Why should the issue of domestic violence against Serbian women interest anyone outside of Serbia? Why should this issue matter to American readers?

    The answer lies in the universality of human rights. In the time before the Second World War, the Nazi German state violated what are now recognized as the basic human rights of its citizens. At the time, the world community considered these violations to be the internal affair of an independent, sovereign country, which was entitled to deal with its citizens according to its own laws. These "internal affairs," however, ended up spilling over Germany's borders and destabilizing all of Europe. The result was a war that was not only devastating to Germany's neighbors but also dangerous to the entire world.

    The concept of human rights was born at this moment. The war forced a recognition that no state can be allowed to deny human rights and basic freedoms to its citizens, and that the world community is entitled to intervene when violations occur. The concept of human rights implies, then, a "narrow" concept of sovereignty, which carries with it the obligation to preserve basic rights and freedoms [1]. The defense of human rights was to be a key factor in the prevention of future local, regional and, particularly, global wars.

    Domestic violence is nothing other than a violation and a denial of human rights, one that affects certain groups of people disproportionately, especially women, children, the disabled, and the elderly. Like all violations of human rights, these events have a tendency to expand across boundaries - in this case, the walls of private houses - into the larger society, where they reverberate in more and more frequent acts of public violence. Domestic violence "teaches" male children to be future perpetrators by providing them with violent male role models for identification. Likewise, female children who experience or witness domestic violence learn to be future victims. Men whose acts of violence committed at home go unpunished are more likely to express their masculinity outside their home in a violent way, and to feel entitled to solve all kinds of problems by means of "quick and efficient" violence. As more and more people are involved in the circle of violence, either as perpetrators or as victims, the whole society becomes accustomed to violence and becomes brutalized by its ubiquitous presence.

    The crux of the problem is that domestic violence is treated more or less everywhere as a private matter, something for which both sides allegedly are equally responsible. The lack of interference sends a message to violent men that their violent acts are "normal" men's behavior, and that their homes are spaces where they may behave like masters of a little universe, free to be as violent as they like. The consequences of tolerance of such violence are the proliferation of more violence of all kinds, domestic as well as public, and a more irrational and brutal society.

    Just as violations of human rights and freedoms of citizens should not be treated as the "internal affair" of one country, so domestic violence should not be treated as a "private matter" of one family. In both cases, outside interference is both legitimate and necessary as a means to end violations of human rights. The responsibility of a state to secure the human rights of its citizens includes a responsibility to guarantee safe, violence-free homes for women and children.

    A woman has been married 17 years. She has two children and is unemployed. Her husband owns a small firm and often travels on business. When he goes away, he locks her and the children in the house, without money, sometimes for as long as 20 days. He locks her in the house "so the whore cannot cruise around." When he is at home, he beats her and does not let her get a job, nor even leave the house. She is divorcing him. [2]

    A 38-year-old woman has been married six years and has a five-year-old child. She and her husband and child live with her husband's parents, who, like her husband, are alcoholics. When he is drunk, her husband beats her, and his parents support him and plot and gossip against her. She is divorcing him, but she has little income and does not know where she is going to live with her child. Presently, she lives at a friend's.

    The "Chicken or the Egg": Domestic Violence and War

    What is the relationship between domestic violence and the civil war in the former Yugoslavia? The usual position of feminists from Belgrade has been that the war, along with the economic, political and social crisis in general, produced an increase in domestic violence. They point to a number of processes:

    1. Unemployed husbands lost their dominant position, lost "face" as bread winners, and started to drink and beat family members.

    2. Waves of violent behavior often occurred after aggressive war propaganda, including stories about atrocities, which were always committed by "enemies" or the "other side," against helpless civilians from "our side." This has been labeled the "post-TV news syndrome." [3]

    3. Young men returning from battle started to assault members of their families.

    4. Men sometimes behaved violently after visiting certain restaurants which catered to war veterans. [4]

    5. Previously decent people, hooked by vague expectations of earning a lot of money in a short time, became caught up in increasingly violent criminal deeds. Many unemployed people, for instance, found their means of survival in smuggling necessary goods or selling smuggled items. Smuggling was a domain dominated by "mafia" organizations, and these people were drawn unintentionally into violent crime.

