Take five: “Women's social entrepreneurship is the right recipe to overcome this and every crisis”

Date: Monday, May 4, 2020

Jelena Hrnjak. Photo courtesy of Atina NGO
Jelena Hrnjak. Photo courtesy of Atina NGO

Jelena Hrnjak is a programme manager at Atina NGO, which advocates for the rights of victims of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. As partner of an EU-UN Women programme in Serbia, Atina was focused on women’s social entrepreneurship to economically empower survivors of human trafficking. Their social enterprise Bagel Bejgl had to close its doors to visitors amid the COVID-19 lockdown and are focusing on deliveries to alleviate the economic impacts. Hrnjak spoke to UN Women about how this situation will affect survivors and their economic independence.

How has the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic affected survivors and Atina?

Through Atina’s hotline, we are receiving seven times more calls than before the pandemic. Hundreds of women from across Serbia are calling us to get information and seek support, mostly for medical reasons, urgent food or hygiene necessities. Most need information about their trials, which are ongoing despite the situation.

In the three safe houses we run, we have 80 per cent occupancy. We do regular checks and supply provisions to the women and children there. We have also set-up online counselling with psychologists for girls and women in the state-run shelter and other social care institutions, as well as for those residing in their homes and other places.

What is happening with Bagel Bejgl now?

All of us are here, spreading love and delivering bagels! We have signed contracts with the two largest delivery agencies [ for voluntary delivery], and we are sending an optimistic message: Stay home and eat bagels! We have created the most delicious menu that can be tasted every day by fellow citizens in our beautiful town of Belgrade.

Do you think Bagel Bejgl will survive the crisis?

Bagel Bejgl has to go through this crisis first, just like everyone else. We are adapting along the way. We are aware that difficult times will come after the crisis, probably more difficult than ever. They will be challenging in a different way, currently unknown to us. That uncertainty scares us all. On the other hand, we in Serbia constantly live through new beginnings, and this will be a similar story of starting from scratch all over again.

How will this situation affect your efforts to economically empower women victims of human trafficking?

Traffickers deprive women of their freedom, integrity, independence and free thoughts. Now, the situation of isolation divests these women even more, as their freedom is limited once again. Current circumstances have caused regression, a return to a position of dependency. Unfortunately, this trend will likely continue after the state of emergency and curfew end.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, 31 per cent of women survivors informed us that they had lost their jobs. By the second week, it was 55 per cent. In week four, as I write these lines, 92 per cent of these women are without any income. It is inevitable that the pandemic’s consequences will be visible in all areas. Clearly, we have a great test ahead of us. I strongly believe that continuing to invest in women’s social entrepreneurship is the right recipe to overcome this and all other crises.

What do you see as a way out, or hope, in all this?

I see us, women supporting each other, as a way out and hope. Today, I believe in feminist principles more than ever – in feminist ethics of care, in the much-needed transparency of actions, in solidarity and cooperation. I think we should make the best of this crisis, which is a crisis of humanity. In addition to disinfecting our hands and space, I believe it is also time to disinfect our thoughts and emotions. I know that women will find a way to fight, just like they always have – heroically and with a smile on their face.