Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a severe and systemic problem affecting individuals across the world, and leaving physical, emotional, and social scars that can last a lifetime. According to the World Health Organization, one in three women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the Western Balkans
In the Western Balkans, deeply ingrained patriarchal beliefs perpetuate notions of traditional gender roles (usually referring to two genders – male and female). When SGBV occurs, patriarchal structures may downplay its severity, causing a skewed perception of the crimes committed and leading to victim-blaming and trivialization of violence against women and gender minorities.
Additionally, SGBV survivors in such societies frequently face the stigma and shame associated with reporting these crimes. Cultural norms and societal pressures discourage survivors from seeking help or justice, fearing social isolation and judgement. At times, survivors are unjustly blamed for the violence they endure, leading to a perception that the crimes are less severe and more deserving of leniency. Survivors’ frequent financial dependency on their perpetrators creates additional reluctance to report crimes. Consequently, there are a multitude of unreported incidents allowing perpetrators to evade accountability, authorities to downplay the severity of the crime and the silence around them to be perpetuated.
Continuous interventions are essential to address SGBV and support survivors with avenues for justice. Crime classification and punitive (and preventive) policies, based on a country’s criminal code, are crucial in delivering equitable justice. Crimes are often classified as misdemeanors – typically involving less serious crimes, and felonies – involving more severe offences. Determination is influenced by multiple factors:
- legal provisions,
- the manner in which cases are prioritised,
- survivor protection and reporting, or
- cultural and social factors.
In a patriarchal context, if legislation allows for a wide interpretation, SGBV crimes tend to be classified as misdemeanors, even when they are serious offences. Such categorisation can send the wrong message about the gravity of these offenses and often fails to provide adequate protection and support to survivors. Montenegro has made strides in combating SGBV, nevertheless, official data on SGBV is either difficult to access, incomplete or non-existent. Findings from the Women’s Rights Centre, a Montenegrin civil society organisation who lead work in this area, show that there is an overall lenient penal policy, discriminatory attitudes and/or passivity towards survivors, as well as a lack of gender sensitivity among the justice chain practitioners.
Moreover, there is a clear ongoing need to counter the cultural bias that often leads to undermining SGBV related crimes, and to strengthen the response of the entire criminal justice system. A gender-responsive approach is essential in this context, from the design to implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of efforts.
The Western Balkans Rule of Law Initiative (WBROLI) approach
Chemonics UK’s Western Balkans Rule of Law Initiative (WBROLI) is a dynamic, multi-country program focused on promoting the rule of law, generously funded by the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). Operating in close coordination with the UK Home Office and UK embassies across the Western Balkans, WBROLI actively collaborates with local organisations to co-design and co-implement innovative solutions to address pressing local issues, ensuring locally led development and change.
WBROLI collaborates with local and international subject matter experts and non-governmental organisations to support Montenegro in creating a survivor-friendly justice system. Its interventions in Montenegro have been developed to challenge harmful gender stereotypes, promote gender equality and positive behaviours, and raise awareness about the root causes of violence against women and girls along the entire justice chain for SGBV cases. By equipping law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and members of the judiciary with these skills and knowledge, WBROLI aims to address gender biases and promote fair and equitable treatment for all survivors. Efforts focus on ushering in realistic and practical changes and shifting behaviors and practices. WBROLI achieves this through a variety of mechanisms, including innovation-driven analysis and capacity-building activities.
In all of its efforts, WBROLI employs a co-creation and co-implementation approach, with an emphasis on:
- a design process that includes input from multiple sources and backgrounds,
- co-delivery between international and local experts that collectively bring together an understanding of survivor voice and experience of working throughout the criminal justice chain,
- delivery of all material in both English and Montenegrin languages, and
- the transfer of materials to national institutions.
The partnership and co-creation processes empower all those involved, helping to maintain agency and influence sustainable behaviour change.
The WBROLI approach also emphasises multi-disciplinarity. Regular training sessions and workshops involving law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges, as well as other officials across the spectrum of combatting SGBV, are organised to facilitate coordination, knowledge exchange, and information sharing and to break down institutional siloes. This approach enables stakeholders to deliver a seamless response to SGBV, enhancing cooperation between all justice actors, as well as with civil society organisations and the support services providing survivors with comprehensive care. Additionally, with its focus on survivor-centred approaches, WBROLI’s programming inspires empathy, relies on survivors’ perspectives, and ensures a better understanding of the complexities of SGBV.
By centring on survivors, WBROLI has empowered Montenegrin stakeholders to establish a robust system for addressing SGBV and supporting survivors of violence. WBROLI’s efforts and capacity building activities focus on inspiring transformative shifts in individual behaviors, emphasising sustainability and institutional change. As a catalyst, WBROLI equips individuals with powerful tools, such as incorporating trauma-informed approaches in information gathering processes and during any direct contact with survivors. As they take ownership, they emerge as champions of change, creating ripple effects of lasting societal transformation. For example, relying on the nation-wide contacts created through WBROLI, participants have exchanged advice on how to ensure a more survivor friendly investigation process. With the backing of WBROLI and its partners, individuals spearhead this movement towards empowerment and progress. In doing so, WBROLI addresses a crucial gap, offering guidance and resources that nurture a proactive change-maker community. Their journey moves beyond immediate results to a long-term impact, with an unwavering emphasis on sustainability. By championing measures that ensure enduring change and support, the collective efforts of stakeholders leave a lasting, positive imprint on society.
Banner image caption: Picture with a purple ribbon (the symbol for raising awareness about domestic violence) and a ‘Stop Violence’ sign. Photo by Nito on Adobe Stock.
Posts on the blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.