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Montenegro: A Mother’s Fight For Justice.

{Photo credit: Stephanie Koehler}

{Photo credit: Stephanie Koehler}

‘Women across Borders’ is a global awareness campaign, shedding light onto the issue of sexual violence around the world. Photographer and executive producer, Stephanie Koehler, traveled to various Balkan states in 2015 to interview female survivors of sexual violence and experts in the field. Part of the campaign is a personal message from each survivor that is captured photographically. Her findings will be published in a series of articles documenting the stories of women in each of the countries she visited.

Read her articles on Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

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In Montenegro, I met Antonija. I was connected with her through the Montenegrin Women’s Lobby, an organization promoting women’s and children’s rights. Part of their work focuses on trafficked victims of domestic and sexual violence. Among their many services, they run a shelter and operate a SOS helpline, offer court accompaniments and help with government services. Antonija is a survivor of domestic violence, and has endured every possible trauma imaginable except sexual assault. Now in her 40’s, she was married for 14 years to an influential man with whom she has four children (ages 10-18), plus one 23-year-old from a previous marriage. After many years of physical and emotional abuse, both to her and to their children, the final stroke came when he banged their son’s head against the wall. She and the children finally left him to live with her parents. That was more than 10 years ago. Unknowingly, she was pregnant with their last child. She decided to keep her child and not return to her husband.

Over the years, Antonija’s husband committed adultery and produced a child with their former maid. When Antonija’s last child was born, her husband bought an apartment for her and the children. Things were going well for approximately three years, at which point he started to disrupt the peace. He tried to get them out of the apartment by cutting off the electricity in the middle of the winter. In 2008, he filed for divorce, and things took a turn for the worse. Antonija discovered he had transferred the title of the apartment, as well as ownership of all their assets, to other people in order to prevent her from claiming any of it.

Between 2008 and 2009, he kidnapped both their sons and their youngest girl. She was able to rescue her daughter 5½ months later, but still has no access to the sons. After filing police reports and repeated claims to the social work agency, she was left without any support. Many more cruelties occurred over the years. In their absence, he sold their apartment, including all of their furniture, clothes and the children’s school supplies. He stalked her and threatened her repeatedly with a weapon. Overall, he filed 21 lawsuits against her, many claiming that she had abused the children, that he was not the biological father and other random allegations. The years of abuse left her scarred; she was physically and emotionally ill. He managed to brainwash the kidnapped sons to the point that they did not dare to ask for her and did not want to have anything to do with her. They were not allowed to even mention her name. The maid with whom he had lived also left him. Although she had contacted Antonija to confirm how cruel he had been to all of them, she hasn’t yet dared to stand up for herself or to officially support Antonija’s case.

Her ex-husband managed to manipulate the court and overall government system to the extent that she is neither protected from his ongoing abuse nor supported in any way in reuniting with her children. She is unable to receive financial aid for their children who are under her care. She has been fighting to get her children back since 2009, and although there are custody court orders in place, he ignores them, and no agency enforces them.

The Center for Social Work has been following her case for many years, but has yet to stand by her side and help her get justice. A team of this organization holds written statements that attest to the well-being of the children in Antonija’s care; those living with the father are ill-treated and are not doing well. That, too, is documented by the same agency. She says that the whole system is corrupt. An employee from the Center of Social Work agreed with Antonija, advising her that she couldn’t fight the whole system or whole country. There was nothing she could do. She just needed to give up.

Marijana Milic from the Montenegrin Women’s Lobby confirms that Montenegro is still a very traditional country where women’s issues are not high on the priority list. She says that from the overall advised quota of 30%, only 16% of women hold positions in the Montenegrin government. In comparison, Serbia fulfills the quota with 33%, Slovenia with 32%, Macedonia with 28%, and Bosnia-Herzegovina with 21%. I was unclear on the quota in Croatia, but I imagine it will rank among the highest in the Balkans.

I met Gender Program Manager Káca Duričković from the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) Montenegro, at their offices in the UNECO Building, the first and only fully green building in Montenegro. She brought a lot of clarity to the complexity of gender-based violence in the country. It became apparent that social change in a patriarchal society such as this can only happen over a long period of time. She reports that in a male dominated culture, domestic violence is seen as normal. In a survey conducted in 2010 about the perception to gender-based violence, she reports, “Every fourth Montenegrin citizen said that is okay to beat your wife. 25% also thought that one hit was no violence at all, rather a disciplinary action to either women or children.” Although many programs are in place to promote gender equality, Montenegro still holds very close institutional values such that even voicing feminist views is not welcomed. She mentioned that nationwide less than 500 cases of domestic violence were reported in 2009. When the law on violence in families was introduced in 2010, and recognized such acts as misdemeanors, not just criminal cases, the number increased to over 1,500 cases. It appeared that more victims came forth with the expectation of receiving help. In 2011, the number of reports decreased drastically to 539, and increased again to 1,445 in 2014. There is no system in place for the prevention of violence, and although it might seem that domestic violence generally decreased, it is more likely that fewer people reported crimes because of the lack of help they received, Kaća suspects. Very few actually take advantage of legal aid support, another indicator that the system is not working efficiently. When asked what is needed, Kaća suggests a sensitive approach to the victims, and she adds that there is a constant lack of trust when dealing with the representatives of the judicial system. Women don’t feel understood or supported. Pressure from society and families leads to victims not talking or sharing of their abuses, thus their healing path is largely compromised.

Kaća recites findings from sociologists who found that in order to make changes in one’s personal values and perceptions, one needs six years of intensive work through thinking, reading about the topics and putting things into practice. To change institutional patterns and regulations, it takes 16 years. And for a society to change, it takes 60 years. Although those findings might leave one disillusioned, she encourages, “It’s important to push on and trust that things will be better and to continue to ask for change. To be persistent and not to get tired to ask. Things do not change overnight, but they do change.” This is exactly what Antonija still believes. She won’t give up. She will continue to fight for her sons, and believes that one day justice will be served. For the purpose of this campaign, she chose the following quotation: “You must, and can, go on. Do so with courage!” The tattoos on her chest represent three of her five children.

It’s been heartbreaking to hear how a caring and hard-working woman is let down on such a great scale. It is my hope that somehow international agencies can intervene and bring justice for Antonija and her children, and with that, encourage other women to continue to fight for their rights.

A special Thank You to my dear friend Kim Birdsong for her support in producing the articles in this Balkan series.

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StephanieKoehlerStephanie Koehler is a journalist and photographer residing in California. Her goal of ‘Women across Borders’ is to unite women all over the world to document the pain they endure as a result of sexual violence and the healing approach they take to grow from victim to survivor. Her work started in the U.S. and took root in form of interviews with women in various Balkan States and Germany. Her articles include photo essays of female survivors, and are platforms to tell their story. Her former work can be read on The Women’s International Perspective. Stephanie’s vision is to grow this work into a global sexual assault awareness campaign.

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