Take five: “One of our core principles of work is to trust women who survived sexual violence”

Danica Todorov, the coordinator of four Centers for Survivors of Sexual Violence from Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, northern Serbia, is engaged in developing support services for women survivors of sexual violence. From June 2020 to the end of June 2021, UN Women, within the regional programme on ending violence against women “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” funded by the European Union, supported the functioning of four centers in Vojvodina province and advocated for the establishment of two new centers that follow the Vojvodina model in other regions of Serbia. Todorov spoke to UN Women about how the centers help women survivors of sexual violence and why it is important to develop and advocate for public policies and measures that prevent gender-based violence and support women survivors of sexual violence.


Danica Todorov, coordinator of four Centers for Survivors of Sexual Violence, Serbia. Credit: Personal archive
Danica Todorov, coordinator of four Centers for Survivors of Sexual Violence, Serbia. Credit: Personal archive

1. Why are Centers for Survivors of Sexual Violence important, and what services do they provide?

Centers for Survivors of Sexual Violence provide essential support for women, from immediate support when they enter the center to long-term support and preventing secondary victimization. Without these centers, women would remain deprived of psychosocial support, which is crucial for the recovery of women who have survived rape or other forms of sexual violence. Recovery from the trauma of rape or sexual violence is a long and difficult journey that may never be achieved at all without the support of qualified personnel. The goal of supporting survivors is to help them reestablish control over their lives.

The centers are open 24 hours a day, every day. For over five years, they have provided women and girl survivors with medical care, forensic examinations, and information on protection against sexually transmitted infections.

Moreover, in the four centers for survivors of sexual violence, the health sector provides support in cooperation with civil society organizations, whose associates provide psychosocial support.

2. How exactly do the centers help survivors of sexual violence overcome trauma and initiate court proceedings?

The recovery of a woman survivor of sexual violence depends on what happens to her in the period following the violence. For example, a woman who is blamed for being raped may face greater obstacles during recovery than a woman who is fully trusted and whose testimony is valued by the legal system.

In our centers, one of the principles of work is to trust the woman who survived sexual violence. The staff of the centers, especially psychosocial support counselors, are trained to recognize the needs of survivors of sexual violence. This means that staff avoid stereotypes and prejudices in communication with survivors, and that all interventions - health care and forensic examination, as well as psychosocial support - are provided to all survivors on a non-discriminatory basis, in line with informed consent. Our task is to listen to the woman and offer continued support, as well as inform her about the upcoming proceedings in the judicial process and the type of support she can receive from other institutions.

3. How did the pandemic affect the work of Centers for Survivors of Sexual Violence? Have you noticed any changes in the number of cases, the age of survivors, or anything else?

The pandemic made the work of the Centers for Survivors of Sexual Violence more difficult because health care institutions had to adapt, in terms of staff and organization of work, to the requirements of caring for those suffering from COVID-19. However, survivors of sexual violence were treated as emergency cases, so they were provided with urgent medical help, the cases of violence were documented, and all women received psychosocial support at the moment of reporting the violence.

During the state of emergency, there were almost no reported cases, only one or two in all four centers. But when the state of emergency and drastic restrictions on movement ended, the number of reported cases was generally within the average compared to the period before the pandemic. There were no significant changes in the profile of survivors, and the percentage of minors stayed at about one-third of the overall number. Among them, many were younger than 15 years old.

4. What were some learning experiences in the process of supporting women survivors of sexual violence during the pandemic?

The most important thing is to quickly adapt to the new situation, especially when it comes to organizing workflows, so that the most important services are preserved: timely support adapted to the needs of women survivors of rape, sexual violence or any form of gender-based violence.

Adaptability is a core characteristic of the Centers for Survivors of Sexual Violence because the principles and treatment protocol are applied in four health institutions by maintaining some standards.

I have learned that it is necessary to constantly monitor service provision to ensure compliance with procedures and react in case of deviations from principles and agreed standards. It is also vital to ensure proper coordination of all participants, so that survivors receive the necessary support when reporting sexual violence.

Last year, with UN Women support, we also developed and adopted three protocols, namely: protocol to ensure mandatory testing of Centers’ users for infectious and other sexually transmitted diseases; protocol to ensure improved coordination of hospital working groups and public prosecution office working groups; and protocol to enhance collaboration with primary health centers and gynecological ambulances from 20 municipalities from the territory of Vojvodina province to allow direct referral of survivors of sexual violence.

5. What are your next steps when it comes to supporting women who have survived sexual violence?

In my opinion, the next steps would be improving psychosocial support services through the evaluation and self-evaluation of the work of counselors; improving the reporting of cases of violence, including description of the problem, procedures, cooperation with institutions; holding consultative meetings with representatives of health care institutions regarding compliance with procedures; ensuring better cooperation among health care institutions, as well as education of health care workers; and conducting information and promotional campaigns so that women in need of support are aware of the existence of centers.