Marijana Savic: A heroine who moves the boundaries

A women, a heroine who moves the boundaries in helping people in need. Activist, fighter for restoring the human rights to those who have been deprived of. Guided by the principles of wisdom and justice, just like Greek goddess Atina whose name the organization led by her is bearing

In our country, fighting for women rights, and for the rights of all other disempowered groups is like running a marathon. But when Maja enters a race, a women whose hobby is a marathon, than there is a hope that this society will reach the goal. Along the way, she is inviting and encouraging those who have given up, lost their breath or got stumbled by others. She particularly addresses those who are sensitive. And teach them that they have to fight and take responsibility in their own lane. And she is being encouraged by Atina and the duchess of Cornwall Kamila, the goddess and the noblewoman.

Majo, you have been in activism for quite some time, tell us since when?

I was activist in many different initiatives, it was an initiative for human rights for women, then for LGBT rights, and in one of the most popular initiatives against misogyny in media. It was in 2003. It was a gathering of female activists who had reacted to misogynous speeches on TV Pink in one short program of Lane Gutovic. Before that, I was an antiwar activist during 90’s. That would be my path of civic activism.

It was before Atina, which was founded in 2003

Atina was created as a response to the lack of mechanisms and long-term support to survivors of trafficking, exploitation and violence. We launched the first safe house, and it was practically the only secure residential accommodation where women were not detained, but, together with us took a responsibility for their own security. They were creating their own plans for regaining a control over their lives, so that they could recover and move on.

Is that a beginning? Your operation is not limited only to Belgrade.

Yes. After that, we have developed and spread. Given the fact that the safe house was located in Belgrade, and the women were coming from all over Serbia and entire region, we had to get outside the capital and cover a wider area.

Tell us a little bit more about your work and program.

Our programs are very comprehensive. A person who survived violence needs more than accommodation. Women get often connected with shelter, safe house, as something they need. But nowadays it is something that she needs the least. It might be a solution for a woman who is in quite specific, urgent situation. A right solution for many women is to get a support from the community, to understand why the violence is happening, to have full support in safe place, which does not always have to be a safe house. A place where woman can share experience, share her real feelings, comprehend her traumatic feeling, to help her overcome the trauma and strengthen her life by providing psychosocial support. It is important that she can exercise all her rights, to have all documents, be registered at the Employment bureau, and have health card and a physician.  It is necessary to connect all actors in the system, relevant for her recovery. In addition, she should be able to continue her education, to help her go through court procedure. Women who have experienced human trafficking take part in court proceedings, as witnesses of the violence they had suffered. They need help to go through it, without secondary victimization, and not to be traumatized by it again and additionally. We are working in establishing a relationship between women and their families, and this includes family in a broader sense, that is the persons whom they feel close to and who can really help them. They are establishing relationships, acquire new social contacts again, or maybe even for the first time in their life, and eventually become financially independent.

When we say human trafficking, we think of all types of exploitation. We do not think about the impression we make when buying clothes, coffee, chocolate, whether we had used a 10 years old child who had been exploited for cacao production.

Atina is still doing all these?

Since 2006 we have been working on the territory of Serbia, and we have also developed different programs that are being implemented in our Reintegration center, where all women and persons who had aforementioned or similar problem can come and ask for help. That’s exactly what Atina is, a place and support of those whom they can rely on. In addition, in order to be able to adequately respond to the needs of our beneficiaries, we naturally had to step out from the framework of direct support. We had to reallocate, to raise this issue to the national and local level, in order to create legal framework and advocate solutions that would not bring people in such risky situations.  So, that they are not discriminated and marginalized in their communities just because they are poor, Roma, lesbians, gays, or because they are refugees, migrants. For all these years, we have been transferring our experience, in parallel with providing a direct support to our colleagues, so that we do not marginalized them, or come into a situation in which someone exploits and abuses them, and to improve a position of all these groups. We are working together with the police, social workers, National employment service, etc, improve capacities of all local and national institutions so that they can recognize this problem and adequately, efficiently timely react, and not just in individual cases, but to be able to protect all vulnerable groups, to identify them and by taking certain actions make them better protected.

It is the second level of the story. But that is not all?

