Interview: “Without services, we cannot talk about the protection of women from violence”


Elizabeta Bozinoska, Programme Director at Health Education and Research Association, Republic of North Macedonia. Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeta Bozinoska.
Elizabeta Bozinoska, Programme Director at Health Education and Research Association, Republic of North Macedonia. Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeta Bozinoska.

Ms. Elizabeta Bozinoska is program director at HERA – Health Education and Research Association – a national civil society organization working on advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, including gender equality in the Republic of North Macedonia. For the last 14 years, Ms. Bozinoska has been involved in the design and management of the programmes for capacity building and delivering specialized services for violence against women. Additionally, she has been involved in various national and international advocacy initiatives for advancing sexual and reproductive rights, gender equality and violence against women prevention and protection, particularly for vulnerable groups. Ms. Bozinoska participated in the Fourth Regional Forum on Ending Violence against Women in the Western Balkans and Türkiye “Integrated Policies, Inclusive Partnerships,” organized within the EU-funded regional programme “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds.”

What do you see as the main accomplishments in your work resulting from networks and alliances between institutions and civil society organizations?

One of the key achievements resulting from cooperation and partnerships between civil society organizations (CSOs) and institutions has been building professionals’ capacities to offer services at specialized counseling centers for survivors of violence through a series of training events. These events were followed by technical support for civic associations to open such centers in their local communities that would offer high-quality, comprehensive services for victims – primarily psychosocial support and legal support and assistance.

The opening of 10 specialized counseling centers for survivors across the country was one of the commitments of the Government and its 2018-2023 Action Plan for the implementation of the Istanbul Convention in order to enable victims to receive adequate support following incidents of violence. The opening of these centers managed by local women’s organizations within the project, which are accessible to victims of violence not only in the cities of Shtip and Strumica but also in rural areas surrounding both cities, was another important achievement. Women’s CSOs are crucial in running these types of services because they are well acquainted with citizens’ needs, the population has confidence in them and they reach the local population the fastest through field work.

Looking beyond women and girls as a broad target group, what impact has been achieved in providing support and services for different groups of vulnerable women?

For us and our partners, supporting even one girl or woman to live free from violence, keep her children safe and recover from trauma is significant. The fact that 249 girls and women, including women from rural areas and women with disabilities, were covered by both services in a period of only one year makes it clear that such services should be available throughout the entire country. Here we are also talking about women from vulnerable groups such as girls and women from rural areas, Roma women and other ethnic minority women.

Part of our initiative involved an information campaign including informational materials and field visits, primarily in rural areas and areas where ethnic minorities reside, to provide information about counseling center services and how to recognize different types of violence.

Two new services in Strumica and Shtip were established within the regional programme. What do you see as the next steps in ensuring the sustainability of those services and expanding access to services in other municipalities?

We deem that both specialized counseling centers in Shtip and Strumica should be fully integrated into the social services system to ensure their future sustainability. In the Municipality of Strumica, thanks to previous advocacy efforts, a budget for 2023 has already been secured, and it is important that it continues in the future as well. In the Municipality of Shtip, the funding still predominantly comes from international donors, while very modest financial resources were allocated from the local budget. We can talk about sustainability only if it continues in the coming several years and does not depend on the political will of the local government.

The sustainability of services is one of the biggest challenges in North Macedonia, and unfortunately, a large number of existing services against violence in the country depend on international donors. In fact, there has been a negative trend lately, where instead of an increase in support in response to the economic crisis, health and social services related to protection against violence were the first to be hit when funding was cut at the national and local level. During the licensing process, we came to realize that there are serious obstacles to integrating these services into the system: the state imposes high standards related to staff qualifications while funding barely 25-30% of operating costs.

What do you see as remaining barriers to be addressed to ensure timely, adequate and sufficient support to women survivors of violence?

North Macedonia is a country with relatively good laws and policies. The country ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2019 and adopted the Action Plan for its implementation, and in January 2022, the Law tackling violence against women and domestic violence was adopted in a broad consultative process. The greatest impediment to protection is the lack of consistent implementation of existing policies by those institutions that should react with due diligence, as is envisaged by the new Law when a victim reports violence. Here, I would list the Centers for Social Work, the police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and courts, with a very small number of exceptions that take action. The number of femicides in the country only confirm the lack of progress in dealing with violence on the ground, especially considering that most femicides would have been prevented if the authorities had reacted promptly and professionally.

A key obstacle to effectively dealing with violence in the country is the insufficient number of services, primarily specialist counseling centers, that are the first line of support for victims in the system. These services also include crisis centers, shelters and sexual violence centers, which are not available in most cities. Without these services, we cannot talk about protection from violence.

As an organization that has been managing a specialized counseling center in Skopje for more than 12 years, the fact that a large number of clients coming from cities outside of Skopje contact us for support only confirms the need for such centers in other areas.

Last but not least, the state must work to shift public opinion so that we as a society stop blaming and shaming victims and start understanding that violence cannot be a private matter since it affects us all, regardless of whether it’s happening out in the streets or inside the four walls of our homes. Education is crucial to grasp what gender has to do with violence and how this power dynamic, maintained for centuries, has shaped our everyday life, including that of the victims and perpetrators of violence.

What would be the role of different institutions in removing barriers for the provision of protection and services to women survivors in North Macedonia?

The key role is in the hands of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy as the line ministry responsible for the national response to gender-based violence and domestic violence. Here, I primarily mean adopting and implementing policies and providing an adequate budget to finance specialized services at the national level or transferring funds through local governments.

We know that even in the Istanbul Convention, one of the three key objectives refers precisely to infrastructure and the provision of specialized services for protection against violence, which are also the first line of protection for the population. That is why we expect a number of key obligations related to services to be fulfilled, such as: the existing Rules on Service Payment should be revised in line with market prices in order to ensure the sustainability of existing services and encourage the opening of new ones, and the domestic budget should increase drastically and be sufficient to provide the required services that the Government has planned in its National Plans. Also, the process of licensing civil society organizations should be simplified, and all administrative barriers that prevent the licensing of specialized counseling centers for victims, crisis centers and shelters should be removed.