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Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, its causes and consequences finalises country mission to Croatia

ZAGREB (15 November 2012) – At the end of her official country mission to Croatia, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Rashida Manjoo, delivered the following statement:

“I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation to the Government of Croatia for extending the invitation to conduct an official country mission. I am grateful to all my interlocutors, including State authorities, National Human Rights Institutions as well as representatives of civil society organisations, and United Nations agencies. Most importantly, I want to thank the individual women who shared their personal experiences of violence and survival with me.

The Government of Croatia has recognized the importance of upholding and protecting the human rights of women by signing and ratifying relevant international human rights instruments and also through many commendable initiatives. I was made aware that it is also considering signature and ratification of the new Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. To this end the government has established a working group to review relevant legal issues arising prior to the implementation into domestic law of the provisions of this Convention. It has also enacted domestic legislation such as the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination of 2009; the Law on Protection against Domestic Violence of 2003 and its recent amendments of 2009. A National Strategy of Protection against Family Violence and a specialised Protocol for public officials to deal with reported cases of family violence is also in existence. A new Criminal Code was adopted in 2011 and will come into effect in 2013, which further strengthens provisions on violent behaviour and domestic violence. Similarly, in 2004 the Government adopted the Gender Equality Law and subsequently developed a National Action Plan. Specialised mechanisms have been set up to monitor the numerous laws, policies and action plans as regards human rights, non-discrimination and gender equality amongst others.

I have noticed that as in similar post-conflict situations, violence from the wartime period tends to become privatized and takes on new forms as it manifests in the private and family sphere. Although I understand the focus of the Government’s numerous initiatives to address family violence broadly, it is clear to me that women are the victims of such violence in the vast majority of cases and that the perpetrator is usually the husband/partner. Thus this situation requires a clear and explicit focus on violence against women by both state and non-state actors. The current focus by state actors on preserving the unity of the family is manifested in the welfare/social approach and not in the human rights based approach. It does not take into consideration the nature of relationships based on power and powerlessness; of economic and emotional dependency; and also the use of alcohol and other substances as a defence for abusive behaviour. This is further manifested by the discrepancy between the provisions of the laws and the effective implementation of the State’s responses to family violence.

The first points of contact, for cases of family violence, apart from the police, are often the Centres for Social Welfare (CSW). CSWs have a variety of responses to offer to victims of family violence, such as offering safe house/shelter accommodation; awarding financial assistance; making recommendations for protection measures, including sanctions against perpetrators, and so on. In numerous interviews with both victims and service providers, I have been made aware that the focus of this State institution is primarily to retain the unity of the family and to provide reconciliation through mandated mediation processes. Often this is done with the perpetrator and the victim being present together in the same location. Testimonies have confirmed that CSWs have shown inadequate and inappropriate responses to the protection needs of women victims of family violence. Furthermore, they are sometimes viewed as acting like gatekeepers in the accessing of shelters and other forms of assistance for women victims of family violence. This then leads to reluctance by women to use this State institution which is mandated to provide assistance to them and to act in their best interests as regards protection measures.

During my visit, I have visited three shelters, one state sponsored and two privately run. I have been made aware of the crucial issue of inadequate funding, which affects all shelters, including the state shelter that operates on resources allocated by the city of Zagreb. Unfortunately, the NGO/association-operated shelters are in a worse-off position and have to rely on short-term, irregular and unsustainable funding. I understand there have been discussions about regulating both standards and sustainable funding needs of shelters. I encourage this dialogue to continue, especially during this time of economic crisis. Under the human rights obligations assumed by Croatia, the state has an obligation to act with due diligence in protecting victims, preventing violence and providing redress measures, despite the current economic situation.

In cases of domestic violence, the complex nature of the prosecution policies, which differentiate between misdemeanour and criminal charges, and the challenges imposed since the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the Maresti case have resulted in misdemeanour and criminal charges becoming mutually exclusive. Although prosecutors from the State’s Attorney Office have the authority to decide under which category to investigate and prosecute a case of family violence (based on numerous factors), they also have the power to ask for a variety of protective measures for the victim. These include restraining orders, absence of communication, eviction of the perpetrator from the family home, among others. I have been informed by victims that often the only measure requested (by the different agencies) is psycho-social rehabilitation treatment for the perpetrator, a measure which is often not followed and whose efficacy has proven to be ineffective in most cases. Such measures ignore the protection needs of the victim who is left at the mercy of the perpetrator and who often has to flee with her children from the family home.

Although there are now Victims and Witnesses Protection Units in some Courts in the country, victims of domestic and other types of violence face a similar situation in that they are not protected in the courtroom or through the sanctions decisions. In the court, they are often in close proximity of the perpetrator and logical protective mechanisms are not allowed, including having a support person sitting between the victim and the perpetrator. I have received complaints from victims which include the following: the low sentencing of perpetrators; the suspension of their sentences; and the use of protective measures such as psychosocial therapy that do not benefit victims directly, but rather aim to change perpetrators behaviours through counselling or treatment. Such measures do not effectively ensure a protective environment for women victims of violence and their children. This is particularly the case in the Misdemeanour Courts that handle the great majority of cases of domestic violence. Although these may be seen by the police and prosecutors as more speedy and efficient in leading to a trial, the sentences handed out to perpetrators are of little value and the implementation of protective measures for the victim, if any, are rarely followed-up. Similarly, I have heard that new regulations on legal aid have made it more difficult for victims to obtain this service due to an increase of administrative paperwork and formalities.

I also heard about the lack of sensitivity and misperceptions on the part of some judges, especially in divorce and domestic violence cases. Furthermore, I have been informed that it is almost impossible to obtain information on statistics and verdicts of such Courts as these are not courts of records, and also their decisions are not made public. I therefore call for more transparency and accountability as regards the decisions of the judiciary in such cases. There is also a need for more training of state officials working in the sector of family violence. Such training teams must include experts from NGOs/associations and academia in order to educate such officials more substantively on the social context and realities of the complex issues they are faced with in such cases.

I have also been informed by numerous interviewees of the different interpretations and implementation of laws by the different state service providers. This phenomenon is reflected in dual arrests by the police in cases of domestic violence; women victims being charged for breaking the peace and often being found guilty and sentenced to a fine, sometimes similar to the perpetrator; derogatory remarks made by some judges; and the ignoring of economic and emotional dependency of the victim towards her perpetrator when looking at evidence of women’s behaviour. The statistics from the Ministry of Interior tend to reflect that women constitute 35% of perpetrators of domestic violence. This statistic indicates one of two things: that there is a trend that reflects that women are becoming more violent, or that the interpretation and implementation of the laws as described above, is leading to higher statistics - which ignores the reality of women acting in self defence when being abused and also ignores the conservative and patriarchal ways of functioning of state agents when dealing with women victims of family violence.

I have had the opportunity to visit the Lobor-grad social care institution where concerns about mental health treatment and the lack of basic safeguards regarding the involuntary admission procedure and placement under guardianship were confirmed. Such persons become deprived of their basic rights, including legal capacity in decision-making – through a diagnostic and classification system prior to incarceration. Often patients placed in social-care institutions or psychiatric hospitals remain there for life, abandoned by their families and isolated from the rest of society. The pilot project of self-organized living in houses in villages that I have seen in Lobor-grad provides an emerging practice of attempts at independent living and should be monitored as a possible model for future interventions.

Furthermore, I have been informed that some women with disabilities experience numerous forms of violence, including sexual violence, forced sterilization and/or abortions and forced medication without their consent. I call upon the Government to investigate this issue further and to provide more thorough protection against abuses of women with disabilities, especially those who have been placed in mental health institutions.

On the issue of conflict-related sexual violence, it is crucial for government authorities at all levels to recognize the existence of civilian women victims of a range of violations, regardless of their active participation in the conflict, and to ensure that they are entitled to the same benefits as other war veterans. More than 20 years after the end of the armed conflict, the deep trauma is still present with many of the survivors I had the opportunity to meet with. Their perpetrators have not been sanctioned for these crimes and the impunity surrounding such perpetrators was seen as a further insult to numerous victims.

It is important that the issues of truth, justice and accountability in a post-conflict situation be properly addressed, and I call on the Government to make justice, accountability and substantive redress a priority in the near future. The issue of status of such victims needs to be promulgated through laws and policies, in order to allow women victims of sexual violence to benefit from redress measures. I also call on the donor community, international organisations and national women’s organizations to further address the needs of these wartime victims of the conflict. Furthermore, it is the State’s responsibility to adequately prosecute and ensure effective sanctions of the perpetrators of such crimes. I have heard that in some instances of prosecutions at the national levels, the perpetrators have managed to flee to neighbouring countries, either pre-during or after the trials. The lack of accountability further perpetuates a sense of distrust in the ability of national courts and processes to effectively address the justice and redress needs of women victims.

Finally, I would like to mention that my mandate is very broad and looks at all forms, causes and consequences of violence against women. Unfortunately I have heard very little from interviewees during my visit on the situation of minority women including Roma women, and lesbian, transgender and inter-sex women. I also heard very little on the phenomenon of women victims of trafficking, sexual offences including rape, and sexual harassment. These are other areas of violence against women that I look at during country visits. I do understand that the phenomena of family violence/domestic violence is a fairly new public focus for this country and that understandably both state and non-state actors are hugely concerned about this. But I encourage all relevant role-players to also look at the problem of violence against women in a more holistic and multi-dimensional manner.

I would also like to encourage the government and the donor community not only to mainstream a gender perspective into their policies and programmes, but also to ensure specificity in such work. Croatia must be commended for its attempts at specificity in the different spheres, including on disability and children’s rights. Furthermore, sustainability and consistency should be the guiding principles as regards funding, particularly in this period of economic crisis, which often leads to an exacerbation of violence against women. State responsibility cannot be reduced or abdicated in such circumstances and creativity should guide the use of limited resources, especially to address the protection needs of victims.”

My findings will be discussed in a comprehensive way in the report that I will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2013.”

ENDS

Ms. Rashida Manjoo (South Africa) was appointed Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, its causes and consequences in June 2009 by the UN Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Ms. Manjoo also holds a part-time position as a Professor in the Department of Public Law of the University of Cape Town. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/SRWomenIndex.aspx