Combating Discrimination and Violence

03 Mar 2014

Interview by Ms. Irena Vojačkova-Sollorano, UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia to Cord magazine

The United Nations in Serbia are a family of 25 development agencies that are recognized for their role  and efforts in supporting the citizens and institutions to build safe, secure and stable society on the principles of fairness and equal opportunity for all.

A recent study entitled "Attitude of public authorities towards discrimination in Serbia", which was conducted for the needs of the Commissioner for the protection of equality, with the support of UNDP, by Ipsos Strategic Marketing, showed a worrying incidence of discriminatory behaviour in state institutions. Which institutions are the most affected?

- Over half of respondents from the state administration believe that their colleagues have expressed discriminatory behaviour or voiced discriminatory opinions. However, one must note that there is still insufficient understanding of the very notion of discrimination and its basic elements, including that discrimination must always have a personal distinctive characteristic as a basis for unequal treatment.

-Courts and Public Prosecutors offices are the most frequently recognized as institutions which do not treat citizens equally. They are contrasted by Vojvodina province institutions, while the national Government, the Parliament, local assemblies and administrations are in between.

-All institutions, especially those which have the most direct contact with citizens need to conduct their own soul-searching and come up, with the help of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, with ways for tackling discriminatory attitudes and behaviour.

According to the judgement of two thirds of the representatives of public authorities in Serbia, the most discrimination occurs in the area of employment. What is the key to solving the problem of discrimination in a country where "more than a fifth of representatives of public authorities do not know that discrimination is prohibited by law, and as many as a third do not know or consider that hate speech is not prohibited by law"?

-At the Human Rights Day 10th December 2013 Conference, which commemorated the 66th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Government of Serbia, with the support of the UN Human Rights Office, has promulgated the National High-Level Government Mechanism for Monitoring the Implementation of UN Human Rights Bodies’ Recommendations.

-Considering that many recommendations to Serbia in the past 10 years concerned the consistent implementation of otherwise very good laws, this is the Government’s step in the right direction towards enabling full enjoyment of human rights in the country.

-For a long time, Serbia has been passing very good laws in the area of the fight against discrimination and employment. UNDP was proudly a part of these efforts. Its long-standing partner, the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, which UNDP helped create, is raising awareness and fighting discrimination within state institutions both on the prevention and enforcement level.

-Consistent implementation of the laws adopted is an extremely important strategy for fighting discriminatory attitudes and behaviours as it helps build strong human rights culture, a precondition for a society free of discrimination.

-In short, there is no one single recipe for solving the problem of discrimination, in any country. It is a problem that requires holistic measures, over a long period of time. It is a never-ending battle, as some unfortunate examples, even in the economically developed world are showing.

Every other woman or girl in the country (about 54 per cent) falls victim to some form of violence. Where does Serbia rank in the region with such alarming statistics and how does it compare to the EU countries it is hoping to join?

-Violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions which affects all countries. Based on UN data globally, up to 60 percent of women worldwide experience some form of violence (psychological, physical, economic or sexual) from men in their lifetime, and most of this violence takes place in intimate relationships. Statistics indicate that violence against women and girls is a universal phenomenon, irrespective of income, class and culture. Among women aged between 15 and 44, acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. Perhaps the most pervasive human rights violation that we know today, violence against women devastates lives, fractures communities, and stalls development.

-Recent data on two forms of violence - physical and sexual violence - are also very alarming. According to a 2013 global review of available data, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. However, some national violence studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner.

-In the case of Serbia, two UN-supported surveys in 2010 – one in Central Serbia and one in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina – showed striking levels of prevalence with more than half of women having experienced some form of violence in the family and in intimate relationships. This points to the urgent need for further actions, on the one hand – to respond to violence and protect survivors, and on the other – to prevent violence from happening in the first place.

-As for comparable data with the EU, a clear estimated figure of prevalence rates of VAW in the EU is difficult to provide, due to differences in the methodologies used, and insufficient availability and accessibility of prevalence survey data.  Currently the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights is preparing a comparative study in the countries of South-East Europe, which will provide us with valid comparable information for the Region.

United Nations in Serbia are taking part in the international campaign to combat violence against women and since 2005 four projects related to combating violence against women have been implemented at the state level and the level of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. What can you tell us about these four projects?