That’s right. The third level of the story is that we advocate this on national level, in order to create legal framework, which could prevent particular situations. We have a lot of beneficiaries nowadays, girls and young girls who were forced to marriage when they were 13, 14, and 15 years old. Out system reacted to it quite passively, or reacted reactively when violence occurred. They did not recognize the fact that when girls marry at the age of 12 or 13, also represents a form of exploitation and violence done by the family and that it is a sexual abuse, and not legitimate and valid marriage or common-law marriage. It can also be recognized as human trafficking because that child may consent to it, but it can’t consent to being exploited, and this has been recognized in all norms. These are some of our focuses. Atina is very active in providing support to women and girls, including children and victims of human trafficking disregard to their gender, as well as to those affected, and to migrants, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries, currently residing on our territory. Being a female feminist organization, we are trying to bring a gender perspective to migrations, which we are witnessing, and to which our society must respond to. Not only that we are trying to bring a gender perspective in terms of response to the violence against women and children, but also in terms of identifying their needs arising from gender dimension. Our role is to ensure that the women are, from the very beginning, adequately informed in language they understand. They are often in groups, represented by a man who speaks on their behalf and is a leader of the group, and controls what information they will receive. The woman often speaks only her native language, because she was unable to educate in her environment. Our role is to provide and ensure these information, where, what, what are their rights, and who to turn to when having a problem. Next, our function is to identify and help people in the field, where we are present every day, to adequately respond to a violence that is happening at that moment, or when someone suffers a violence, either in asylum centers, on the street, or in another place where the refugees are. Our third function is to provide care for women and children who, for safety reasons, can’t be in asylum centers. We help them reallocate to some safe accommodation, to recover and plan their future life.


Maja at the reception organized by Kamila, the Duchess of Cromwell, in Clarence House in London in 2016


How do you personally deal with all these stories and situations that are very difficult?

These are all life stories and we all should be aware of what kind of world we live in, that we are surrounded with violence, and to see it or not is only our choice. I simply believe in individual activism and I believe that we all can change things. I don’t believe when people say “we are ordinary people, we can’t do anything”. When we put an extra effort, engage in activism, understand different things, we change the world. And all of us are taking individual actions to make this change and we should not ever give up on it. This is the only way towards a better life for all of us. I had this motive before I joined Atina. I believed that taking responsibility and an individual activism can change things. One should believe in it from an early age. It is something that helps me get through a very difficult story. It is an interaction, it isn’t just giving, it is also receiving, learning, it is constant learning, understanding of others and therefore self-understanding. It is something that makes you develop and grow, have interaction with society and with people that surrounds you. I think that’s the beauty of it. And when you have beauty in your life, then it isn’t difficult to cherish it further.

When a girl comes to us and ask for help, we can’t say “we have the money because the project will last for three months, so you feel safe and sound and don’t worry”, but we don’t know whether we will be able to be there after three months.

You have connected several projects that help your organization, such as Bagel Бејгл?

Yes, Бејгл is our child. It is Atina’s social enterprise, and it was established not because we were smart so we figured it out, but because we were desperate, because we didn’t know how to overcome this last link that civil society organizations and their beneficiaries were missing. One segment of the story is that the economic independence is the key to a person’s recovery, social decision-making, restoring control and exercising rights in a society. In Serbia, economic independence is the missing link due to high unemployment rate and the fact that we are constantly in economic crises. Sustainability of our program is the second segment of the story. We are not a project. Atina provides program oriented towards beneficiaries aimed at their recovery. When a girl comes to us and ask for help, we can’t say “we have the money because the project will last for three months, so you feel safe and sound and don’t worry”, but we don’t know whether we will be able to be there after three months. This was created as a program and in past 14 years the persons were referred to us by the police, welfare centers, various civil society organizations and institutions. We assume that this person needs time, that it is a process, that she needs safe place, that all these has to be done, and that it takes a year, or two, or free for someone who had suffered a violence to recover and restore control over her life. We commit to our beneficiaries to be there regardless of the project. Due to a fact that we couldn’t always provide project financing, three years ago, we came across an idea to provide these funds to ourselves by having an economic activity, establish our own company whose entire profit will be directed to functioning of psychosocial support and temporary house which we are running for our beneficiaries. So, we are partially financing ourselves, aiming to be independent regardless of international donors and their policies or the Government of the Republic of Serbia and its policies. It gives us autonomy and commitment to the program. 

Explain to the people what Бејгл really is. How did you get that idea?