    In my view, each of these examples points to secondary sources of violence. The primary, or structural, source of violence is the patriarchy at the very foundation of Serbian society (and many other societies, as well). The patriarchal model of masculinity, especially the tolerance and even encouragement of aggressive behavior on the part of men, promotes a wide range of violent deeds, including domestic violence. In addition, a lack of proper reactions from institutions that deal with violence and a total shortage of specific legal provisions concerning domestic violence create a situation in which these acts go unchecked. It was within this pre-existing context of patriarchal norms and structures that the war aggravated the problem of domestic violence.

    Moreover, it is important to recognize that the nature of the war was, itself, shaped by the violence already present in Serbian society. A common characteristic of war veterans' stories (some of them related directly to the author) is how "easily" decent "boys from the neighborhood" found themselves adapting to the sexual atrocities, arson, and killing committed during the war. Domestic violence, of course, cannot be said to have caused the war, which had multiple roots in history and contemporary politics. But the tolerance of domestic violence in Serbian society contributed to the proliferation of atrocities committed by combatants on and off the battlefield. In other words, we have here the famous question: "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" The violence of war and the violence of everyday life in Serbian society were locked in a cycle of mutual causation.

    A woman's husband is in jail because he tied his daughter to a tree, slashed her clothes with a knife, and badly hurt her. He sends threats to his wife and children, claiming that they will pay for every day he spends in prison. She has no place to go with her children. And courts are reluctant to grant divorces to couples when one member is in jail.

    A woman has been married for 34 years. She and her husband are retired and live in a house that they both built. He is jealous, accuses her of adultery, and has beaten her for years. A year ago, he threw her out of the house. She went to stay with her daughter's family, but her husband called their son-in-law and his parents and demanded that they "throw the whore out." She returned to her husband, and the beatings started again. She would divorce her husband, but the division of real estate may take years to resolve. "[W]hat shall I do in the meantime?" she asks.

    Research on Domestic Violence

    In recent years, women's organizations in Serbia have been conducting research in order to determine the nature, causes, and consequences of domestic violence in their country. Each time the SOS Hotline in Belgrade receives a call reporting abuse of some kind, the volunteer who takes the call fills out a lengthy questionnaire. Based on these questionnaires, SOS Hotline, together with a team of researchers from the Women's Law Group, have compiled information on this issue from a sample of 1,422 cases from 1991 to 1995.

    The perpetrators in the majority of cases were husbands (between 56-65 percent of all perpetrators, depending on the year) and ex-husbands (8-13 percent). Sons, many of whom had just returned from battle in a traumatized condition, also committed a significant number of acts (from 6-12 percent each year). In all cases, perpetrators combined different kinds of abuse. Physical violence was generally mixed with mental abuse. Sexual assault (reported in 8-12 percent of cases, depending on the year) and threats of murder (6-16 percent of cases) were relatively common.

    The majority of victims reported suffering exposure to domestic violence on a daily basis (from 85-94 percent of cases, depending on the year). The violence, in most cases, occurred over "many years." In fact, the great majority of victims (from 60-78 percent) reported that the pattern of violence began at the very beginning of the couple's domestic life together. How did the victims identify the causes of the initial acts of violence? The most common responses were "nothing" (close to half of all cases in each year) and "alcohol" (about one-third of cases each year).

    It is not easy for the victims of domestic violence to escape from their situation. Over three-quarters of those who contacted SOS Hotline in each of the years of the study were still living, at that time, with the person who abused them. The most common reasons these women gave for not leaving were lack of any alternative place to live, "economic reasons," and fear. Living space is an especially acute problem, because of the shortage of apartments in Belgrade. Rent for an apartment can cost the equivalent of a relatively high monthly salary, so that battered women, especially those who are poor or unemployed, often have no alternative but to remain at home with their abusive partners. How can they afford the rent for an apartment, and still pay for food, take care of their children's needs, and handle other expenses? They are, essentially, trapped.