-It’s been over a decade that the UN in Serbia has been supporting the Republic of Serbia in fulfilling the international and national commitments on gender equality and advancing the position and rights of women in all spheres of life. When it comes to combating violence against women, since 2005, four UN-supported projects have been implemented at the national level and at the level of Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. Namely, “Schools without Violence” lead by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development and UNICEF (2005-2012), “Combating Sexual and Gender Based Violence” implemented by the Gender Equality Directorate of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and UNDP with the financial support of the Kingdom of Norway (2009-2012), “Towards a Comprehensive System to End Violence against Women in AP Vojvodina” implemented by the Provincial Secretariat for Economy, Employment and Gender Equality with the support of UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (2009-2012) and “Violence against children in South East Europe” (2011-2013) implemented by UNICEF and EU. These projects have contributed to the government’s efforts to improve the policy and legislative framework to prevent and combat violence against women in the country. They addressed the need to strengthen the institutional response to committed violence, to improve the horizontal and vertical coordination of relevant stakeholders and to strengthen prevention efforts. We supported the creation of the knowledge basis related to the phenomenon of violence against women in Serbia, as well as contributed to the visibility of the issue in the media. The ultimate aim of all these actions was to introduce zero tolerance culture towards violence against women. Currently, three agencies – UNDP, UNICEF and UN WOMEN – are implementing a joint project “Integrated Response to Violence against Women in Serbia” which aims to integrate the efforts of all relevant stakeholders, including women’s NGOs. To women’s NGOs goes the greatest appreciation for their committed work over the past three decades in advocating for the institutional and public recognition of the survivor’s needs. We are supporting women’s NGOs which are providing specialist SOS helpline service most of the times on a voluntary basis, to have their expertise recognized by the state institutions in establishing a National SOS helpline service available 24/7. As a neutral third party, we are also doing our best to bring partners from public and private sector together in a joint goal of making a safer society for women. With the Fund B92 we are partnering in all that concerns raising awareness about violence against women and we update on regular basis information about our work on the website

How would you rate your cooperation with the institutions of the Republic of Serbia (the executive government, relevant ministries and Vojvodina’s provincial institutions)? Do your projects have a tendency to slow down during the pre-election period?

-The United Nations are a partner to the government and all people in Serbia. We have resident presence at the invitation of the Government, and this specific status, in comparison with other development partners, also reflects on the cooperation with the institutions of the republic of Serbia, leading to full national ownership over initiatives we support and their smooth implementation.

-We work with a variety of partners from all branches of government and at all levels. Some, of course are affected by elections and some are not. However, we have agreed scenarios with our partners in order to insure that our projects are being implemented during a pre-election period as well.

What are the main problems you face in the implementation of projects in Serbia?

-The institutions in Serbia face various challenges while implementing projects and the United Nations are there to help them meet these challenges. As a neutral and a proactive partner, we are able to deliver politically unbiased support, drawing on our vast, comparative experience worldwide.

-Perhaps, one of the main challenges in development is that it requires a long term perspective and a long term donor commitment, and therefore we must plan our activities several years in advance, together with the government, in order to address true development needs of all people in Serbia.

Which of your projects in Serbia are you most proud of?

-I am personally especially proud of our long term projects which achieve behavioural change, a change that results in respect for one another and for our nature, which we need to protect for the generations to come. While this might sound very superficial, we are looking at achieving a standard in society where it is not acceptable that: a doctor takes a bribe for the treatment of an older person; a politician does not take care of the needs of the whole population; an employer does not employ a woman from a minority and does not give her the same salary as to men; waste is discarded without being filtered and recycled; and so on...  

What will be the main focus area (development area) of the United Nations Country Team in Serbia for the year 2014?

-While we will continue with the implementation of the ongoing projects we are looking forward to developing a dialogue with the new government about a long term development strategy for Serbia. In this dialogue we will jointly take stock of how far the UN country team members in Serbia have come in supporting the people and the institutions of Serbia in the past decade. In this respect I would highlight the support that UN agencies have provided on all levels contributing to Serbia's current EU candidacy status. But now we have to look ahead. We will continue to give support to the EU accession process, while addressing developmental issues. Meaning, that we will focus on development goals that are of importance to people in Serbia, as they have expressed during last year’s 'the Serbia we want' national consultations. These goals are mainly: a continuous push for human rights for all, health care for all, education for all, protection of the environment and fair and decent jobs.    

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