted upon them. Most importantly, the new law recognizes these fundamental rights for victims even if the perpetrators are never found or brought to justice. Almost two decades since the end of the war, the chances of bringing perpetrators to trial has grown decidedly slim.

“By the end [of the programme] I’d worked through a lot of anger and have reached a point where I am determined to get on with enjoying the rest of my life," says Kate, a 68-year-old survivor who struggled for decades to come to terms with her past." I guess that’s what they mean by ‘closure’—I didn’t really believe it was possible before.”

* The names of the participants have been changed for this article.