Dejana Stosic, of the Human Rights Committee Vranje in Serbia, explains why girls' rights remain important and how the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped them from supporting survivors of gender-based violence.
Promoting equality for women and girls is a key part of The Elders’ work across all programmes and initiatives. With and For Girls is a unique collective united by the belief that girls are agents of change. On the occasion of their 2019 Awards, prizewinner Human Rights Committee Vranje spoke to staff from The Elders Secretariat about their work.
What does access to justice mean to you?
To me, access to justice means we have an independent jury, judge system and lawyers. If they are corrupt or if they are dependent on somebody, they are always going to choose sides. In Serbia, right now that is really, really important because we don’t have an independent jury.
And if we look specifically at gender-based violence, what would justice look like for those victims?
I wouldn’t like to generalise things, because what is violence for me may not be the same thing for you, just like justice. But I think that for most victims, it is about accountability – there needs to be a consequence.
As an organisation, what are you doing to address gender-based violence?
We have an SOS hotline for victims of domestic violence. The amazing thing is that we are working 24 hours, completely free of charge, and still we offer this hotline for crimes to be reported, to offer advice, if someone just wants to talk – it is all anonymous if you want it to be. We also offer free medical and legal help, and in some cases we offer shelter. We try to find jobs for the women who aren’t leaving their husbands because they are financially dependent on them.
The other main project we have is that we are the co-founder of the Balkan Anti-Trafficking Network so we are also working with trafficking victims. Finally, we have ‘Girls’ Corner. It is a safe space for girls aged twelve and above, to come to study, rest, have fun, and to tell us about their ideas – which we try to implement if we can get the funding. We have a system of peer educating, so high school girls are teaching other high school girls and elementary school girls about gender-based violence and how to recognise and report it.
Every Thursday we have a tea party! We use this time to talk about subjects that the girls choose. For example, if the topic is reproductive help, we try to invite women who work in that area to come and speak, or we as peer educators talk about it if we can. The subjects that we talk about are all really different – from reproductive help to how to write a CV to what to wear to prom. We are a small community- everyone knows everything about everyone. Many of the girls don’t feel like they have the power to say what they think, and that’s why we offer that safe space for them.
At this point in time there are so many different problems facing our world, but why do you feel that it is so important to work on this issue – about human rights, and especially girl’s rights?
Well, women and girls are half of the population! If they are not protected, if we are not equal, that means half of the global population is being submissive to someone. That’s just not ok. It is important to fight for human rights because we are all born equal and we should all stay equal. Nobody has the right to hit me or say mean things to me or do whatever they want to me: it’s my life. In Serbia, there are many issues around human rights. The civil sector and human rights defenders in Serbia need to be really active and powerful, because we are falling apart. The worst part is that young people are leaving Serbia for good, which is a really big problem for a country that is so small.
As you know, in 2007, Nelson Mandela founded The Elders, and he delivered a call to action to young people. He said, ‘it is in your hands to create a better world for all of those who live in it.’ Could you talk a little bit about what that means to you?
To me, that means that young people are the future – whether we like it or not! We have to take our future, in our hands. And if we don’t like something, we have to do everything we can to change it. I am doing my best – I don’t want to leave Serbia, because if I leave, I won’t have a chance to fight for something that I love! Young people are the future. We need the support of older generations, but we are the ones who will be making changes to the world.
UPDATE: Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Committee Vranje has transferred all of its support activities online. They continue to support women victims of domestic violence through a free hotline open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They also offer support via Facebook and Instagram messaging, recognising that victims trapped with their abusers due to pandemic restrictions may lack the opportunity to discreetly reach out. The organisation's Girl’s Corner safe space initiative continues via Instagram.
Dejana Stosic, represents Human Rights Committee Vranje. Vranje is a city in south Serbia, and the organisation works with women, girls and vulnerable groups to offer free legal and other forms of support to survivors of domestic abuse and trafficking. Human Rights Committee Vranje is a 2019 winner of the With And For Girls Award. With and For Girls is a unique collaboration of 11 funders united by the belief that girls are agents of change. Its annual award recognises exceptional local organisations working on the frontlines to create a world where girls’ rights and wellbeing are recognised, respected and realised.
Find out more about the importance of investing in women’s leadership and grassroots organisations in this episode of Finding Humanity podcast, featuring The Elders' Mary Robinson and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Listen here: