STORY: Coming From Behind of the Wall of Silence - Delivering Rights for Victims of Sexual Violence in War

Mar 17, 2016



By Cyrille Cartier -  freelance journalist and journalism mentor sharing her time between Europe and the Middle East

A suspended screen with a seating chart of parliament members resembling that of a theater, lit up in little green or red lights. Each represented the vote of a parliamentary member on the floor below. From the visitors' balcony, a group of about 30 people, most of them women, looked on attentively. Some sat at the edge of their seats. They'd come to witness what they were promised would be a life-changing law, a law that would officially recognize and compensate them for their wartime ordeal—one of the most cruel and still pervasive human rights violations—rape and other forms of sexual violence during the 1990s war. After several amendments were considered, the law was finally voted on. The screen turned mostly green. The law passed. Civil society activists, UNDP members and survivors got up from their chairs and started to hug one another. Some cried, all congratulated each other on the victory. It was a historical date but tinted by the reason for its creation—the atrocities of war—and the delay—it took more than 20 years.

Creating a law to recognize the survivors, give some form of compensation and ensure improved access to adequate health care and psycho-social support, is one of the good examples of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) projects on transitional justice to date. 

UNDP Croatia played a vital role to make the law a reality by bringing civil society stakeholders with diverse interests together with state actors, and empowering survivors to include them in the drafting process. The psycho-social support project it also piloted can serve as an effective model for services guaranteed by the law. Two keys documents were also produced by UNDP to determine the number of survivors and potential applicants, and to lay the foundation for discussion of the law in accordance with UN principles of reparations and transitional justice. If allowed full and successful implementation—the Croatian law could serve as a global model to facilitate reparations and the healing of individuals and society after egregious human rights violations during war. But even the process of creating the law and the legislation itself serve as an example to follow.

Recognizing sexual violence as a war-crime

The use of sexual violence and rape as a war strategy to break the enemy, boost perpetrating fighter morale, and leave lasting haunting imprint on the survivors and their communities has been used for centuries. Yet it was not until the widely reported atrocities of sexual violence on an estimated 50,000 people in Bosnia that the UN Security Council in 1992 recognized rape as crime during wartime. A year later, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia made legal history by recognizing rape as a crime against humanity punishable under international law, noted a UN Women report “Making Transitional Justice Work for Women.”  The court in Rwanda did the same in 1994.

Despite the fact Bosnia triggered the legal precedence in the fight against gender-based violence, as if to add insult to injury, almost no cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence during the conflict in former Yugoslavia were prosecuted in domestic or international courts, according to a 2009 UN resolution.

“Thousands of victims have been denied access to justice, reparation and redress. The lives of the victims remain blighted in many ways while the perpetrators enjoy almost complete impunity for their crimes,” it noted.

In Croatia specifically, sexual violence had been largely ignored. The reasons were various from the society's taboo of sexual violence to survivor's fear of further stigmatization and lack of faith in government institutions to provide rights and, even less, justice.

“Even in peace, we don't like to talk about it,” said Jasmina Papa, the UNDP program officer who headed the project. “It's only now that women are ready to start telling their stories. It might be that no one really properly listened at that time or was not ready to hear what they were saying” during the war.

Stories of survivors meeting their perpetrators on the streets, walking in full impunity despite charges brought against them, built deep mistrust in Bosnia and Croatia. The Croatian criminal judicial system has only 147 cases on record involving sexual violence and a mere 15 led to convictions. Some survivors applied for a law for veterans others for a law for civilian victims that had a deadline application several years ago. But many survivors did not qualify for the civilian law because they had no lasting physical proof or documentation of what they had endured.

Addressing the silence and the trauma

The tide of silence had started ebbing when Marija Slišković researched on positive contributions of women during the war. She then uncovered haunting stories she could not ignore. With good intentions she encouraged survivors to tell their stories and to join her in a nationwide campaign in 2011 to address the injustice. The campaign drew a lot of media attention but other activists balked at the public display of the intimate ordeals, fearing survivors would be re-traumatized and lack the necessary support. The division among civil society groups reflected their diverse experience with survivors and their set of principles and beliefs.

“There's a great deal of embarrassment around rape in general and sexual violence in war because it tends to be highly politicized and highly nationalized,” said Louisa Vinton, former UNDP resident representative in Croatia. “And I think that's one of the first things that we helped to do: here's the convening power of the United Nations, the UNDP, to bring those two groups together to have this event in Vukovar.”

Vukovar is the symbol of Croatian suffering during the war after a three-month-long siege resulted in its near destruction. Before the war Vukovar was a diverse well-integrated multiethnic city on the border with Serbia. Today, Slišković said, “Vukovar is still an image of war. The buildings and facades are rebuilt but the fiber of society is damaged.”

Slišković had first approached then President Ivo Josipović before his office involved the UNDP. At the same time the director of the Center for Women Studies, Rada Borić, Eve Ensler got involved. UNDP then organised a roundtable in April 2012 in Vukovar that brought together survivors, the president, Minister of Veteran Affairs Predrag Fred Matić, and other guests of honor including renown playwright Eve Ensler. But Ensler's arrival provoked adverse reaction among some.

Papa recalled a conversation with one local activist who said, “'Why do we need somebody who works with women in Congo? We need to sort out our own politicians.'” But when Ensler connected the dots between lack of justice and recognition for survivors elsewhere and rampant, ongoing gender-based violence in those societies, “the issue of wider solidarity then slowly started emerging.”

“How is it possible that we as human beings do not understand that a life of one woman is the life of all of us. It's not one woman, it's her children it's her community, it's her connection. It's the fabric of society,” Ensler said. “When a woman is hurt or destroyed or infected or undone or damaged, it is done to everyone in that society.”

Her speech triggered a “prise de conscience” among Croatian policy makers and that further convinced people of the obligation to address survivors' needs, while also broaching stories of the past and reconciliation.

As a war veteran in Vukovar where he was imprisoned, Minister Matić said “one of traumas that keeps following me are screams of women in camps. From these cries it was not difficult to imagine what was happening to these women. From the side of institutions, not enough has been done to help these victims.”

With the Ministry of Veteran Affairs as implementing partner, UNDP then devised a comprehensive project—“Rights and needs of victims of sexual violence in the war in Croatia—Unaddressed legacy of the war from 1991 to 1995”—that comprised of a psycho-social support program for survivors, a policy paper and a research paper, and further education and building awareness through conferences and roundtables. Less than a year later, in January 2013, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark came to Croatia for the official signing of the project along with Swiss Ambassador Denis Knobel as they provided initial funding.

"For the survivors of wartime sexual violence, the distance between them and the war has not brought peace to their hearts or their minds. As in many other countries, they have been left to cope with the consequences on their own," Clark said.

Breaking the cycle of trauma

When a survivor, 20 years after, still has anxiety attacks and nightmares, and lacks confidence and hope in the future, she—as she would most likely be a woman—is not healing nor able to be a full member of society. Her family, her children, have grown up with the consequences of her trauma whether they know the source or not. They too are affected in their outlook on life and interaction with society. Future generations are caught in the vicious circle of the trauma, said Marijana Senjak, a psychological therapist who has worked with Bosnian rape survivors since the early 1990s and campaigned for legislation there and in Croatia. It is precisely because of the long-term paralyzing and negative effect that such a war strategy is so atrociously effective.

“This war strategy is better than a bullet,” said Slišković, head of the Women in the Homeland War Association. “A bullet sorts out everything in a minute. This way you create a sick group.”


Beyond healing the symptoms

Part of the UNDP project was to support a unique program—“I am much more than my trauma”—to provide psycho-social support to survivors which combines therapy with a broader set of support measures for survivors and their families. The year-long holistic program aimed to change the survivor's approach to their trauma and to inspire renewed self-confidence and hope in the future. Individual and group therapy sessions guided them to address issues of boundaries, accepting help, and conflict-resolution. Participants were encouraged to deal with the past and work on reconciliation. Many felt a sense of liberation from guilt and shame and spoke of regaining a sense of purpose in life, improved relations with their children or partner, or even just a new ability to smile.  