Bagel Бејгл is located in Knez Danilova Street, no. 39 and that’s where we are making bagels. Bagel is a special pastry that we all like. We chose it because it didn’t exist in Belgrade. We have practiced a lot to master the recipe, carefully collected recipes for eight months. We tried 500 recipes and we took a recipe for the pastry with a unique process. It needs to be baked for long time to develop a protein that gives that kind of taste to bagel, it is formed by hands, and left in the fridge from 12-18 hours to rise slowly. After that it is left at room temperature, cooked on both sides for 30 seconds in water laced with secret ingredients, then it is baked and we use it to make all kinds of sandwiches and delicatessen. We are offering catering services for cocktail parties and other events in the city, schools and companies, we deliver food to the people who are enjoying it, and it has been lasting for two years. It is something totally different, but still directed towards our goal and achievement of greater impact of our work and we are really enjoying it. That is the beauty. Man can be active in many things and enjoy, even in business.

You are great and Atina is great. This is also recognized in the world. Let’s mention some of the prizes.  Among other things, you were in New York, where you solemnly received the Global Catalyst Award on behalf of Atina.

Global Catalyst Award relates to the work with children and young people, working on their empowerment, education and in other areas necessary for development of children in places where all these don’t exist.

At the ceremony for Global Catalyst Award, relating to work with children and young people, New York, 2016

You have also been awarded a prize With and For Girls, which is awarded to the most eminent female fighters for women’s rights all over the world. These are great recognitions, is that beneficial to your work?

Of course it is. These are great honors, but it is a great responsibility, because someone defiantly recognizes our country and society. Hears and sees the problems we are facing. It is a great honor to have our programs and work recognized, and it is a feedback for us to keep working and that we are on the right path. It is a great thing, but also a great responsibility, having an opportunity to have our voice heard and our programs exchanged as an example of good practice we are giving to some organizations and other societies, and we get examples of good practice and ideas how to be more efficient  and share these examples with others. It is a great responsibility in terms of impact that our work has been recognized, since our role is also to influence the rights, position and a status of our target group in Serbia. All this is interlaced, like a mosaic that we are all assembling with a common goal.

Prince Charles’s wife Kamila, the duchess of Cornwall, has visited Atina and Bagel Бејгл shop during her stay in Belgrade. At her inviation you returned the visit and attended a reception in their home Clarence House. The topic discussed was combacting violence against girls and women.

It was the official visit of Prince Charles and the Duchess Kamila to Serbia after many years, when official royal family from Britain came to Yugoslavia in 1987. I have to say it was a great honor that we were recognized as one of the civil society organizations that drives changes and deserves o be visited by the Duchess of Cornwall.  The talks were pleasant and important, and not only to our work. The Duchess Kamila is quite familiar with the subject and knows the situation. In return, we got an invitation to go to Britain, to Clarence House where they live, and attend a conference on the occasion of combating violence against women. It was very important for Atina, because we were able to meet various organizations from across the UK, dealing with similar issues and establish contacts at that level, enabling us to exchange information, but also to influence certain policies in our country in order to improve response system. For example, they have a very good law, the act which they adopted with the aim to reduce demand, or influence those who are using the services of human trafficking victims. When we say human trafficking, we think of all types of exploitation. We do not think about the impression we make when buying clothes, coffee, chocolate, whether we had used a 10 years old child who had been exploited for picking cocoa seed, etc. It is this act that UK introduced, addressing companies to arrange their internal policies to prevent supply of goods for which it clearly states that it is produced by people who are being exploited. This is something that we will have to adopt in a near future.

We talked about your activism and absolute dedication to the work you are doing. There is no end to it, and we, unfortunately have a limited time for that story. At the end, I would like you to tell us something about yourself. You are travelling a lot, working, but you find the time for socializing, as well as for preparing for a marathon.

Everyone has its exhaust valve, some kind of mechanism for reliving a tension, bad thoughts. Some people meditate, others go to yoga classes, I run and like running. Running is my meditation, pleasure, and testing my own limits. That’s how I deal with the pressure of my work. That is one way. Another is to enjoy good food. Bagel is a good example of how much we, in Atina, like to eat, and highlight our culinary skills and enjoyment in food. This is also my exhaust valve, we are exploring new food, new ways of enjoying it and dedicate a lot of time to it. My friends and familiar environment are the third and the most important thing to me. Without them and without the pubs there's nothing, no activism (laugh).

Posted: 18.02.2017.
Photos: 42 magazine, private archive

Author: Milena Matovic

Original text can be read on link: