In the words of Irena Cvetkovic: “Women are afraid to use public spaces alone and at night”

Date: Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Irena Cvetkovic is the Executive Director of Coalition Margins, an NGO working to promote and protect the human rights of marginalized communities including marginalized women, drug users, sex workers and LGBTI people in North Macedonia. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies and has worked on a number of research projects in the fields of sociology, gender studies, and media. Irena was a researcher for a study on gender-based violence in public spaces in the Municipality of Tetovo, in the context of the EU-UN Women regional programme on ending violence against women “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds”.

Academic Irena Cvetkovic led a study on gender-based violence in public spaces in the Municipality of Tetovo in North Macedonia. Photo: courtesy of Coalition Margins.

“Public spaces are more than physical spaces for people to pass through. They carry economic value, promote social cohesion and often offer benefits for the environment and culture. The use of public spaces is a form of social activity, and architects and urban planners who create such spaces must take into consideration not only the specific activities that will be conducted there, but also the specific ways that different groups of people, particularly women and girls, socialize.

Our research in Tetovo revealed that women are afraid to use public spaces alone and at night. This affects women’s mobility, making them rely on escorts when going outside and restraining their activities to daytime. Feeling unsafe also prevents them from using public space equally. Consequently, women are forced to travel by taxi at night, spending money for short distances that would be easily accessible on foot if they felt safe.

The study proved as a good starting point to open a discussion on the issue of gender-based violence in the municipality. Based on this study specifically, together with several key local actors, we developed a local action plan on dealing with gender-based violence, soon to be adopted by the council of Tetovo Municipality.

The action plan includes the promotion of a web tool for reporting violence in public spaces will assist the police and municipalities to determine the risk points in the cities and dedicate more attention to finding adequate mechanisms for changing the situation. Furthermore, the study results will be applied towards creating a new law on gender-based violence, being drafted at the moment, with our team joining the working group for the development of this draft-proposal. Finally, the study will inform the efforts of local women’s civil society organizations towards the elimination of gender-based violence in their municipalities.   

In my opinion, a comprehensive, holistic approach is the best way to deal with gender-based violence – a problem deeply rooted in history and tradition. Certainly, the first step would be the creation of laws and policies based on evidence and field data to fundamentally address the problem and find adequate solutions. However, even the best laws are nothing but pieces of paper if not fully implemented. Consequently, political will, motivation and dedication are key factors in preventing gender-based violence and protecting survivors.

The influence of patriarchal culture and tradition in Macedonian society cannot be ignored either. The study revealed that in Macedonian society, acts of violence against women are trivialized, and women who have experienced violence are often accused of causing it. In other words, we live in a society dominated by the culture of violence as a norm, where women victims of violence who decide to seek justice are distrusted. Consequently, most cases of violence in public spaces are not reported to state institutions, and women often choose self-protection (being escorted by men in their families and similar) over institutional protection. Hence, I believe that investing in legal and institutional protection would be pointless unless the state makes efforts to empower its population (men and women) to utilize those protections, particularly through the educational process.”