This form of therapy contrasted sharply with the type of help that most had received up to then: dependence on pharmaceutical pills to help them sleep, feel calm or any other symptom of trauma. Ružica Barbarić only wished to sleep. But every time she would go to the psychiatrist, they only gave her more pills. None worked. “I used to look like and feel like an old lady. Now, people barely recognize me,” she said during the program. “Now we are women with smiles on our faces.”

The hope is for the government to facilitate other similar programs that many believe would be less costly to the Ministry of Health as it improves overall physical and mental health in the long-run.   


Laborious process

The Ministry of Veteran Affairs, with UNDP support, created a working group of 15 members of civil society, line ministries and ombudswomen to come up with a draft of a law. The experience from the therapy project, the ongoing conversations with survivors and various roundtables helped inform the group. The UNDP supported the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs to organize a regional conference “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Delivering Justice for the Past, Preventing Abuse in the Future,” in May 2014 for more than a 100 civil society members and government officials from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo*. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Clark delivered messages via video as did survivors. Crucial to defeating a culture of impunity that fighting forces enjoy during and often after conflict, is the need to shame the practice and perpetrators, reminded the Croatian Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Vesna Pusić.

Two key documents that the UNDP produced also served as a basis for the working group discussions: a 2013 sociological research defining the types of conflict-related sexual violence in Croatia, the number of cases and survivors' and experts' expectations from the reparations system, and a policy paper, “Reparations for Civilian Victims of War Related Sexual Violence.”  

From the onset, the policy paper's major influence was to shape the law toward an administrative procedure away from a criminal one that would have put the burden of proof on survivors and require more complex, lengthy and costly legal procedures and investigations. The administrative one involves no judges, no rulings and no courts. It is less burdensome on survivors as their testimony is considered in good faith and, regardless of whether or not survivors can identify and take steps to prosecute their perpetrators, they are eligible for compensation.

“Opting out for administrative scheme in comparison to criminal proceedings would, in addition, have the advantage of setting forth a simplified procedure and producing lesser costs, lowering evidentiary threshold and sparing the victims of unnecessary trauma and secondary victimization,” noted the policy paper.

The policy paper incorporated several other components from UN guidelines that in turn became part and parcel of the law. The state accepted to compensate its citizens in part for failing to protect them during war even if the crime did not take place in its territory—a stipulation that makes the law stand above others in the region. The law is also solely dedicated to survivors—it is not a component of the social welfare law like in Bosnia, nor part of Kosovo's* civilian war victims law.


Imbalanced attention

Part of the fear that created a reticence toward the law was as a result of what happened with Croatia's veterans numbered at 500,000—a figure believed to be grossly overinflated. At the end of the war veterans received early retirement and lifetime pensions that represent a yearly 1.8 percent of country's GDP. Veterans were also eligible for other benefits such as priority housing and for preferential access to employment. The discrepancy with how survivors are dealt with in comparison to the veterans is at the crux of survivor's disappointment.

“For a country that has so generously expressed gratitude to its veterans but was unable for so long to even acknowledge the plight of victims of sexual violence, I just find that appalling,” said UNDP's Vinton. “That is the real expression of gender inequality.”

Originally policy makers wanted a law that would create a special fund for compensation, essentially taking the financial responsibility off government hands. Part of the issue was fear, fears of large numbers that would siphon off state money. Senjak, one of the working group members who had innovated new therapy methods for survivors, persuaded the skeptics that there are various ways to judge whether or not a survivor is telling the truth and of the unlikelihood of mass applications of false pretense. When the fruits of the UNDP-funded research came to light—that about 2,200 people suffered from sexual violence between 1991 and 1995—politicians' fears were further rendered baseless.

"When you look at the position of power and position of men in war, they carry arms and they kill people . . . and they usually get rewarded for that," Papa said. "It's hard to compare and make a hierarchy between a lost leg and rape, or between a bullet in your body and rape, and what are the psychological consequences. But this (law) is somehow trying to acknowledge this kind of suffering and that women were usually casual victims of war."


