Written by: Victoria Billing, FCDO Director Europe and Gender Champion for the Western Balkans
Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are foreign policy priorities for the UK Government. They are also issues that I, as a British diplomat, have focused on in every country that I have been posted to during my career. I have seen first-hand how important gender equality is to unleashing the full potential in all countries for stability and economic development..
The annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) started on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and will run until International Human Rights Day on 10 December. As I arrive to lead the UK’s delegation to the Peace Implementation Council I wanted to reflect on the issues and on how the UK prioritises work to tackle violence against women around the globe as well as here in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
Women’s political, and economic empowerment is central to stability: more equal societies are safer and more democratic. Despite having full legal equality under the law, women in BiH continue to face disadvantages. Women are less represented in the BiH labour market, perform more unpaid domestic labour than men, own less property and are inadequately represented in political decision-making. This needs to change, not just because it robs the country of the opportunity to benefit from some of its best people, but because it contributes to an environment where violence against women too often goes unchallenged.
Femicide is the killing of women by men simply because they are women. It is abhorrent and represents the most extreme form of GBV. I want to use this year’s 16 Days campaign to raise awareness of femicide and identify what more can be done to prevent these terrible crimes.
BiH has adopted most of the crucial international standards for the protection of women’s rights. This includes the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (aka the Istanbul Convention) and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. However, without effective implementation, these instruments are essentially just declarations. Words are important; but not as important as actions.
Recent analysis by our partners at the AIRE Centre shows that the majority of femicides occur in the victim’s home with the perpetrator being, in most cases, a family member. In other words, women’s homes can often be the most dangerous places for them. This is important as many of the recent femicides in BiH were preceded by persistent domestic violence. The role of the local authorities and civil society is vital in these situations. I echo comments made by Lord Peach during his recent visit, welcoming the recent decision by Sarajevo City Council to provide financial support to all Safe Houses across BiH. I hope this move inspires all public authorities to step up and deliver the necessary services themselves. Spotting signs of GBV and domestic violence early is essential. Victims and wider society also need to know what options are available to them so that they can seek support if they feel they need to. And when the authorities do become directly involved, they must do so in a considered and balanced way that protects the rights of those involved.
This brings me on to my next point: we need collectively to change the way that we talk about GBV and femicide. This applies to multiple areas of society. For example, stereotypes and prejudices can manifest in courtrooms. Ensuring proportionate penalties for perpetrators involves the proper qualification of the act and an assessment of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. However, these intricate processes are sometimes influenced by conscious or unconscious bias. In some cases, the fact a perpetrator is a “family man” or “father of minor children” has been considered as a mitigating circumstance. Why? The inconsistency of these processes and judgements undermines trust in the judiciary and negatively impacts the willingness of the victims to seek legal protection. Sensationalist media reporting which downplays GBV related crimes also reflects a broader societal issue in public discourse that is influenced by misogyny. Again, perpetrators are often portrayed as a “devoted father” or “man with military honours”. This diverts attention away from the underlying issue: the crime itself!
The perception of GBV and how we are talking about it is a recognised problem – last month over 70 prominent journalists and editors from BiH called on their colleagues to improve the way they report on women’s murders. I welcome this approach, and I want to know how the UK can help.
There are increasing demands for the specific criminalisation of femicide and stricter punishments across the globe. For example, in the UK there is no definition of femicide in criminal law. Progress is being made and is welcome; but it is slow. Here in BiH in September, a proposal to amend the Criminal Code of the Federation of BiH was presented, proposing the introduction of femicide as a criminal offence. And in November, the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska adopted a Draft Law on the Protection from Domestic Violence and Violence against Women, recognizing femicide as a distinct criminal offence. However, as non-governmental organisations have highlighted, this legislative solution so far lacks any specification of sanctions.
Tackling GBV remains a programming priority for the UK. With our support, the AIRE Centre will soon publish guidance for the judiciary on handling femicide cases. This guide contains valuable information for the proper qualification of criminal offences, along with recommendations for best practice in assessing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. It will provide recommendations for protecting the rights of victims in criminal proceedings, ensuring victims are treated with dignity and respect.
I am looking forward to meeting with the BiH Gender Equality Agency and local politicians and Brcko District and learning more about these issues. I sincerely hope this year’s 16 Days campaign will draw attention to the challenge of femicide and act as a catalyst for community leaders, law-makers, the police and the judiciary to redouble efforts to tackle the scourge of GBV.