    Children were present during the violent acts in more than two-thirds of all cases. There is no statistical data about incest. What we know comes from stories that adult women have recounted about their childhood. In talking with adult women, little by little we discovered that many had been traumatized in their childhood, sexually molested, abused, or raped by persons whom they trusted. When, in the early 1990s, women's groups started to publicize the issue of the large number of women sexually abused in childhood by supposedly trustworthy people, thereby undermining the myth of the "unknown sex maniac" as the main danger to children, they were met by disbelief from many men and male-dominated institutions. Police, social workers, some judges and prosecutors, journalists: they simply would not believe that incest could exist in our vicinity. This lack of response from mainstream institutions has meant that child sexual abuse and incest are now considered "feminist issues" in Serbia, even though feminists recognize that the victims of incest are both male and female children (although female children prevail), and that perpetrators are also both adult men and women (although men prevail).

    R has never been able to tell her story completely, without crying or moments of deep silence. She tells her story in fragments. As a teenager, R wrote a love letter to her teacher. The teacher (a woman) gave the letter to R's parents, warning them to take better care of R because something was "wrong with her." R's family sent her to a mental hospital where she underwent electric-shock treatment in order to cure her of what was diagnosed as "a lesbian perversion." But the fact was, R's older brother had been continuously sexually molesting her from her earliest years. When she returned home from the hospital, her father started to "teach her to be a real woman" by having sexual intercourse with R against her will. At the age of 20, she gave birth to a baby girl, her own father's daughter. The baby was taken from her instantly after childbirth and put up for adoption. (R remembers only an image of herself screaming, while her newborn baby was taken from her forever.) R was sent to the mental hospital again and doctors were generously bribed by her father not to pay attention to her stories about incest. R was exposed to heavy medication for the next few years. Although visibly disturbed because of two stays in mental hospitals and her incest experiences, R obtained a university degree. She has never been employed, and is constantly sedated with tranquilizers. She was severely punished for being a lesbian - something that has never been a crime. Her father and brother, criminals and incest perpetrators, are still respected as decent citizens and members of the community.

    Women's and Feminist Organizations

    The late 1980s were pre-war years in the former Yugoslavia, although we did not realize it at the time. This was a period of political crises, tensions among the governments of the federal republics, a split in the Union of Communist Parties, demands for democratization, and the spread of nationalist propaganda. Simply put, this was a time of aggressive words and anger, especially among men. In order to respond to this atmosphere of aggression, Women and Society, an organization that had emerged out of meetings, protests and petitions in the late 1970s, established SOS Hotline in Belgrade in 1990. This hotline was the first of its kind in Serbia, although the third in the former Yugoslavia (after the hotlines in Zagreb and Ljubljana). Almost every day SOS Hotline receives from five to ten calls, totaling about 2,000 each year. SOS Hotline also runs a shelter for battered women.

    Other groups appeared soon after, and currently there are about 15 women's groups of various orientations in Belgrade. Almost all of these groups rely on money from foreign foundations in order to operate. For some groups, this is a virtue, in that it allows them to remain autonomous from official institutions that have been implicated in militaristic policies. For other organizations, however, such as those that run shelters, the lack of public funding from within Serbia creates desperate hardships. Women in Black, established in 1991, is a pacifist organization which protests against nationalism, militarism, war and other forms of violence. The Women's Studies Center, which opened in 1992, aims to provide feminist education to women students. (Belgrade University does not recognize women's studies as a legitimate field of scholarship.) The Center for Girls was founded in 1993 in order to deal with violence and incest against female children and to provide them with support. The Women's Law Group, which also started in 1993, has the following aims: to provide legal aid to women who are victims of violence, to monitor laws and court decisions, and to educate women about their legal rights. The Autonomous Women's Center Against Sexual Violence is another organization that provides support to women and children who are victims of sexual violence.

    Despite the common goals shared by members of these organizations, they have not been immune from bitter internal struggles. These struggles have emerged in the context of an economic crisis that has brought poverty and unemployment to Serbia and has made the salaries paid by various women's organizations, funded by foreign donors, vital resources for everyday survival.

    The means that participants in these struggles have employed are inherited from the communist era. Activists in the feminist movement were born and raised under communism, and have emulated typically communist role models. Thus, there are "veteran feminists" (instead of "veteran communists") and "young feminist crusaders" (instead of "young communist crusaders"). The veterans are the very few people who came from the original feminist group, Women and Society, and have remained in the feminist movement over the years. The feminist movement has provided their only work-place and their only source of livelihood. The "young feminist crusaders" are newcomers, characterized (like their historical model, the "young communist crusaders") by a lack of expert knowledge and poor formal education (sometimes combined with poor moral integrity), but with zealous ideological commitment and faith in their leaders.

