Interview: “Women who turned to us for help rarely had property in their name and did not recognise economic violence”

Violence against women can take many forms – it can be physical, sexual, technology-facilitated, emotional, and economical. This year, within the framework of the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” campaign, UN Women in Serbia has turned an eye on the right of women to inherit and manage property, especially in context of economic violence. On this occasion, Vesna Bogdanovic, the Coordinator of SOS line for women victims of violence, one of the services of CSO Women’s Center of Uzice, spoke about her experience with women that turned to WCU for help and support. The SOS line and the work of WCU are supported in the framework of UN Women project Gender Equality Facility – GEF, funded by the European Union.

Vesna Bogdanovic, the Coordinator of SOS line for women victims of violence at CSO Women's Center of Uzice speaks about her experience with women that turned to WCU for help and support. Photo: Courtesy of Vesna Bogdanovic

Have you ever had a woman contact you with an experience of economic violence and do women recognise it?

The SOS telephone for victims of domestic and partner violence was established in August 2015. Since then 7,624 SOS calls were received, 794 individual psycho-social and legal support consultations were carried out in the premises of the organisation, and 157 litigation proceedings were initiated for the determination of protection measures against domestic violence, and criminal proceedings against perpetrators of the criminal act of domestic violence. In the period January – December 2023, 52% of the total number of women who turned to us for help and support also suffered economic violence.. Similar to  psychological violence, women find it difficult to recognise economic violence. Only through a conversation with us do they understand what economic violence is and how it manifests itself in the actions and demands of the perpetrator.

How important is economic stability for women to be able to break the cycle of violence?

To decide to leave the violent partner, it is very important that women overcome the fear for their physical integrity and life. The next significant factor is a woman’s economic security. If women feel that they are economically stable, they are more encouraged to break the cycle of violence. Important resources for women victims of violence are the support of the primary family, information about rights and legal procedures, help and support from specialised organisations, as well as institutional support and protection from violence.

From your experience, do women who contact you have their own property?

There is a small number of women who have turned to us for support who have property in their ownership. In most of the cases, they inherited property as an only child or possibly have a sister. Cases where a woman acquired property through her work are very rare.

Do women have access to information or support services to help them recognise that renouncing inheritance may put themselves in a vulnerable position or can become more susceptible to gender-based violence?
Women are not aware of all the potential consequences of renouncing inheritance, such as vulnerability due to economic dependence on a violent partner or other male family member in situations of gender-based violence. Also, for elderly women this is especially important since they are in the risk of neglect and abuse due to economic dependence, i.e. poverty.

What are the implications of renouncing inheritance on women, specifically in cases of domestic violence?

Women’s renunciation of inheritance in favor of other family members (predominantly male members) causes economic insecurity and dependence on a violent partner or other male family member, which significantly complicates a woman’s possible escape from violence. At the same time, if a woman has minor children, it makes it even more difficult for her to make a decision about leaving a violent partner, because she is worried about providing a “roof over her head” and for her children and, and how to provide financial resources to meet the children’s needs. Exposure to economic violence increases a woman’s economic insecurity and renders her completely dependent on a violent partner or other male family member, which strengthens the abuser’s belief that the victim will never leave them and that they will always have the power to decide about her life.

Article 82 of the Law on Social Protection in Serbia stipulates that a person who renounces his/hers inheritance does not have the right to social assistance in the period in which he/she could have supported himself/herself if he/she had not renounced his property. Women are usually not informed about this. Have you had such examples in your practice?

We had several women between the ages of 65 and 75 who had suffered violence from their spouses for decades, had never been employed because their spouse would not allow them to get a job, and had given up their inheritance in favor of their brothers. They have no support, neither emotional nor material, from children who are adults. The negative consequences of violence affected every aspect of their lives, such as unfathomable consequences for physical and psychological health. Due to the renunciation of the inheritance in favor of the brothers, they could not realise the right to financial social assistance. Only two women over the age of 65 initiated divorce proceedings with the request that the spouse is obliged to pay alimony. However, in both cases, the court awarded alimony in the minimum amount of 5,000.00 dinars per month, which was not enough to satisfy even the minimal existential needs of those women. One of those two women passed away, her neighbors found her in the yard, she died while chopping wood.

In your opinion, what are best ways to increase the awareness of women about these topics?

It is necessary to use all forms of communication: organising public events (street actions, workshops, forums…), appearances in the media, publication of thematic texts, sharing of thematic content on social networks.

How did the support of UN Women affect the work of the SOS line and Women’s Center Uzice?

The support of UN Women significantly influenced the improvement and expansion of the SOS telephone service through an emergency grant during the COVID 19 pandemic, when we expanded the existing forms of support to 24/7 online support for women victims of violence. Besides this, through project funding for the education of women from rural areas of Southwestern Serbia that were informed about gender-based violence and legal rights and procedures in the field of protection against violence.