With the Second Gender Equality and Western Balkans Judicial Forum just two days away, we had the honour of interviewing Judge Gabriela Gajdova from the Basic Court Veles and Judge Biljana Belevska Projkovska from Basic Court Ohrid, both of whom are members of the Gender Champions in the Judiciary Network (GCJ Network), who discussed the significant challenges faced by the country in addressing gender-based violence and explore the role of the justice system in dismantling these obstacles. From deep-rooted cultural attitudes and societal expectations all the way to lacking implementation of domestic legal frameworks and international standards, these judges highlighted key obstacles in gender equality efforts in Northern Macedonia.
In your opinion, what are the most significant issues North Macedonia is facing in addressing gender-based violence, and how can the justice system effectively contribute to dismantling these obstacles?
Gabriela Gajdova: The biggest problem in facing gender-based violence in the Republic of North Macedonia is the gender insensitivity of the institutions of the system such as the police, public prosecutor’s offices and courts. The police is the first institution the victim turns to, and if in those moments the victim is not given support, if her report is not taken seriously, if she is not given help, (for example, if the abuser is not taken away from the home when they live together), the victim gets an impression that she has been forgotten by the system and that she is left alone to solve her problem. That is why, in those moments the police are supposed to react promptly, to take actions to protect the victim and to immediately begin gathering evidence. The public prosecutors and judges are not “gender sensitive” enough to take measures of protecting the victim from repeated contact with the perpetrator during the entire criminal procedure (imposing measures of protection, detention against the perpetrator, etc.) and to take measures to protect the victim from secondary victimisation. In my opinion, these obstacles can be removed by creating manuals, promoting rules for dealing with cases of gender-based violence and with continuous training of the police how to act when they receive a complaint or accusation of gender-based violence because they are the first institution the victim goes to and continuous training of the public prosecutors and judges.
Biljana Belevska Projkovska: The crucial fact is to raise the awareness of the victims and to gain trust in the institutions of the system, which means that if the victim reports violence, he will receive adequate institutional protection and the perpetrator will be quickly sanctioned. This is due to the fact that most of the time in court proceedings women victims of violence use their legal right as wives of the accused to refuse to testify. In order to raise the awareness of the victims, but also of the perpetrators, an effective system is needed that includes support for marginalised individuals, with the inclusion of the Centers for Social Affairs, enabling material security for the victims, but above all imposing stricter criminal sanctions for the perpetrator of the crimes of this nature, how would the goals of general prevention be achieved.
Discrimination based on sex is embedded in various aspects of society, ranging from public all the way to private life of women. How can empower women and marginalised individuals, and what is necessary to truly ignite a much needed wider societal change concerning this problem?
Gabriela Gajdova: Through promotion or regular awareness-raising campaigns or programmes, which should be organised at all levels in the society. This should, where appropriate, include and this should be in cooperation with national human rights institutions and equality bodies, organisations of civil society and non-governmental organisations, and especially women’s non-governmental organisations. In formal and non-formal programs at all levels of education, where appropriate, teaching material should be introduced on issues such as equality between women and men, non-stereotypical gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and right to personal integrity. Women should be encouraged to report gender-based violence through campaigns in which they will be educated about their rights, providing protection through SOS telephones, access to non-governmental organisations that will give them free legal assistance and of course through the correct approach of the institutions that will enable the protection of victims during criminal proceedings and through a quality penal policy that will show women that perpetrators of gender-based violence may and will be punished.
Biljana Belevska Projkovska: Discrimination based on gender is embedded in various aspects of society, starting from the public to the private life of women. How can we empower women and marginalised individuals and what is necessary to really achieve much broader social change around this problem? Two key factors influence women and marginalised individuals to gain their rightful place in society, namely education and financial independence. Establishing a system of prevention through the promotion of gender equality, by implementing campaigns for gender equality starting from educational institutions, in order to change the fact of the existence of the understanding of the dominance of the male gender. Participation of all social actors from the governmental and non-governmental sectors, primarily in the area of prevention of gender-based violence, and then also in the area of enabling institutional support for victims. In my opinion the justice sector has a key role in this segment primarily through creating and practising a stricter penal policy when imposing sanctions on perpetrators of crimes of this type.
What are the critical legal frameworks in North Macedonia that can facilitate substantive gender equality and tackle discrimination and gender-based violence? How do you access the implementation of these laws?
Gabriela Gajdova: European Convention on Human Rights; Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence; Constitution of the Republic of North Macedonia, which guarantees the basic human freedoms and rights of the citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia; Criminal Code; Law on prevention and protection against violence against women and domestic violence, which provides temporary protection measures for victims of gender-based violence; Law on Prevention and Protection from Discrimination; Law on payment of monetary compensation to victims of violent crimes; Free Legal Aid, etc. There is no problem in the implementation of the laws by public prosecutors and judges. The problem is that the victims are not informed enough about their rights, and are not informed that certain actions taken by the perpetrators are crimes, such as stalking. Also, the problem is the non-serious approach of the police to the reports of victims of gender-based violence. If these obstacles are removed and the cases reach the public prosecutor’s office and the court, there is no problem in the implementation of the laws. The only problem in this sphere would be the soft punishment policy and treating gender-based violence as a light crime.
Biljana Belevska Projkovska: A special benefit for the legal system of the Republic of North Macedonia in the fight against gender-based violence is the adoption of the Law on Prevention and Protection from Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which law entered into force at the beginning of 2022. This law clearly defines gender-based violence and makes a distinction between this term and the term domestic violence. The Convention of the Council of Europe on the Prevention and Combating of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence dated May 11, 2011, known as the Istanbul Convention, is the most significant international document on the fight against domestic violence. The Republic of North Macedonia is a signatory to this Convention from August 072011. With the ratification and implementation of this Convention, the adoption of the law on the prevention and protection of violence against women and domestic violence and the amendments to the Criminal Code that entered into force in the month of February 2023, the term gender-based violence is defined for the first time in our legal system. Equality between women and men both de jure and de facto is a key element in preventing violence against women. The Convention sets goals for an effective fight against violence against women and domestic violence, and what is particularly significant is that the Convention defines violence against women as a violation of human rights, while domestic violence refers to all acts of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence that occurs within the family or domestic legislation.
Second Gender Equality and the Western Balkans Judicial Forum, a key regional event about judicial response to gender-based violence and discrimination, is only six days away. The Forum is organised by the AIRE Centre with the support of the Government of the United Kingdom, and it aims to tackle the question of how the judiciary can address various types of gender inequalities in the Western Balkans. This high-profile event will bring together key judicial actors from region and beyond, including representatives from European Court of Human Rights, representatives from important regional judicial and other state institutions, academics, and NGOs.