Interview: “Economic independence is a key factor for a woman survivor of violence to start a new life”
Klimentina Ilijevski is the Executive Director of the Association for Research, Communications and Development “Public,” an organisation that has been actively working in the field of social inclusion, social entrepreneurship, and social impact in North Macedonia for ten years. Through many years of working with vulnerable people, Ilijevski recognized the need for a methodology to enable the sustainable integration of vulnerable groups of people into employment, and thus social mentoring was born. In this interview, Ilijevski outlines the social mentoring programme aimed at economically reintegrating women survivors of violence, undertaken within UN Women’s EU-funded regional programme on ending violence against women “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds.”
What is your organisation’s approach to the economic reintegration of women survivors of violence and why does it work?
For almost ten years now, our organisation has worked for the integration of vulnerable groups. They face different challenges on their path to independent economic life due to various individual and external factors.
Therefore, our “social mentoring” approach works directly with women survivors of violence by fully considering the above-mentioned factors and adapting to women’s needs and challenges. Our experience has shown that the combination of tailored work to overcome individual challenges on the employment path and development of women’s capacities forms the foundation of their successful (re)entry into the labour market.
Our approach includes supervisory support from social mentors and close monitoring of integration at the workplace. The support cycle also includes a supervisor who provides support to the social mentor, and a professional mentor - a person within the company/employer who facilitates the job training of the mentee. The relationship with the professional mentor is twofold. While the professional mentor is guiding the integration process into the company, the social mentor, in cooperation with our organization, provides guidance to businesses on creating inclusive workplaces.
Women survivors of domestic violence are guided by certified social mentors (mentors for employment integration) educated through a verified programme in North Macedonia within an officially registered occupation: mentor for work integration.
What are the needs that your intervention addresses?
Economic independence is one of the key factors for a woman survivor of violence to start a new life outside the cycle of domestic violence. Initiatives for supported housing are great achievements in the development of services for women survivors because many women who experience violence cannot leave the abuser for reasons related to housing and decent income.
Above all, trust in institutions is important for women survivors to report violence. The devastating fact is that only 2 per cent of women who experience violence report it to the police. Keeping violence hidden is a symptom of our patriarchal culture and an indication of the lack of trust in institutions and their inefficiency in addressing the needs of women who do report violence. This is continually observed by the social mentors in their daily work with mentees.
What are the main challenges and how are you approaching them?
The challenges are numerous, and positive change can only be achieved through a holistic approach. In our experience, women survivors of violence have low self-esteem, poor self-image and negative self-talk; hence, the first phase of social mentoring is focused on strengthening their inner capacities and developing positive self-awareness through discovering their strengths, abilities and affinities.
Once the direction of their professional path is clear, next steps are taken to enable their reintegration into the labour market. This process is never easy due to a complex set of factors, among them the lack of willingness of the system to support survivors’ economic independence. Women with children experience difficulties in enrolling their children in kindergarten, given that unemployed mothers are expected to have the time for such care. They are not prioritized in the long waiting lists, even though securing care for the children enables their economic independence. Then, businesses are reluctant to provide flexible working hours or first shift work for women survivors of violence. These factors have been most vividly experienced during the pandemic.
While implementing the above-mentioned model, with whom are you partnering?
Partnerships and the multi-sectoral approach are of key importance in our approach. More so, they are the key to the successful economic integration of women, but also to the process of creating sustainable jobs. This is an intertwined system, and if one link is missing or not performing well, it impacts the result.
Through the education programme for social mentors, we prepare these professionals to be connectors and to clearly see the system and the role of each other stakeholder who can be encouraged to serve the ultimate goal - economic integration of women.
We are in constant communication with civil society organizations that provide psycho-social support and legal assistance to women survivors of violence. The experience and knowledge of these organizations is important in building an appropriate support system around this vulnerable group. With their support, along the support of the Centers for Social Work at local level, we identify women to be included in social mentoring. The private sector is the final part of this circle of collaboration. Sensitizing them to create conditions for inclusive jobs will be our priority this year. It starts with a sensitized and well-prepared management and working environment. For us, it is extremely important that women survivors of violence enter an environment where they are respected, encouraged, and have opportunities for professional development.
In your opinion, how can your work be replicated in other communities, countries, and throughout the region?
Social mentoring has already been piloted in five countries in the Western Balkans region – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, North Macedonia, and Serbia. In each country, the need for such a professional - a social mentor - is recognized by the social protection system, civil society organizations and the donor community. In these countries, social mentoring is mainstreamed in employment integration programmes of civil society organizations, and the tendency in each country is that social mentoring is a recognized profession and service (or active labour market measure) in the system of social protection.
* For the European Union, this designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence. For UN Women, references to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of UN Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).