    Both veterans and newcomers of the "crusader" type have found common ground in their desire to exclude those who, in their view, stray from "real" feminism. They have accused those who value personal integrity above loyalty, who do not accept what they are told, and who ask awkward questions, of being "sinners" or "enemies." One volunteer, who insisted on anonymity, alleged the following abuses by leaders of women's organizations: "misuse of money belonging to SOS; lack of control over the use of mutual resources; lack of real democratic methods of decision-making; establishment of hidden cliques ("kitchen democracy"); unspoken sexual harassment on the part of lesbian veterans towards pretty and young newcomers; exposure of the most vulnerable victims of sexual abuse to so-called therapists, who often lack solid qualifications; and the launching of intrigues against distinguished feminists, mostly the ones who appear on TV programs, give interviews, etc. . . ."

    The "veterans" and "young crusaders" view these feminist dissidents as a menace to their own survival. Many mainstream feminist activists have limited educations and no formal training or licensing in medicine and psychology. Their positions in women's organizations provide them with the opportunity to work and earn considerable incomes as "therapists for incest survivors" and other types of experts. They are willing to fight mercilessly against their critics in order to maintain these opportunities.

    There are also individuals who try to do feminist work outside of these formal organizations. Staying outside of these groups allows them to avoid internal conflicts, but it also means passing up opportunities for information, for money, for foreign travel, and for participation in conferences. It is not yet clear how long these "individual feminists" can survive as such, and what their role will be. Are they future leaders of the feminist movement or seeds of some new movement? Are they dissidents, or maybe just idealists, too good to adapt to the world of common every-day cruelties?

    The conflicts that have occurred within groups devoted to the defense of women should not obscure the work that these groups have done. The women's organizations of Belgrade have provided women with shelter, education, and legal advice. And, moreover, they have changed the nature of public discussion about domestic violence. Before SOS Hotline joined this discussion, it was dominated by all sorts of prejudices: that women were to blame for provoking violence; that they were responsible for not leaving their partners (and must, therefore, "enjoy" the violence); that domestic violence is a private matter and nobody from outside should interfere; that women ought to endure a certain amount of violence for the sake of keeping the family together, and because children need fathers; that domestic violence is, in fact, rare, sexual violence even rarer, and incest simply nonexistent in Serbia. SOS and other organizations have changed public opinion, little by little. Now, at least, nobody can deny the very existence of domestic violence as a problem of public concern.

    Zorica Mrsevic is a senior researcher at the Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, and a professor at the Women's Studies Center, both in Belgrade. In 1996-97 she was a visiting professor at Iowa University College of Law. She is a co-founder, volunteer, and/or member of a number of independent women's groups in Belgrade. She visited the University of Michigan in March, 1997.

      1. The "wide" concept of state sovereignty, or full sovereignty, which flourished in the 19th century, means that each government may rule its citizens as it considers proper, without the possibility of any outside interference. return to text

      2. This example, as well as the others in this article, comes from records of SOS Hotline, in Belgrade. These women have consented to the inclusion of their stories included in research and publications. return to text

      3. The term "post-TV-news syndrome" was coined by Belgrade's feminists during 1990 when media propaganda, especially from the first (official) TV channel, spread hatred among people of various national and ethnic origins and was frequently followed by an increase in acts of domestic violence. During the civil war, the situation became even worse because TV news broadcast more and more brutal war scenes, which provoked men's anger and violence, often directed at the nearest targets - women, children, parents, neighbors. return to text

      4. The usual atmosphere in gathering places of current and former soldiers, members of private militias and others returned from battle, was violent exasperation. This atmosphere was the result mostly of a mutual feeling of being "betrayed" by commanding officers, supreme commanders, politicians and powerful civilians who allegedly did not provide soldiers with enough opportunity to "win" the war. This aggressive shared bitterness often led to various kinds of violence, from public acts to domestic violence. return to text