Interview: “If rural women were sure to get protection from abusers, as well as legal and psychological support, they would be more encouraged to report violence”

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The basic prerequisite for women to report violence is that they are informed about how and from whom to seek help and receive protection. Photo: Personal Archives.

Mileva Malešić is the founder and chairwoman of the board of Women’s Forum Prijepolje, a non-governmental organization aimed at improving gender equality and the position of women. She has been a journalist and women’s rights activist for over 20 years. She also created the Television Forum, a civil society media and webpage INFO Portal Forum, focusing on women’s rights and gender equality. From May 2021 to May 2022, Women’s Forum Prijepolje implemented the UN Women project, Improving Women’s Safety in Serbia, which is funded by the Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade. This effort aims to improve the situation of rural women and to combat gender-based violence.

What are the main activities and results of the project?

“We arranged meetings with women in their rural communities to hear about their issues, concerns and barriers they face. We spoke directly with 52 women. We have created and produced reports and TV shows, as well as written materials on how to prevent and protect women from violence. All of these have been posted on our webpage. Our media content – 23 videos and written materials – reached approximately 100,000 people through our TV and social media channels. As part of the international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, we organized a roundtable with representatives of institutions and non-governmental organizations from Zlatibor and Raška districts. During the session, representatives shared information about their work and experiences. On top of that, we organized a street action, where we sent a strong message that violence against women is unacceptable. In addition, we organized a seminar for journalists from 10 local media outlets on gender-sensitive reporting on violence against women.

What are the biggest challenges facing rural women with regard to their general position and gender-based violence?

Most women in rural areas do not have formal employment, although they work from morning to evening and have no guaranteed income. Patriarchal norms are still deeply rooted in their communities and household roles are gender based. The women cook, wash, clean, bring up the children, take care of the elderly members of the family. Economic dependence is one of the main reasons why women are unable to break the cycle of violence. There is no organized public transport to and from the villages of the municipality of Prijepolje. Women are the most affected by this situation because very few women own a car or have a driving licence. Some village clinics have been closed, making it difficult for women to access health care. Patriarchal upbringing teaches women to suffer and be silent. As a result, violence is generally seen as a private matter and not a serious social problem, so it is rarely talked about. Older women and women with disabilities are particularly at risk of violence.

What do rural women need most to be empowered and encouraged to report violence and discrimination?

The basic prerequisite for women to report violence is that they are informed how and from whom to seek help and protection. Since the creation of our organization, and especially since our media began to operate, we have constantly informed women about the existing means to obtain protection. Through numerous meetings in local communities, workshops in schools, public actions and campaigns, we educate women and girls on how to recognize different forms of violence and why it is important to report it. If they could be sure of getting protection from abusers, as well as legal and psychological support, they would certainly be more encouraged to report violence.

What is your opinion on media reporting on cases of violence against women and on gender equality in general?

The reporting of most media in Serbia on violence against women and gender equality is unsatisfactory, full of stereotypes and sensationalism. One of the reasons for the creation of TV Forum, the first civilian-run TV channel in Serbia and the Balkans with a prefix – woman, was to introduce new standards in the way women are portrayed in the media. On the other hand, all the activities of our organization were more visible, as well as the problems faced by women in our region. We have created a safe media house for women and the opportunity to improve media coverage of issues important to women. We use the Code for Gender-Responsive Reporting, gender-sensitive language and hold regular seminars and trainings for journalists from our own newsrooms and others. There are more and more women in the media, but men still hold many leadership positions. It is important that women are involved in decision-making, so that we can improve reporting on issues that affect women.

What role does UN Women Serbia’s support play for you and your organization?

We have been cooperating with UN Women Serbia since 2018. We have jointly implemented projects on women’s economic empowerment, female unpaid work, security of rural women, and we currently have a project on legal and patriarchal norms of inheritance. The support of UN Women means a lot to us, not only in terms of finances, but also in terms of cooperation and learning through the implementation of projects. I am very happy that we have been supported to shine a light on overlooked topics that are important to women and our community. »

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