Women Refugees: Perspective from Serbia

Marijana Savic

Marijana Savic, director of NGO Atina, provides in depth overview of Atina's efforts to respond to the needs of women refugees. Gender perspective is often neglected when discussing current crisis, therefore activities and perspective of Atina are especially important and necessary, both in the field, but also  in decision making processes.

What are Atina’s main activities in relation to emergency response to the refugee crisis?

Given that we are women’s and feminist organization, we watched women who are on this journey, and saw that no one was paying any attention to them, and that due to the life in patriarchal societies, due to the fact that various things are not available to them, they are hiding even more, and retreating behind some persons who may be family members and who are well-intentioned, some family members who are not well-intentioned, mostly behind the men who are, on this road, taking on the role of the patriarchal system - they lead and they are making decisions. We also saw that there is absolutely no mechanism set to reach out to these women and their needs. Then we decided that Atina will appoint a part of its resources, and start building its capacities in this direction, because we were not prepared for this either. Therefore, we are now on all those places on which there are women and girls refugees.

The reason why we are also now involved in the response to the refugee crisis, and especially in the response to the needs of women and girls who are on the road, is primarily the fact that women and children who have suffered some form of violence were being referred to our programmes. What made us, to shift our resources, our knowledge, and skills we have acquired over the last 13 years, which we have spent dealing with the protection of victims of human trafficking, especially women and children, is the fact that usually girls are our beneficiaries; we know the primary cause of their vulnerability, especially to sexual violence, and some other types of violence as well. We went to hotspots where the refugees from different countries were concentrated, and where they gathered, and at that moment we saw their powerlessness, but also determination to find life, as they did not have it in a true sense, and I can claim that for many of them that situation lasted for many years.

What does Atina see as a priority in its work in regards to support to those who suffered gender based violence?

On one hand, our focus is to help other organizations include this prism and this view into their support to the refugees, and to be able to recognize some early signals that someone is in trouble, to recognize the needs of women, to realize that they have different needs, or the same ones but those that are looking for answers in a different way, to be sensitized to all the gruesome things that occur along the way, not to only look for the cases of gender-based violence or human trafficking, because it is difficult to detect it if there is no previously set mechanism that is sensitized, and that may enable the women to approach, and without fear share their experience. On the other hand, no one will say - yes, I am a victim, I suffered such and such violence, I was raped there, and here I am now, I came to you and told you that; a supportive atmosphere needs to exist in order for someone to do that. The atmosphere should not be threatening, and in this response everything is non-supporting and threatening, starting with the manner in which the criteria is set on who is a refugee and who is not a refugee, and which is changing from hour to hour. This applies to the general population of people who are travelling now, both women and men, but there is a difference in how this information reaches the women and how the men. Mostly men have this information, and the question is whether they want to share it or not. Women who come are less educated, they have not had the opportunity to go to school, they lived in a traditional environment where they are not allowed to communicate with others, especially if those are men, do not know a foreign language, they simply have to rely on the one who is leading the way - and that can be a smuggler, a well-intentioned person, or someone who abuses them on this journey. We often meet under-aged girls whose age is hard to estimate - they appear to be 14, 15, 16 years old, maybe younger, maybe older, who are already married and pregnant on that journey. We have no response to that. Our system does not have a response for child marriages even in our society.  

Is there anything that can actually help them?

Listening to these women and talking with them, you realize that some simple things could solve some problems, but they are afraid, they fear for themselves, for their daughter, they fear they will be sexually assaulted or exploited, and we are placing them together with men, in the same premises, to spend the nights, to spend their days, until a decision on a high political level is made, not wondering how they feel. Women are hungry for information, the most basic information - where they are, what services there are for them in this place, where they are going and what awaits them there, what their rights are, how much something will cost them - this information does not reach them, because this information is shared with a man who speaks the language. Nobody asks them how they feel.

We often meet persons in the field who testify of domestic violence, an aggressive and transparent violence. I specifically asked some police officers if they encountered it, they say they have, what did they do - they said they turned their head the other way, that they did not react because of various arguments: They do not want to hurt the pride of these women, because they survived a lot, they are strong women - what is a simple case of domestic violence, when they are taking care of nine children and spending months on the road, over the hills and mountains with their family, they are taking care of the family, so the police officers do not want to embarrass them; or, they are helpless and do not want to interrupt them on this journey, as they are here in transit, they enter in the south, go to the north, and repeat: "Croatia, Croatia!"; or because they are ashamed, embarrassed to talk about it, and find it easier to turn their heads the other way. Those are the three things.

How is it possible to support women refugees?

In our mechanism of protection, women refugees are seen only as mothers. Their needs are considered only as motherly, so child-friendly corners are created to take care of the children. Children are the ones up to 5 years, and no one cares for adolescents, or those older than 9. Women are seen as mothers and future mothers - there are gynaecological examinations, pregnancies are monitored, etc. The needs of women in the system are always viewed through that prism, which is also a patriarchal setting, and women are viewed in our society in such a fashion as well. Here you can always hear - where are our kindergartens, where our gynaecological clinics, reproductive health of women is a concern - which is very important, but neither mental nor physical health of women is taken into consideration, there is no general support for a woman.  And even when we talk about child care, under the assumption that a woman comes from a traditional society in which the care of children is her concern, a woman travelling with a 16-year-old son and young children of 5 or 7, will not be able to leave them in a child-friendly corner because this child of 16 years is not considered a child, and perhaps there is even no such friendly space, and she has to go to the toilet. Where will she leave the children, when she cannot enter the bathroom with the children? She does not have a time for herself on that journey. Where do these women take bath? Are there safe places for them to share their experiences, to relax, and to simply come out of the role of a mother, and for someone to approach them as women, not as mothers?

