Sexual harassment in Kosovo: no longer invisible

When I moved back to Kosovo four years ago, I experienced how very uncomfortable it was to be a woman on the street – especially in the summer. What I thought were just isolated incidents of being followed or harassed turned into a pattern of behaviour, and I quickly learned to think about not only what I’m wearing, but which streets I choose to walk on, how I dress, how I walk, even my facial expression (don’t look too friendly, don’t smile). I’ve detailed some of those experiences here,  and they are quite simply a fact of life for women in Kosovo.

In 2014, the Kosovo Women’s Network held the country’s very first Take Back the Night campaign. Participants of the campaign were asked to post fairly unobjectionable comments (statuses) like “Respect is sexy” on Facebook, followed by the hashtag #TakeBacktheNight, or its Albanian equivalent, #NataEshteEJona. The backlash online was vicious. Male acquaintances of mine (whom I quickly removed from my friends list), either laughed at the campaign’s alleged “silliness,” were offended at the suggestion that they too, may be responsible for Kosovo’s sexual harassment problem – or worst of all, outright blamed women and girls for inviting harassment with their behaviour or choice of clothing.

 

A turning point in the campaign was this video made by organizers and supporters of Take Back the Night, depicting a young woman walking around the capital city of Prishtina for eight hours. She gets harassed over fifty times. The video was shot in November, outside the “prime” season for street harassment. It was the first time since I’ve lived and worked here that street harassment became a topic of public conversation.

Now, more than eighteen months later, we know much more about street harassment in Kosovo then we did in 2014. The Kosovo Women’s Network has published “Sexual Harassment in Kosovo,” a report on all forms of sexual harassment in the country. This is the first time data of this sort has been published in Kosovo, with a scope that’s impressive and comprehensive, involving a survey of 1315 ordinary people, both men and women, and approximately 200 interviews with institutions, including the Kosovo Police, the Ministry of Justice, Victims Advocates, Centres for Social Work, as well as judges and prosecutors, among others.

The numbers in the report are damning. 64.1% of women in Kosovo have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, compared to 32.5% of men. In 2014, 63.5% of women in Kosovo were sexually harassed, compared to 24.3% of men. Considering the number of women in the survey who are reluctant to name specific acts as harassment, I suspect the percentage of women harassed in Kosovo may be higher. Of the 561 survey respondents who said they had been sexually harassed in 2014, 421 of the same respondents said they were harassed by unknown perpetrators on the street.

The number of respondents who said they reported sexual harassment to the authorities, or knew someone who had done so, was an abysmal 4.1%. The number of respondents, both male and female, who said that women provoke sexual harassment with the way they act.  An astounding 74%.

Interviews with institutions echoed these sentiments, as well as outright ignorance about what sexual harassment entails – for example, four police officers mentioned in the report apparently mistook sexual harassment for sexual assault. Meaning, when KWN interviewed the officers about sexual harassment, they responded with anecdotes about cases involving medical examinations and forensic analysis, suggesting that they weren’t clear on the difference between sexual violence and sexual harassment. In some instances, such as in school settings, educators described cases in which teachers accused of sexual harassment were simply transferred to other schools. One civil servant interviewed by the network stated that some amount of sexual harassment in the workplace is inevitable: “Who can stop it? When youngsters want it, so what?” Judges interviewed by KWN had little knowledge and experience of sexual harassment cases and the Kosovo Judicial Council doesn’t keep track of sexual harassment court cases in Kosovo. There is a similar dearth of information on sexual harassment cases from Kosovo’s prosecutors, which similarly doesn’t track sexual harassment cases in particular, but rather puts them in the same category as “crimes against sexual integrity.”

One in 10 of all the public officials interviewed by KWN didn’t fully understand which acts constitute sexual harassment when asked about specific scenarios such as an employer forcing an employee to go out for dinner, catcalling on the street, posting photos of someone on the internet, among others. And although only 20% of the respondents said they weren’t aware of the Anti-Discrimination Law, which prohibits sexual harassment, a whopping 70% of women and 57% of men think the problem with sexual harassment cases is that they are difficult to prove. However, in such cases, the onus is legally on the accused to prove harassment did or didn’t occur. More disturbingly, 46% of all the public officials interviewed by KWN believe women bring harassment upon themselves. This number includes 11 out 17 health officials interviewed by the network, as well as 11 out 19 police representatives.

In 2013 and 2014, only seven incidents of sexual harassment were reported to the police. The research suggests that apart from underreporting, the police may not be documenting all reports of sexual harassment or taking them seriously.  One Victim Advocate – the state official responsible for assisting victims of crimes – interviewed by the network said fear of judgment is a major obstacle to reporting incidents of sexual harassment: “Sexual harassment is not reported because of fear; fear of losing a job; fear of having misunderstandings within the family; fear of the husband’s reaction because you report it; and fear of becoming the object of gossip.” This I suspect may be the reason why Kosovo’s justice system and society at large has treated sexual harassment as an invisible issue thus far.

The oddest finding, however, is the excellent ability of male survey respondents, the main perpetrators of harassment, to identify specific acts as sexual harassment – in some instances even better than women. For example, 48.8% men think leaning on another person’s body without their permission is sexual harassment, compared to 25.1% of women. Similarly, being pressured to go out with someone is seen as an act of sexual harassment by 41.9% of men, compared to only 23% of women.   My theory would be that there are some pretty enlightened men in Kosovo, and women so normalized to acts of harassment that they don’t even think of them as such. It may also mean that many men know exactly what sexual harassment is, but still harass others or simply stand by when they see it happening around them (the bystander effect applies to women as well).

This can change. This report has provided the first quantitative data on the prevalence of harassment in Kosovo, and should serve as a great resource to shut down arguments that it isn’t a widespread problem – the kind of arguments I frequently read from young men on the internet whenever the issue of sexual harassment is brought up in Kosovo. Other new initiatives, like an upcoming phone application called “Walk Freely”  (Ec Shlirë, in Albanian) will allow users to report incidents of sexual harassment as they occur, and see a live map of where harassment is happening. Based on the model of the Hollaback application in the United States, “Walk Freely” was developed by a group of young women programmers in coordination with Girls Coding Kosovo, Open Data Kosovo and the Kosovo Women’s Network. If the application gathers enough steam, it will be the country’s first mechanism by which to track and monitor instances of sexual harassment in Kosovo – and perhaps shame institutions into taking action.

Take Back the Night is far from being over in Kosovo.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy.

Photo credit: The Kosovo Women’s Network. The image depicts Kosovo’s first Take Back the Night march in 2014.

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