War Widowhood, Sexual Violence, Stigma, Displacement and Poverty

Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

Widows for Peace through Democracy · ‘Justice for Widow Victims of Conflict and After’

Presentation given by Fehmije Luzha, Head of Psychosocial Counseling Department for Medika Gjakova in Kosovo

Let me first greet and thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss the issue of widowhood and the various reasons why these ladies suffer.

Following on from the armed conflict in Kosovo February 1998 to June 1999 there have been a lot of investigations begun, research conducted and documents produced on the plight of war widows and their fight to gain recognition of their situation and reparations for their suffering. 

This has highlighted the vast unmet need of the victims of sexual violence and the physical and mental torture that was indiscriminately inflicted upon women and young girls during this conflict.

The forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and Serbia committed acts of horrific sexual violence against women and girls. This violence contributed to an atmosphere of fear and oppression to facilitate the expulsion of the population from many locations in Kosovo. It was part of the Serbian desire for ‘ethnic cleansing’.  This violence took place in or near the homes of the women or young girls, while in (arbitrary) detention and during flight from Kosovo to Albania and / or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Medika Gjakova under the umbrella of Medica Mondial works to improve their health, empower and reduce the poverty among widows and young girls and women with special emphasis on victims of sexual violence during the war. The great difficulty we have faced in finding these victims has been enhanced by the strong cultural and religious traditions and the taboos surrounding discussions of any kind about these types of subjects.

In our society the belief was that when a husband died the widow had no value, no life, no recognition as an individual–her life was finished. Widows were beaten down by cultural traditions and myths. Gradually this is beginning to change; starts are being made to break down the barriers of cultural traditions myths and stigma. Society is moving forward to help to release the hold of a very male dominated society, now accepting women and realizing that they have a value as individuals, a rightful place and voice in society, as well as a life of their own. They are not and should not be classed as second class citizens any longer.

We are beginning now to find women who are willing to admit to such violence, gaining their confidence and enabling them to talk about their trauma, to open up and begin to come to terms with what has happened to them, to admit to it and to face it realizing that it is not their fault.

By forming small groups where they can come together to discuss and support each other, by empowering them we are helping to enable them to move forward, and for most of them to start to have hope for the first time. By finding ways of coping they are beginning to look at the real possibility of building a better life for themselves, gaining social recognition as a person in their own right, and trying to gain access to and secure financial and legal rights–thus making it possible for them to provide a future for their families. Psychosocial group counseling and also one-to-one sessions are provided as well as gynecological and health checkups. We have also empowered them to be able to progress toward their desires and market their own produce, giving them economic and legal support where necessary. We are working with them to find ways of accessing legal rights and benefits for themselves as the widows have done in the recent past (getting pensions and benefits in honour of their husbands (martyrs) who had died fighting for their country.) 

We are helping them realize that they have a value as an individual, that life has a purpose for them, they have a voice and should be encouraged to use it to progress their struggle for recognition and acceptance and also for their comrades who suffered with them but have yet to ask for help. 

We have enabled them to summon up the courage to face and enter into society; some have been able to travel outside of their own home surroundings for the very first time since the war. They go out in small groups together, making short trips into the community, for social pleasure. They have been able to talk, smile, laugh and cry sharing their experiences together. Giving them a whole new outlook, taste and hope for the future–what could and should be their future.

The time is right for change. We are in the 21st Century and as such should be making large steps forward in enabling women to become accepted, valued and accountable in their own right. In the past they were not recognized, had no social or legal rights. They were not able to own land or property, have bank accounts or take decisions by themselves. All these things were done by men. Now they can have access to education, hold jobs, own property and land; work in areas of professional and high office. They should be held on the same platform, level and equal to men being afforded all the same rights, assistance and benefits.

Where do we go from here? Who is there to help us? How do we all work together to progress the rights of women? 

Holding conferences such as this one enables us to flag up the issues facing us, highlighting the resources available and gaining insight into all the different organizations that are already out there fighting in the women’s corner, and where we can focus our efforts in trying to better their cause.

There are many hurdles to be overcome and barriers that need to be broken down. Finance needs to be provided to help set up projects in the process of gaining justice for all. Governments must stand up and be accountable for their citizens in ensuring that human rights are protected and equal opportunities for all are pursued as a matter of great urgency, ensuring that a beneficial and respectful outcome for all is achieved.

Thanks to the amended law on the Status and Rights of Martyrs, (disabled veteran members of the Kosovo Liberation Army,) Civil Victims and their families, the President of Kosovo has established a National Council to investigate the situation of the survivors of sexual violence during the war with the specific agenda of coordinating the Institutions and Government agencies to work together, to gain recognition of their position and put in place measures to rehabilitate them and award financial benefits for their suffering in the form of pensions.

Now the focus should be on implementing the changes in the law and making sure that concrete steps are taken to progress the issue of compensation for the victims of sexual violence and trauma inflicted during the war. It is a big issue that needs a positive and very clear solution.

We know this work will be a challenge but we believe that with the creation of the right mechanisms to implement changes of the law and the finance provided to put this into practice, will greatly improve the life of widows and other women victims in Kosovo.

Thank you for your attention.

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