The Law

Unlike other laws in the region, the Croatian version provides for a one-time payment of either 13,180 Euros or 19,800 Euros depending on whether survivors became pregnant after the rape or were minors at the time of the crime. In accordance with other countries' laws, it also sets a standard monthly payment of about 320 Euros. The law covers survivors' expenses for healthcare, medical insurance, rehabilitation and legal aid. Both the monthly payment and benefits are the same basic compensation given to most veterans—in line with the policy paper recommendation—though veterans can also receive much more.

The final law defines eligible survivors as people who meet all the following requirements: their case is approved by a committee, they are Croatian citizens, they had at least started getting temporary residence in Croatia at the time of the crime, they must not have been "convicted of involvement in enemy military or paramilitary units or for threatening the constitutional order and security of the Republic of Croatia" nor have "been a member, accessory or associate of enemy military or paramilitary units."

The Croatian law, according to some, does not provide enough rights to survivors such as facilitated access to housing, employment, and priority education for children—provisions similar to veterans' rights and already included in the Croatian government employment action plan for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The Bosnia law—though wanting of implementation—also provides survivors with preferential treatment for employment and housing.



The commission to go through applications was set up and started to work in November. Their one but critical task is to determine whether or not the crime of sexual violence had occurred during the war. Then, a team within the ministry of veteran affairs takes their finding into account to decide how much the survivor will be compensated—the full packaage of the one-off payment and monthly amount, or any other combination.

Croatia's UNDP organized a training of the people who would be on the frontline of interacting with survivors seeking to apply to the “Law on the rights of victims of sexual violence during the aggression of the Republic of Croatia in the Homeland War.” A three-day program involving about 30 participants from National Psychological Trauma Centres from around the country. The training was multidisciplinary and covered topics on rights, trauma, gender equality and transitional justice—crucial issues for dealing with the past on the individual and community levels of society that need to be addressed simultaneously.

The reason for the training—in part to re-sensitize participants—find echoes in a new set of UN guidance notes on reparations for conflict-related sexual violence: "The devastating physical and psychological impact of sexual violence, compounded by the stigma attached to it, often prevents survivors from seeking or obtaining redress, including for fear of being ostracised by families and communities as a result of disclosing the facts, or of being further victimised by insensitive authorities or institutions." The notes were released during London's Global Summit of the UK Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative in June 2014.

By the end of 2015 a total of 105 persons (89 women and 16 men) applied for a status of a survivors. 35 applicants were granted the status and can access their rights. As more survivors hear about the law having an effect on people's lives, the hope is that more of them will come out from behind the wall of silence, shame and fear so that the whole society can better heal.


Following-up beyond distributing compensation

Distributing reparations is only one component of proper implementation of the law wrote the policy paper authors who based their suggestions on UN guidance principles. They recommend that: “the new law should rest on holistic, integrated and multidisciplinary approach and combine individual reparations with collective, community based programs, symbolic reparations and guarantees of non-repetition.”

The ministry could continue to do trainings for psycho-social workers, set up outreach campaigns to encourage application, initiate follow-ups with potential applicants especially after they come forward the first time to the centers. The government should devise ways to facilitate and sponsor alternative therapy programs and access to them. Some sort of evaluation of the application process from beginning to end is also required in addition to more education on human rights and women’s rights to break down the stigma toward sexual violence.

Some wounds of war will never fully heal. Ordeals cannot be forgotten. Many of the survivors will not have the opportunity to seek justice by going after their perpetrators. It becomes even more crucial that their suffering is abated. They, their families and community around them are all implicated in the circles of trauma. For a society to heal, for peace to prosper, for non-repetition to be ensured, trauma must be dealt with holistically and the past must be addressed.

The law, though historic, is a key component of gender-sensitive transitional justice, a stepping stone in a long process of healing, but it is only the beginning.


* Kosovo under UN Security Council resolution 1244