Croatia: fighting femicides

The Croatian government has announced its intention to recognise feminicide as a distinct type of crime. An important novelty - but a much broader social change is needed, warn those fighting for women's rights.

Published On: December 11th, 2023

© Francesco Nicolini/Shutterstock

On September 13, Croatia’s prime minister announced a change to the criminal code, which would make femicide a standalone offence punishable by a prison sentence starting from 10 years, and implement a range of tougher measures to combat the violence against women.

According to the data from the Ministry of Interior, six femicides were registered in the first six months of 2023, and 13 in 2022 in the country of just under 4 million inhabitants. An analysis of Ombudsperson for Gender Equality showed that in the 2016-2021 period 92 women were murdered in Croatia, and the number of femicides progressively increased throughout the reporting period. 52 of those 92 women were murdered by a close person. EDJNet’s investigation on femicides in Europe showed that Croatia is the third country in Europe when it comes to the number of intentional homicides committed by relatives or (former) partners.

The criminalization of femicide in Croatia is a historical event because it is an uncommon practice in Europe. So far, only two European countries, Malta and Cyprus, recognize femicide as a separate criminal offense. The change in legislation was therefore welcomed by a number of civil society and legal actors, both nationally and internationally.

However, for Iva Čatipović from SOS Rijeka, a non-profit organisation working to prevent, reduce, and eliminate gender-based and domestic violence, Plenković’s announcement was first and foremost a political move and will not solve the problem by itself. “We will need to see what the final version of the bill will look like, and how it will be implemented. The legal framework is one thing – its implementation is something completely different,” she warns. Moreover, the bill has already found its detractors in the legal camp. The Croatian Bar Association as well as the judges from the Supreme Court expressed their opposition to the legislative proposal, finding it “discriminatory on the basis of gender”.

‘Failing to protect the women’

The Prime Minister’s proposed changes didn’t come out of a vacuum at this particular moment. The announcement was made only a week after GREVIO, the Council of Europe’s Expert Group on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, published an analysis of the implementation of the Istanbul Convention in Croatia. Croatia ratified the Istanbul Convention, the world’s first binding treaty on preventing and fighting violence against women, in 2018, after months of massive protests by conservatives who perceived the treaty as undermining traditional gender roles.

GREVIO´s report noted several positive changes since the ratification, such as the adoption of strategic documents to combat violence against women and gender inequality. But it also highlighted the insufficiency of the policies put in place. When it comes to femicides, in many cases the state institutions “failed to use the available legislative measures to protect the women,” and no “data-collection efforts were taken to evaluate the effectiveness of the current risk-assessment scheme.”

The new legislative proposal includes a number of measures intended to fight the violence against women and domestic violence. For instance, the prison sentence for rape is to be increased from a range of 1 to 5 years to a range of 3 to 8 years. Courts will need to consider the victim’s right to appeal regarding any decision that might change the duration or implementation of precautionary measures (such as restraining orders). Courts will also be able to arrest the defendant if there is reasonable suspicion – or upon the victim’s reporting – that he has violated a restraining order. In the case of criminal offences against sexual freedom, the victims will finally be able to testify via audiovisual link and not in person.

Systemic change needed

The changes in the legislation don´t solve the issue of financial sustainability for the structures providing help to the women victims of domestic violence. “Croatia opened six new shelters in a short time period following the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. But those were financed by an EU project, so we don´t know how they will be financed in the long term,” says Iva Čatipović. “Most of the shelters are already understaffed and some are in dire material conditions – tiles are falling off, kitchens are half-functional.” GREVIO´s report also warned that “the majority of the domestic violence shelters, especially those in rural areas, are still not suited to accommodate women with disabilities or women with long-term health conditions that require continuous medical assistance, pregnant women and women with addiction issues.”

It is also crucial to better connect the institutions that should protect women and prevent femicides in the first place. In August 2022, two women were killed in Croatia by their former partners within ten days. After the murders, it became clear that both men could have been detained by the police, but they ended up only getting a restraining order. “We don’t have a good enough flow of information between the institutions,” estimates Branka Žigante-Živković, former judge of the High Misdemeanour Court who has been involved in numerous research and education activities on femicides.

“If the police have the information that a woman is at high risk, the same information should be shared with other actors within the system, like public attorneys. Also, it’s not enough for a man to get a restraining order – he should have an ankle monitor, and the woman should have an alarm alert if he comes near”, Žigante-Živković says. According to her, a cross-sector education, teaching professionals about victims’ rights and the different risk factors such as coercive control or separation is vital.“In the court documents on procedures related to sexual or gender violence, one still finds stereotypes, and unauthorised questions to the victim, such as ‘Why were you out at that time?’, ‘Did you drink?’, ‘How were you dressed?’,” she notes.

The slowness of the system, and the feeling that they will not be taken seriously by the institutions are the reasons why many women don’t report domestic violence in the first place. In 2022, a sociological analysis of institutional trust was undertaken in Croatia. It found out that in the period from 1999 until 2020, trust in institutions declined, except when it comes to the military and the Church. Among others, people don’t trust the judiciary system. The numbers seem to back up their scepticism: according to the 2023 EU Justice Scoreboard, Croatia is among the three countries that have the least efficient justice systems in terms of time needed to solve cases.

“If you are a victim of domestic violence, you have already lost your faith in people because somebody close to you is violent towards you. And then, if you have the feeling that the institutions don´t function, you might think there’s no point in reporting the violence,” says Lorena Zec, a psychologist from SOS Rijeka. “The women who come to us are often sceptical when we suggest they go to the police. They wonder what this will mean for them, what the consequences will be, and how long the court procedures will last. If we want women to report domestic violence, we need to work on increasing their trust in institutions,” she concludes.

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