For many years, N.N. was the victim of physical and psychological violence, she stayed married because her son threatened to kill himself if she left the husband. Even after the divorce, she had to keep living in the same home with the perpetrator. N.N. was exposed to psychological violence for 17 years. She is in the process of divorce; her son has health issues and he is living in a home for children with developmental disabilities. N.N. has for many years suffered physical violence which several times ended in serious injuries to the body. She has two children and she is a social assistance beneficiary.

These are experiences of the women who participated in the women’s employment project – Independent Life in Vranje. After 20 years of existence and 15 years of combating violence against women, the Human Rights Committee / Helpline Vranje managed, in under three months, to register employers, engage fourteen women in professional training and employ as many as eleven of them. Among them, one woman was offered a full-time position for an indefinite period of time, and four women continued working with the employer after the end of the project, based on Labour Agreements. The fact that the employers in textile, shoe-making, food and hospitality industries independently made the decision on extending the work engagement is particularly encouraging. Project beneficiaries are women between 25 and 50 years old, seven of whom completed primary school, five completed secondary school, and two women have university degrees.

“From our experience with Helpline Vranje we know that the majority of women need economic security and independence in order to leave the life of violence, that is, to continue their lives and child care independently. During the period when they are in the Safe House, when they are traumatized because of the violence they have experienced, or while they are making plans to leave their violent partner, the main problems of these women are safe employment and regular monthly income, so they can provide the basic living conditions for their children. Employment of women survivors of violence improves their self-confidence and empowers them to resist re-entering the circle of violence in the future” – says Suzana Antić Ristić, Project Coordinator.

“I wanted to leave him a long time ago. But, where could I go, my family can’t afford to help me and my children. He knows this very well. It hurts me the most when he says that I don’t have anyone to help me. When he says: ‘With your pay you can’t even afford cigarettes for a month. You’re not going anywhere. You should be begging me to stay here’,” reports one of the project beneficiaries. In addition to the fear for their own safety and the safety of their children, the women who suffered or are still suffering violence encounter numerous challenges related to employment. Most often they do not meet the employers’ criteria, they do not have professional experience, and for many of them, although social cash benefits are at the minimum level, they are still a more stable source of income then an uncertain salary.

On the other hand, employers are not sufficiently motivated either. “They are often absent from work because they have to appear in numerous judicial proceedings and before competent institutions related to protection from violence, or to take care of their children, who are very often young. The perpetrators often follow them or harass them at work. All this disrupts their regular work duties. They are psychologically exhausted, tired of living for many years in the situation of violence, and sometimes they do not have enough strength to take on the demands of an active working process in companies that have strict criteria for employees,” says Suzana Antić Ristić, adding: “In our community, in South Serbia, the poorest part of Serbia, transition has closed many large textile and shoe-making factories, which used to employ a great number of women due to their production profile. Today, women do not have easily accessible jobs. Here, independent life for a woman who leaves her marriage or civil union because of violence today still carries the social label of someone ‘unable to save her marriage’. Brave women, who leave the situation of violence and cannot find a steady employment and dignified life, become prey to ‘living on social assistance and child allowance’, which over time ‘teaches’ them how to live with great deprivation.”

Women’s employment project – Independent Life has provided psycho-social, legal and employment support that includes business orientation, on-the-job training and safe opportunities for the employment of women survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence on the territory of the town Vranje. Special focus is given to ensure that the type of production and workplace match the woman’s skills.

Human Rights Committee Vranje and Vranje Helpline team organised meetings in companies and in direct discussions clearly explained which category of women they were representing. Then and there, they reviewed working conditions, but also the managers, their associates and their reactions. “These first meetings with employers were really informative discussions that we, from the helpline, used for a ‘speedy’ training on all the needs, duties and life problems of women living in violence or women that have left domestic or intimate partner violence and are now struggling to survive, to lead a dignified life,” says the Coordinator, Suzana Antić Ristić, and continues: “we made an understanding with the employers, which they respected, not to divulge information in their companies about the category of women coming to training, that is, that some of them are beneficiaries of the women’s shelter. We signed an agreement on business and technical cooperation with the employers, defining the details of engagement of this vulnerable group of women. We tried to make the agreement as favourable for them as possible.”

Not all employers, however, were willing to join the project. “A number of employers were not willing to provide ‘flexible’ jobs, where the women’s absence would not disrupt the course of production and operations. During the first meeting, patriarchal attitudes about this group of women prevailed, and a minimization of the severity of consequences and violence against women. We could not come to an understanding with some of them. “Why does a woman get beaten? Because, there is always a reason”. In one private company, owned by a woman, after much understanding shown for our cause, we were asked: “And, how old are these women? Because we need younger women, so they can develop into good workers”. This is where we cut the meeting short and suggested that the Vranje Helpline team organise a workshop on gender-based violence in the family and in intimate partner relationships for the management of this company,” says the Coordinator of the Vranje Human Rights Committee and Helpline.

Women’s employment programme – Independent Life also included the coordination between civil society organisations and local self-government and government institutions. The Human Rights Committee / Vranje Helpline see the cooperation with the local self-government as good, and report that the Centre for Social Work was also open to cooperation. After the end of the project with the Centre for Social Work Vranje, they have continued providing support to some women and implementing independency plans with several others.

“The National Employment Service has demonstrated on our example that they are an extremely closed up government system burdened by administrative procedures. During the project we were not able to establish cooperation with NES Vranje. At the start of the project, we had a meeting with the Director. For this reason, we prepared a draft Memorandum of Cooperation with NES in all 7 municipalities of the Pčinja District and sent it to the NES headquarters in Belgrade,” says the Coordinator, Suzana Antić Ristić.

At the end of the project, which was implemented from January to June 2018, with the support of the (UNDP) project: Promoting Inclusive Labour Market Solutions in the Western Balkans, the Human Rights Committee and Vranje Helpline handed certificates of appreciation to the participating employers they cooperated with, and declared them heroes of Vranje economy, because they were brave and opened the door to employing women survivors of domestic and intimate-partner violence in Vranje.

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