Shame: Talking about rape in Kosovo

Nazlie Bala, chair of the Women's Secretariat of political party Vetevendosje was attacked last week while entering her apartment building. She was grabbed from behind by unidentified attackers. As she was being beaten, her attackers threatened “Know that we are going to kill you.” One week prior to the attack, Bala also found a handwritten note on the door to her home: “Please do not protect the shame. Otherwise, we will kill you.” (translated from the Albanian “Tlutemi mos e mproj turpin se tpret plumi ne ball.”)

Bala is one of the most ardent champions of a heavily debated amendment, one that would include raped women as a recognized, legal category within Kosovo's existing legislation on war veterans, invalids and civilian victims. The amendment, which would identify and grant legal protection to Kosovar women who were raped during the 1999 war has been in the public eye for the past few weeks in Kosovo. Like all other wartime figures, exact numbers on the number of rapes that occurred in Kosovo do not exist. Based on research conducted by international humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, an estimated 20,000 individuals were systematically raped during the Kosovo conflict. Existing legislation on war victims focuses specifically on Kosovo Liberation Army veterans, invalids, their families, and civilian victims, without specific language on rape survivors. Their legal status and protection under the law has been in a state of limbo since the end of the war, and the amendment is the result of recommendations and resolutions that have emerged after parliamentary debates and summits of years past. The amendment was proposed by the Vetevendosje (Self Determination) party and reviewed by Kosovo's Assembly on March 14, 2013.

If passed, the amendment would be a historical victory for Kosovo's rape survivors. “Their compensation and categorization as a part of the process of liberation is important when looked at from a moral perspective – because it would be the first time that Kosovo's society accepts a thing like this, and it also states that there will be justice for these raped women or men,” says Ariana Qosaj-Mustafa, a board member at the Kosovo Women's Network. Although a variety of local and international non-governmental organizations have worked with rape survivors, there is still no legal framework that recognizes and supports them as such – in contrast to other countries in the region where rape was used as a weapon of war, such as Bosnia and Croatia. Albana Gashi, a Vetevendosje deputy, says that a year after the Assembly concluded that the needs of rape survivors needed to be addressed, her party got tired of waiting. “Not a single post-war government took steps to rehabilitate these people,” she says.

During its first review, opponents of the amendment argued against it on the grounds of budgetary constraints, limited figures and data, the impossibility of verification and the possibility of fraud. Civil society observers and ordinary citizens objected to what they describe as sexist and insensitive language with regards to Kosovo's rape survivors. The transcript of the discussion on the amendment reveals such statements:

“Of course, we can never repay the contribution they gave for our freedom, but the financial capacities of our new government are limited,” said Flora Brovina, PDK deputy.

“...we have no possibility to help them, because this category of people, meaning the majority of the female gender who suffered during the war, are hesitant to testify, and there is no exact [medical] method to accurately examine them...if we approve this amendment...can you imagine if someone else were to testify in the place of those who were really raped?” said Gezim Kelmendi, Justice Party deputy.

"According to some statistics done by an agency that conducted research in Bosnia, where the same thing happened, it's stated that 90% of the women who came forward as being raped, those women were ignored by the mentalities of their societies and most of them now live abroad," said Rita Hajzeraj-Beqaj, LDK deputy.

A full transcript of the Assembly's proceedings can be found here.

Nearly a week after the first review, a protest was organized in Prishtina by Alter Habitus, a center for social and cultural research. The protest was unique in that it focused on the “sexist language and approach” of the Assembly's deputies. According to Alter Habitus director Eli Gashi, “the moment that you take it upon yourself to speak about this amendment, you have a responsibility...they discussed this issue in the lowest terms possible, and they have to be held accountable.”

During Thursday's protests this point was made quite plainly: flyers were printed and distributed with direct quotes from deputies who discussed the amendment, and were thrown over the gate of the Assembly building. The protest was held in silence. A table was set in front of the Assembly gates, and its white tablecloth bore the word “EXAMINATION,” a direct reference to deputy Gezim Kelmendi's suggestion that raped women need to be medically examined in order to receive governmental support. Four young women smashed apples on a table, as part of a street performance organized by the Haveit Theater company. Protester Marigona Uka commented “Whatever institutional difficulties we may encounter in the process of identifying women who endured rape, does not justify the hesitance to help them in principle. So, for me, every single issue of “practicality” does not stand – it's in essence cowardly and inexcusable. Frankly, I'm also appalled that we should even have to debate this. It's pathetic.”

However, the law is not without its own weaknesses. “Our battle was to include raped women in this legislation under the category of civilian victims, not as rape victims” says Nora Ahmetaj, the cofounder of the Centre for Research, Documentation and Publication, an organization dedicated to documenting war crimes and lobbying for institutional justice. “This is how we avoid their stigmatization.”

Ahmetaj also notes that the amendment in its current form sets the ground for potential conflict between the wide array of interest groups involved: war veterans, invalids, families with lost family members, and civilian victims. Despite this, the amendment provides a basis for a legal framework – a legal framework that creates space for civil society and public institutions to provide qualitative support for rape survivors in the form of therapy, employment, education and integration in public life. “The probability of acting out this law is very small. We can't speculate, but the number of women that will come forward will be very small,” says Ahmetaj. “Our job is to look at the legal framework, and then it's the job of civil society and the government together to push for the enforcement of this law and find modifications.”

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