Institutions must not disregard the testimonies of abused women

The Initiative for Monitoring the European Integration of BiH calls on the competent institutions to come forward and take action with respect to testimonies published anonymously on the Facebook page “Nisam tražila” (I did not ask for this) yesterday, by women who survived sexual harassment and abuse and decided to speak out. We call on these institutions to inform the public as a matter of urgency about the measures they will take with regard to disturbing information on mass abuse and harassment of dozens of women from BiH.

We underline here that sexual intercourse by abuse of position is a criminal offence, and a particularly aggravating factor herein is that such an offence was committed in educational institutions. Credible public information on continuous attempts to commit this criminal offence, in some cases against minors, is more than ample justification for the competent police and judicial authorities to initiate an investigation within the institutions whose employees have committed or attempted to commit such an offence.

The Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo has already responded with a statement to the aforementioned testimonies, and we hope that this first step in taking responsibility for the prior failure to protect students from sexual violence will serve as a model to other institutions. We call on all institutions where sexual violence was committed, to provide support to women and girls who have survived sexual violence, to name the abusers, to cooperate with the police and judicial institutions, and to introduce regulations and mechanisms to prevent and sanction such behaviour within institutions. There must be no place in any institution for a culture of silence and tacit approval of sexual and other violence, and we, therefore, call on the institutions to urgently address and change these practices and take measures to prevent sexual violence.

We expect these processes to include existing mechanisms for the protection of human rights and ensuring gender equality in BiH: the Institution of the Human Rights Ombudsman of BiH, the Agency for Gender Equality of BiH and the Entity Gender Centres – to ensure that they are conducted in compliance with the highest standards of witness protection and that witnesses have the full and unequivocal support and protection by the competent institutions, the civil sector and society.

The Initiative provides full support to all women who have spoken out about the sexual violence they have been exposed to. The prosecution and punishment of crimes are not and should not be the responsibility of victims, particularly when it comes to sexual violence, the reporting of which often leads to secondary victimization and new abuse. Survivors of abuse and harassment often lack community support when they choose to report such crimes and are subject to social pressure when they do so, which, combined with inadequate treatment by institutions, leads to de facto impunity for sexual violence in our society.

It is therefore crucial that investigative bodies and judicial institutions respond promptly and decisively to the information presented yesterday, albeit anonymously; to show willingness and open commitment to protect women and girls from violence, punish abusers, and send a clear message that violence against women and girls will no longer be tolerated in BiH society.

Bosnia and Herzegovina should and must apply the highest standards of human rights protection on its path to the EU, and follow the regulations and practices of the EU Member States. The latest EU Gender Equality Strategy states that the EU and its members will take all necessary measures to combat gender-based violence, especially sexual violence, provide support to survivors and sanction perpetrators. The first step for BiH, its entities and the Brčko District in ensuring the effective suppression of sexual violence is certainly the harmonization of criminal legislation with the Istanbul Convention, adoption of relevant by-laws, education of state, judicial and police officers, and establishment of a functional institutional psychosocial support system for sexual violence survivors.