Femicide criminalised in Croatia – but is law the answer?

In September 2023, the Croatian government announced amendments to the criminal law code. They will introduce a new criminal offence: femicide, or “aggravated murder of a female person”. From 2020 until the end of September 2023, there were 43 femicides committed in Croatia.

Aggravated murder already features in Croatia’s criminal code. According to Article 111, paragraph 3, it is the murder of a person close to the perpetrator who has previously been abused by the perpetrator. It demands a prison sentence of at least 10 years.

The introduction of femicide as a separate criminal offence has been advocated by women’s rights advocates following cases of femicide and the state’s inadequate response to them. The idea behind introducing femicide into the criminal code is to prevent murders of women and to show unequivocally that violence against women is unacceptable in Croatian society.

Back in 2021, the proposal was rejected by the current ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), after being put forward by the Social Democrats. So why the change of heart two years later? The most obvious answer is the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2024, followed by presidential elections in 2024 and 2025. The current prime minister, Andrej Plenković, has long cast himself as a “moderate” centre-right figure who favours EU policies and is at odds with more conservative, far-right figures.

This increased interest in criminalising domestic and sexual violence can be seen as a useful political agenda rather than a genuine commitment to the issue. In 2019, Plenković took part in the first protest organised by the celebrity-led movement #Spasime [#SaveMe]. Since then, the initiative’s most famous representative, actress Jelena Veljača, has been a frequent interlocutor of the government. The #Spasime demands for harsher penalties for perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence were accepted by the government in 2019 and put into practice in 2020. Representatives of feminist NGOs and women’s shelters celebrated this as a success, just as they are now celebrating the new law, as progress in the fight against gender-based violence.

I believe that this new legal amendment will do very little to change the socio-political climate in Croatia, where domestic violence thrives, where victims are routinely disbelieved, and where economic inequality prevents victims from escaping their predicament. Even if cases are handled quickly and efficiently, and even if every report results in a long prison sentence, the criminal justice system cannot give survivors what they really need: financial support, unwavering societal condemnation of rape and abuse, and radical change in the behaviour of the perpetrator.

Prisons cannot be seen as a feminist solution to domestic and sexual violence: they are permeated with violence, homophobia, misogyny and hatred. Prisons are also places where rape is structurally normalised. Furthermore, prisons will not keep us safe – higher sentences for violent crime are not associated with lower rates of violent crime.

In the former Yugoslavia, women had opportunities for free education and mass employment in state-supported industries. For the first time in the region’s history, they could achieve financial independence. Today, with the proliferation of low-paid and precarious part-time jobs, employment no longer guarantees financial independence. The normalisation of women’s insecure employment puts them at greater risk of becoming economically dependent on their partners, making it more difficult for them to leave or report cases of violence.

The fight against these abuses has been relegated almost entirely to the criminal justice system, ignoring the socio-economic climate in which such violence thrives. The feminist critique of the prison solution has been an important component of the struggle of black women in the US and UK. It inspired the monikers “abolition feminism” and “anti-carceral feminism”. Put simply, carceral feminism is the heavy reliance by feminist groups on coercive state institutions such as prisons and the police to address and prevent crimes of gender violence. In southeastern Europe, the Feminist Autonomous Centre for Research (FAC), based in Athens, argues in favour of alternative notions of justice that are not based on state control, punishment and carceral logic.

What is missing from Croatian media narratives and opinion pieces on femicide is the fact that punitive populism has not produced the desired result of prevention. Media reports are more saturated with news of domestic violence than ever before. Women’s organisations widely acknowledge that what is needed, in addition to tougher sentences, is holistic prevention. This would include early education programmes such as civic, health and sexual education for children in primary or pre-school programmes. But the most visible advocacy still focuses on sentencing and the judicial process. The lack of well-designed prevention programmes for both victims and perpetrators, delivered by professionals, seems to have been swept under the carpet in favour of harsher sentences as the solution.

Globally, crimes of sexual and domestic violence are underreported and so statistically underrepresented. Women around the world face victim blaming, re-traumatisation, lack of financial support and court cases that are time-consuming and costly. In Croatia, the average rape trial can take between three and ten years. Domestic-violence trials often involve child-custody proceedings, making it a cruel process for victims. Survivors can face the risk of being killed when they finally decide to leave their abusive partners.

A survey conducted in 2022 showed that 95% of women in Croatia did not report rapes and attempted rapes. Statistics also show that for every reported rape, there are 15 to 20 unreported cases. Many women do not want to talk about the abuse even to their closest relatives, let alone to police, prosecutors and judges.

The influence of the Catholic Church in Croatia and the neoliberal agenda of privatisation and commodification have helped traditional gender attitudes to persist. Post-war privatisation in Croatia led to the systematic devaluation and de-funding of public health, education and welfare programmes. Social workers come under attack when cases of domestic violence are exposed in the media, but there is little acknowledgement that the entire welfare system has become chronically ineffectual, unable to provide services to those who need them.

I would like to emphasise here the semantic and ideological importance of labelling the murder of women as femicide, and the powerful message it sends to society. However, to advocate for legislative change alone can mean ignoring the root causes of patriarchal violence.

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Celebrity-led, middle-class initiatives like #Spasime illustrate what political sociologist Alison Phipps, in her book Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism, calls “political whiteness”. This “describes a set of values, orientations and behaviours that […] include narcissism, threat-awareness and an accompanying will to power”. Political whiteness is also produced by the interplay of supremacy and victimhood. In other words, it is rooted in experiences of victimisation, but is often practised by privileged people who support the status quo. This includes a black-and-white view of abuse, where people can be victims or perpetrators, but not both. The state is seen as protective rather than repressive, and shaming and punishment are seen as effective strategies for preventing future violence.

In Croatia social workers are routinely on the receiving end of abuse, but the same treatment is rarely applied to the police. Sometimes the same police officers who are called upon to arrest perpetrators of abuse are themselves abusers and rapists. In August 2023, two police officers were charged with raping and abusing an acquaintance several times in Lika County. In September 2023, they were released from custody without an injunction to prohibit them from approaching the victim. In the UK, following the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, a mass protest was held in London which ended in more police brutality against the demonstrators. 

No such protest was held in Croatia after the above-mentioned case of police rape. Similarly, the arrest of peaceful climate protesters outside the LNG terminal on the island of Krk was not widely seen as an abuse of police power in order to protect private interests. And well-publicised reports of police brutality against migrants at the Bosnian border do not seem to have led to greater public scrutiny of the police either. The public in Croatia does not tend to question the legitimacy of state violence, even when there is evidence of police misconduct and brutality.

Instead of a conclusion – a call to action

The position of liberal Croatian feminism is to refuse to criticise those in power and to shy away from challenging the repressive organs of the state, because its ultimate aim is not to truly change the status quo. The criminal justice system alone cannot deliver social justice, but it can crush the most vulnerable members of our communities, including survivors of abuse. The problems of transphobia and advocacy for the abolition of sex work, which are important concerns among some Croatian feminists, partly explain the ease with which mainstream feminism has become entangled with the criminal justice system. If your first priority is not the liberation of all, it becomes acceptable to throw the most marginalised members of our society under the bus. But if women’s safety can only be guaranteed through state violence and repression, then the violence that is already normalised in patriarchal society will continue. 

We need a grassroots movement that understands the interconnectedness of struggles. The struggle against patriarchal violence is also the struggle against the repressive organs of the capitalist state.

👉 Original article on LeftEast

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