Influential activists, policymakers, academics and artists convene to prevent sexual violence in the Western Balkans and Turkey


Influential activists, policymakers, academics and artists convene to prevent sexual violence in the Western Balkans and Turkey
With You, the ‘mourning protest’ coordinated by the ‘Different and Equal’ organization in Tirana, Albania. March 2019. Credit: Different and Equal

Some 150 representatives of national civil society organizations, government officials, youth and artists from the Western Balkans and Turkey settled on the next key steps for advancing national and regional commitments to end sexual violence at a virtual conference held on 10 March. The regional conference, organized by UN Women in partnership with the Women Against Violence Europe Network (WAVE), under the EU-funded regional programme “Ending violence against women: Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” examined critical policy recommendations to prevent and respond to sexual violence in the region and outlined key actions to accelerate their implementation.

Chloe Laurens-Dinsdale, Policy Officer for Fundamental Rights for the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), European Commission, highlighted the European Union’s role in promoting concrete action to fight all forms of violence against women and girls: “We’re assisting countries at national and regional level in eliminating violence against women, including sexual violence, and in delivering on their own commitments to support gender equality. But, as we all know, more efforts are required. We need to do more and better. We expect governments to [position] gender equality and the elimination of gender-based violence as top priorities in their agendas. Violence against women is a major obstacle to gender equality, which is one of the EU’s fundamental values and a Commission priority.”

Alia El-Yassir, Regional Director of UN Women’s Europe and Central Asia Regional Office, emphasized the importance of following through on commitments to end violence against women: “We would like to re-energize the discussion around the right of women to live a life free of violence by renewing existing commitments as well as making new commitments to respond to and prevent sexual violence in the region – commitments that make ending violence against women a plausible reality in the region and can pave the way for important lessons learned for other countries in Europe and worldwide.”

Stephanie Futter-Orel, Executive Manager of WAVE Network, explained that most women who experience physical and/or sexual violence decide not to report the incident to the police or other authorities: “The low rate of women survivors asking for help can be attributed to several reasons, including the fact that women’s specialist support services are not available across and throughout all countries. Ensuring short- and long-term support and sensitive responses by trained staff is crucial when supporting victims of sexual violence.” 

The conference also featured the participation of Reem Alsalem, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, who emphasized that prevention of requires addressing shortcomings in the criminalization and normalization of sexual violence: “It also requires ending the rampant impunity for such acts in many parts of the world and the removal of the obstacles that many women face in order to access meaningful reparations, which should strive to be truly transformative. All countries should aspire to the extent possible to challenge, rather than reinforce, pre-existing structural inequalities and gender stereotypes that may be at the root cause of the violence that women experience.”

During a moderated panel discussion, government officials from the Western Balkans and Turkey identified five key recommendations for preventing and responding to sexual violence:

  • Establish specialist services and institutional frameworks to support survivors of sexual violence
  • Build institutional capacity to exchange ideas and to learn from each other, which is crucial to stakeholder collaboration
  • Break the silence surrounding sexual violence and create spaces for women to tell their own stories without fear of consequence or societal judgment
  • Set up stable and sustainable financial support so that support services for women survivors of sexual violence function continuously and without interruption
  • Include men in addressing this societal problem to ensure that everyone in society is part of the solution.

Moreover, Gordana Čomić, Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue from Serbia, highlighted future steps aimed at tackling sexual violence: “Women survivors of sexual violence must be supported and encouraged by State institutions as well as NGOs. Also, a special part of the human rights strategy will be devoted to women’s human rights, by establishing departments, mechanisms and persons at all levels of government – from the local to the national level – who will monitor the fulfilment of women’s human rights and levels of violence against women.”

Conference attendees also heard from award-winning British-Turkish novelist and activist Elif Shafak about the importance of enabling women survivors of violence to tell their stories without backlash: “Our voices matter, our stories matter, but our silence also matters. And unfortunately, sexual violence and systemic rape are massive silences within our cultures. So how do we make the invisible more visible? How do we empower the disempowered? And how do we humanize people who have been dehumanized? As a storyteller, stories are an important way to approach this question, because when we hear each other’s stories, we realize that we’re not alone.”

The event concluded with youth perspectives on tackling sexual violence against women and the need for everyone, especially men, to take action so that women and girls are equal in all aspects of life.

“Young people must not live in silence, shame and obliviousness about these issues,” concluded the WAVE Youth Ambassador from North Macedonia, Stefan Petrovski. “Too much of our time has been spent on making violence a taboo topic and something we address when damage has already been done. We are already late when it comes to preventing violence, but we are never too late to draw the line and build a safer world for new generations.”