With regard to the development of the situation with the refugee crisis, a part of the resources will probably have to be turned toward integration. What are the challenges that await us there?

Those challenges are enormous, because no one has dealt with that, and everyone turns a blind eye when this is mentioned, because the integration costs a lot. The integration and protection of people who stay here would require construction of a serious system, and cover a variety of systems that must plan it - education, health, administrative procedures, social protection and labour. At least five of the systems I mentioned would have to make some changes in order to align their rules with the needs of integration of these people who wish to stay here. This will definitely happen in the future, and we are already late with the planning of this process, especially in the sense that, as a society, we benefit from these people, they are not the only ones who have the benefit of protection they would receive here. We look at this only as a consequence, and in fact we do not see an opportunity that is being offered to this country, because wonderful people with great skills, and diversity that can only enrich us, are coming here. And when all this is planned, not only in our society, but in the whole world, the asylum system is designed for the man who is politically active and politically persecuted in a given country, and there are a dozen of such people, and not in relation to what actually happened to us. These are persecutions and wars affecting so many people, both women and men. This protection is once again set in such a way that it does not take into account the gender perspective, and what are the experiences of women, and what of men, in this form of persecution, this form of suffering that they are experiencing, nor their specificities in the context of the society they come from. Policies are changing in respect of who is a refugee and who is not, the other day they forbade Afghans to enter the country. We heard from one Afghan woman who explicitly says - since she was born, a war is raging in her country, since 1978, when Russia invaded Afghanistan. She and her children can not go to school, they can not move freely through the streets, not just because of bombs, but also because of such society that represses virtually all women, that does not allow them to go to school, that threatens them with prosecution if they marry and do not respect the husband, if they want to leave the community that is violent, if they fight for human rights and everything else. Women from this specific community are refugees according to all criteria. If she says that she was not able to enrol her 16-year-old daughter in school, and if she herself could not go to school, if the bombs are raining down every day even if the country is not officially at war, just based on the fact that she is a woman in Afghanistan who wants to achieve something more, she should get protection here, by all criteria, because her human rights are being denied.

So it is necessary to make a whole new mechanism so that integration is not seen as language-learning class, held by volunteers for an hour a week, to establish a solution where this is the first step toward entering a system. Children who are here should immediately be included in the school system, and as far as social order, we need to talk about the fact that people here who want protection must be informed about local social, legal and political order. On the one hand, they should be informed about it, and on the other hand it is necessary for them to take over these obligations and act accordingly, because we must be aware that these people are coming from regions and countries where girls as young as 12-years-old are not allowed to go out in public unaccompanied by an adult male. There must be economic empowerment as well, a system of social protection must be created, to provide adequate housing, but also a serious assessment of needs, skills, resources and capacities of these people, in order for them to be directed toward programmes that will give them the skills to become competitive and needed to us and this society, in order for them to engage in the labour market. This is true for both men and women and it should be a guiding principle and commitment. Atina, as an organization, has been doing this with its beneficiaries for years, but these activities are aimed at much smaller number of people and require certain modifications, but also the effort of these different systems to make changes within their mechanisms in order to be able to include this number of people in the future, because we have to stop thinking that these people are only here in passing.

What are the biggest challenges for all of you that are working in NGO Atina at this moment?

What would help Atina is a creation of mechanism that would include all the actors who would adopt a gender perspective in providing response. That can not be one, two or three of the organizations because it is not a solution. It would be a definite help - what would Atina - Atina would like for mechanisms to be established so that different needs of different groups are met in different ways, and then men and women within these groups, to make it clear that children, boys and girls, have their needs and that the activities are to be organized in this way. 

Also, the important thing is to definitely think about creating supporting programmes for the inclusion of people who seek protection here, and will stay here, as soon as possible - yesterday, the day before, and that they are comprehensive and to move out of the frame of providing some kind of technical support, for it should be clear that people in that situation need motivation as well.  This is the moment that is lacking.

We definitely need to build mechanisms so that we can have a place for reflection, that is something we failed to do, so that we have a break, to allow each other a break, and to provide an objective view of the situation, and not only subjective, because we are deep in the matter. We constantly think we can do more, but the question is can we really. The biggest challenge for Atina so far is that we have learned to work individually, one-on-one - we have a woman who is a survivor, together with her we support her to make a plan, then comes the long-term support for her to realize it. And here it is a matter of a mass of people, and you should be support for those who have no idea about it, but to be in the field as well, to help these people directly, to on the basis of certain indicators detect potential need of a person, and then to take over the entire management of the case, to work one-on-one, except it is uncertain what will happen with this person because not everything depends on you. A different policy is present, where the situation depends on whether the person belongs to this or that ethnic group, nation, whether Austria will close the border, whether Serbia will close the border, whether there will be a change of policy toward migration - those are all challenges, and it is terribly frustrating to us. It is often a problem if we focus on one case - the question is why only her, when there are thousands who are in such situation, but we can help one or two women, and it produces frustration around which we need professional help.