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From Victims Of Atrocity To Strong Survivors: Rebuilding Lives Of Kosovar Women.

{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, Croatia and Montenegro (One and Two).

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My visit to Kosovo was a deeply personal one as I was able to meet a woman I supported in 2011 through Women for Women International (WFWI) (Gratë për Gratë International). WFWI is a wonderful organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. and operating in 8 war-ridden countries around the world. They offer a 12-month-long program consisting of social and economic empowerment training to the often most marginalized women in those countries. Meeting with Dr. Iliriana Gashi, country director at WFWI Kosovo, was a dream come true. The insight I got into the situation in Kosovo was invaluable, and the time spent with her was a memorable experience. Dr. Gashi was able to connect me with Fatime, my Sister and the woman I supported back in 2011. She and her daughter came to meet me at the WFWI office in Pristinë. It was very emotional: hugs and tears of joy, a beautiful moment I will never forget. They invited me to come to their home, about a 20-minute ride away. I met her two other daughters; we shared tea and food and communicated with hands and feet until a neighbor came by and helped by translating into German. With extremely limited resources and almost all of her family without a job, they still need considerable help. It is my hope that work will become available and that they can then obtain a better life free from the constant worry about the most basic necessities.

After the joyous moments of meeting with her and her family in the first part of the day, Dr. Gashi and I drove to another part of Kosovo to meet with a survivor of sexual violence. Nowhere near a town, we picked her up at her home and were pleasantly surprised to be joined by 2 more women, sister and cousin of the first woman. We picked them up too. Their houses were remotely located off of a winding dirt road and past a small Serb village. By village I mean a few scattered homes, each with a small plot of land. No stores, no public transportation, no access to anything. Their children, until just recently, were forced to walk several hours every day to attend school.

The homes of these women belong to different municipalities, and unfortunately, the ones living more remotely have little to no access to aid or to the means of making a living. The recent widespread phenomenon of people fleeing Kosovo in hopes of a better future has led other families in this village to pack up as well, leaving the village deserted.

Only recently have they shared their stories with a few women from WFWI, and they would expose themselves to great stigmatization in their (neighboring) villages if they were to talk openly. We conducted the interview far away from their homes. In this family, 5 women were brutally raped in the Kosovo war that ended in 1999, one that had erupted on the basis of ethnic tensions between Kosovo Albanians and the Serb population. While the husbands of the two sisters I met were in the mountains fighting the war, paramilitary Serbs entered their homes, destroyed what they would get their hands on, and brutally raped one after the other sister and sister-in-law. The mother-in-law pleaded with the perpetrators to spare them and instead take her life, only to be beaten up and being forced to witness the atrocities. One of the sisters had just given birth a few months before the incidents. The other was 8-months pregnant with twins. She lost one of them as a result of the rape. When we spoke, they kept repeating how awful the experience had been. One of them stated that if this were to ever happen again, she would not be able to live through the aftermath and would commit suicide.

Their cousin, on the other hand, was brutally raped in front of her husband, who was unable to prevent the crime. They beat him up too and left the shattered lives behind. This woman was set on committing suicide, and was thankfully held back by her husband. In a society like this, where woman don’t have equal rights or value, a husband could easily discard his wife, seeing her as spoiled after such acts. In these cases, all husbands stood behind their wives, a commendable gesture, and I’m sure this is the reason why each of them is able to face day-to-day life. There is no support for them, not from the government, not from any aid organization, not in any medical sense let alone badly needed counseling services. Dr. Gashi is trying hard to find ways to support them: what truly can be done remains to be seen.

The situation in Kosovo is extraordinarily complicated, desperate and beyond what words can appropriately describe in this article. What I can say is that it left me with a deep sense of sadness and I found myself questioning humanity. Thinking about the women I interviewed, I wondered why in the world would people do such barbaric acts. I don’t think there is a logical answer to it. The lives of these women are shattered. Only their husbands know. Their children still do not. One can only hope that through their courage to share their stories with outsiders, they may at some point dare to speak openly. Until then, a lot has to change in this country for women to rise. Expressed in Albanian, their unified message is: “I hope this never happens to anyone again!”

As another small country in the Balkans, Kosovo is disputed territory, and is only partially recognized by Serbia. It has greatly suffered the consequences of the war. Larger than its neighbor Montenegro, with a population of approximately 1.9 million people, the economic situation seems even more dire than in the other Balkan states. An estimated 20,000 women were subjected to systematic rape, a staggering number that left those women and families with unfathomable trauma.

In my conversation with Dr. Gashi, she explains that similar to other Balkan states, women lack a clear understanding on the definition of sexual violence. One reason why gender-based violence is still a big issue in the country is because women have nowhere to go. Violence, such as beating of one’s wife, is widely accepted. Shelters do exist, but they are donor-based and not state-funded. As a result, consistency is lacking and many programs cannot sustain themselves. If a woman takes the courageous step of leaving her husband, she can only stay at a shelter for a maximum of 6 months. With the lack of education and outrageous unemployment rate, many women are then forced to return to their abusive husbands, which will make their situation worse. A big part of WFWI social empowerment training is an introduction to gender-based violence and sexual violence specifically. Dr. Gashi says that although there are more and more awareness campaigns, as a society, they are far from opposing violence against women. “When a woman is economically empowered and knows what her rights are and her responsibilities [both of which are taught], they are able to fight for their rights,” she says, “Advocacy is good, but it goes hand in hand with economic empowerment.”

WFWI’s social and economic empowerment training teaches life skills such as human rights and women’s rights, and includes vocational training. In later courses, women can choose from among agriculture, dairy products, bee-keeping, service industry and crafts. In the yearlong program, women are introduced to 4 modules, each lasting 3 months:

Module 1 (Women gaining income): Women are introduced to their rights and responsibilities as women in their society. In Kosovo, 60% of women are unemployed, and have no formal education.

Module 2 (Health in general): Environmental health in general, and reproductive health specifically, are the focus.

Module 3 (Decision-making): In their homes, families, communities, society in general, including the right to vote.

Module 4 (Networking): So far, 17 associations have formed through the effort of the training. WFWI encourages women to get into an association, as the success rate to keep and grow their businesses is much larger with the support of other women within those networks.

WFWI also implemented a job placement program. As of the time of this interview, 450 women were employed.

To be able to see firsthand how WFWI operates was very gratifying, and to meet with these amazing women very humbling. I want to thank Dr. Gashi and staff for all the great work they do for the women of Kosovo, and especially the women I was honored to interview for their courage and trust to participate in this campaign. What fascinated me most about them was their unwavering will to live their lives to the best of their abilities. Without doubt, they experienced the worst imaginable atrocities. Their lives were destroyed by those acts, and there is still an enormous need for healing. Their souls were never broken. Whether they are growing their own food or making jewelry or other crafts, the pride they embody when they stand tall and their perseverance are beautiful examples of women who grow from victims to survivors. I hope in my heart that I will see them again. They are a huge inspiration to me.

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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