Interview: “Always trust a woman who decides to report violence”


Ljiljana Nesic is President of the civil society organization Women for Peace. Photo: Courtesy of Ljiljana Nesic.
Ljiljana Nesic is President of the civil society organization Women for Peace. Photo: Courtesy of Ljiljana Nesic.

Ljiljana Nesic is a women’s human rights defender and President of the civil society organization (CSO) Women for Peace, which founded the first SOS helpline for women survivors of violence in Leskovac, South Serbia in 1994. During the pandemic, Women for Peace teamed up with another Serbian CSO, SOS Network Vojvodina, to develop a mobile app providing chat support and SOS services, including a panic button. The initiative was implemented under the UN Women regional programme “Ending violence against women in the Western Balkans and Turkey: Implementing norms, changing minds” funded by the European Union.

Studies show that the pandemic led to an increased risk of violence against women. Two years on, what does this new reality look like?

The number of women who contacted our SOS helpline has increased significantly in 2022 compared to the same period last year. In July alone, we had 16 new women call the SOS phone and request our services for the first time, which is not typical during the holiday season. The number of calls from urban areas has increased. We’re contacted by women who are highly educated and often report institutional violence. Most of the appeals [seek] a restraining order, which is imposed on both perpetrators and victims. Moreover, cases of digital violence are increasing.

Can you tell us how the SOS mobile application works and what is the response from users?

As with every innovation, it was initially met with resistance. Women feared the application would somehow be seen by their abusive partners. But once they’d installed it on their phones, it turned out to be their well-kept secret and safe button a click away. They still don’t use it in the numbers we expected, but gradually more and more women are using it.

It is a process. A certain period is needed for the application to come to life and for the opportunities it provides to reach rural women in smaller towns who do not have basic digital skills. The problem is that our district is territorially dispersed and not every place is covered by a mobile network. Even with women in the city, we have to personally show them how to use the application, which is good because more women come to our office.

How are you disseminating this ‘secret’ app?

We’ve developed special techniques focusing on word-of-mouth in places where women usually gather. We established cooperation with a hairdressing salon, beauty salon, tailor, flower shop and massage salon where information about the application is shared woman-to-woman and everything remains in a safe space. Our plan is to cover several health centres in the coming period, more precisely gynecological clinics, and patronage nurses, who go to rural areas to attend to women who have just given birth.

What are the lessons learned during the pandemic on supporting institutions and organizations that assist survivors?

During the pandemic, [many] institutions showed that they do not have the capacity to act when women are in situation of violence. Women could not report violence in an adequate way, or go for health examinations, so they were deprived of reporting violence in person and were instead assisted via telephone. Depending on their assessment, doctors would prescribe some therapy. We saw a similar situation with social work centres. We had to adapt our own services, quickly switching to online communication, including different social networks, email, the SOS helpline and the mobile application. The number of women contacting us this way is much higher than before the pandemic.

What societal changes are needed to reduce violence and make women and girls in southern Serbia feel safe?

Women living in the far south of Serbia are generally less informed about their rights, have lower access to institutions, and are therefore less safe. We need to introduce new mechanisms in the fight against violence against women, and above all to always trust a woman who decides to report violence she’s experienced at the hands of her partner.

We need to: develop clear instructions and internal procedures for state bodies, institutions and CSOs working with survivors of violence; actively involve CSOs, particularly specialized women’s organizations, in designing, planning and implementing measures; and develop evidence-based gender-sensitive policies, strategies and measures. This entails regular data collection in order to monitor trends and assess the need for support and protection services.

Moreover, it is important to inform the public about the increased risk of violence against women and girls. Special attention should be directed to elderly people who do not use modern technologies, as well as to other vulnerable people, such as persons with disabilities, Roma women, people from rural areas and other minorities.