Interview: “Women deserve to receive trustworthy, timely, proactive and non-judgmental services”


Interview: “Women deserve to receive trustworthy, timely, proactive and non-judgmental services”
Jelena Hrnjak, ATINA NGO. Photo: Piroshki

Jelena Hrnjak is a programme manager at Atina NGO. Since 2003, Atina has been supporting girls and women human trafficking and gender-based violence survivors and is a licensed provider of assisted housing services. Under the UN Women regional programme “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” funded by the European Union, Atina has mapped and analysed  existing support and protection services for domestic violence survivors in shelters in Serbia. In this interview, Hrnjak shares insights on the most pressing needs and challenges in providing shelter services and outlines key recommendations to secure adequate support to women fleeing violence.

What are the main needs and challenges to providing and accessing shelter services?

Femicide has been on the rise in Serbia since the beginning of 2022. One can't help but wonder whether those women would still be alive if the system had worked efficiently, enabling timely and adequate safe accommodation and providing non-judgmental and adequate support. Lack of housing options is one of the main reasons women experiencing violence do not have another solution but to stay with, or return to, their abusers. Housing needs to be among the first steps to support and protect survivors of domestic violence.

Safe-housing documentation requirements are difficult to fulfil, and access is challenging for women with disabilities and women from vulnerable groups. The latter are particularly at risk of not receiving adequate support (women with mental health challenges, women who use psychoactive substances, migrant, asylum-seeking and refugee women, Roma and LGBTIQ+ women, etc.) due to lack of sufficiently trained staff and availability of necessary services (medical, interpretation, psychotherapy assistance). Women with children are at an additional disadvantage as there are no programmes unambiguously intended for children, or clear age criteria for accepting children into safe houses.

What are the most important findings from the mapping analysis?

Due to the demanding licensing process, only 5 out of 14 safe houses have a working license, while others are in the process of obtaining or renewing theirs. The number of available beds is 74 per cent lower than the prescribed EU standard; security plans don’t exist; and in many cases employees and beneficiaries don’t feel safe. Only one third of safe houses have adapted access for women with disabilities, and there is none for women with motor-sensory difficulties. Only one in five shelters has protocols and procedures for managing cases of sexual violence. Gaps that need to be addressed include the lack of: access to medical support during the reception and adaptation phase; protocols with local health institutions; and clear internal procedures on dealing with the effects of violence and access to health care.

What are the most important recommendations from the analysis?

Serbia is currently not following the standards set out in the Istanbul Convention regarding safe housing. We believe that ensuring the access and safety of women and children during their stay in safe houses through a women-centred approach is the highest priority. Women deserve to receive trustworthy, timely, proactive and non-judgmental services in spaces encouraging and open to all women. Assessment frameworks should be developed to assess the knowledge and capacity of staff employed within safe houses on different topics (security risk assessment, addressing women’s fears together with them, deconstructing stereotypes and prejudice, etc.). Securing access for all women survivors to health care, psychological and economic support in order to fully escape the cycle of violence and dependence is crucial. Protocols that guarantee priority for the health examination of survivors need to be developed and applied in all cases.

Which recommendations do you plan to advocate for through your work?

We will support shelter staff by providing mentorship and training and by proposing quality standards to ensure a survivor-centred and integrated approach to accommodation. We will continue to focus on ensuring children’s well-being while they are in safe houses, as this represents the most demanding part of the work done by Atina’s social workers.

Among the recommendations that require an institutional response, which do you consider the most pressing? 

We are currently preparing a set of structural standards that aim to ensure access, a women-centred approach and sufficient support to all women survivors of violence, regardless of their civil-legal status, residence status, sexual orientation and other individual characteristics. These standards will address the need for long-term support for women who leave safe accommodation and will be shared with the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Social and Veterans Affairs. We supported the community of practice created by UN Women to elevate standards of care in safe houses, as well as design workshops on specific issues (supporting women who have experienced sexual violence, refugee and migrant women and children) and the skills to mobilize community resources and build economic empowerment strategies within safe houses.