How to improve the accessibility and capacities of safe houses in the Republic of Serbia?

How to improve the accessibility and capacities of safe houses in the Republic of Serbia?


Within the project Better support for women and children victims of violence – improving the accessibility and capacities of safe houses, NGO Atina organized a round table entitled How to improve accessibility and capacities of safe houses in the Republic of Serbia?, aimed at presenting the results of the analysis Functioning and operation of safe houses for women victims of violence in Serbia – Analysis of the current state (further referred to as: Analysis) and of the draft Rulebook on detailed conditions and functional standards of provision and implementation of the service of accommodating in shelters women and girls with experience of gender-based violence (further referred to as: Rulebook).  The roundtable was held in Belgrade, in Envoy congress center, on February 21, 2023.

The roundtable was attended by 31 participants from various state institutions and civil society organizations. Out of the total number of participants 28 were female and 3 were male. The institutions and organizations that participated include: UN Women agency (3 representatives), Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs (2 representatives), social welfare centers (9 representatives), safe houses (7 representatives), social welfare employees’ labor union (1 representative), Coordination Body for Gender Equality (1 representative), Ombudsman (2 representatives), Commissioner for the Protection of Gender Equality (1 representative), EU Delegation (1 representative), Belgrade Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office (1 representative), Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office (1 representative), FemPlatz (1 representative), Centre for Support of Women (1 representative), association of social workers of Serbia (1 representative), Atina citizens’ association (3 representatives).

The roundtable was opened by: Gordana Predić with the Coordination Body for Gender Equality, special advisor to deputy Prime Minister – Minister of Culture and head of the Coordination Body for Gender Equality, and by the representative of UN Women in Serbia, Vladimir Vukčević. The speakers at the first roundtable session were Danijela Čukić Vlahović, a senior advisor in the social welfare sector, Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs; Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković of the Atina citizens’ association and author of the research; Slađana Čabrić, senior advisor in the social welfare sector, Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs; Lidija Milanović, consultant in drafting the Rulebook proposal. The roundtable was moderated by Milan Aleksić of the Atina citizens’ association.

The meeting was opened and the welcoming speeches were delivered by Gordana Predić and Vladimir Vukčević. Gordana Predić said a set of strategic documents on gender equality was adopted in recent years, such as the Strategy for Preventing Domestic Violence 2021-2025 and the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. According to Gordana Predić, the aim of these strategic documents is the fight against gender-based violence, because the Istanbul Convention itself foresees the establishment of a clear gender-responsive response to violence against women. In the process of establishing a clear response to gender-based violence it is necessary to develop prevention programs in the health sector, in education, as well as general and specialized services, such as telephone helplines, shelters and other services for women with experience of violence. The Strategy also envisages the establishment of records on all forms of violence. In addition to improving the laws in this area, in association with UNICEF, the Coordination Body for Gender Equality launched a National Coalition to End Child Marriage. In its work so far the Coordination Body entered into 9 agreements with civil society organizations, helped women shelters, as well as women living and working in villages through projects supported by the EU. In partnership with the Mozzart company, shelters in 13 Serbian cities were provided with equipment (television sets). Predić further said that the general aim of the social and institutional framework for combating gender-based violence is to improve access to services, and that the third phase of the EU project aimed at empowering women, especially in rural areas, is nearing completion. The Coordination Body for Gender Equality coordinates the work of institutions in order to ensure equality and the fight against violence, and it is necessary to constantly strengthen the institutions’ capacities, cooperation with civil society organizations, media and other institutions in order to systematically combat gender-based violence, said Gordana Predić. 

Vladimir Vukićević said UN Women is dedicated to gender equality as this UN agency’s basic function. He stressed that is it impossible to imagine protection of women from violence without shelters. He added that UN Women is proud of its partnership with Atina, which has produced the research and the Rulebook on quality standards. Vukčević said that, looking at the analysis, he sees a great deal of effort and dedication, but also systemic vagueness. Addressing the identified problems, he said the most striking one is that the capacities of shelters are far below the standard proscribed by the Council of Europe, and that their geographical distribution is uneven, that is, that some parts of the country do not offer this service. He underlined that all should work together to help solve these problems, both the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs and Atina, as well as to improve the standards and for all women in Serbia who are victims of gender-based violence to enjoy the same level of protection. He finished by saying that UN Women will continue to help the shelters so as to improve the strategies for women to remove themselves from violence.

The opening was followed by the first session dedicated to the research Functioning and operation of safe houses for women victims of violence in Serbia – Analysis of the current state.  The participants were addressed by Danijela Čukić Vlahović, a senior advisor with the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs and Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković, the author of the analysis. Danijela Čukić Vlahović said the Ministry has recognized the need to standardize the shelter service, as well as the inadequacy of the current rulebooks governing the functioning of this service. She noted that, in its 2019 Report for Serbia, the GREVIO committee gave recommendations for improving the operation of shelters, which are to be met before their next visit. On the other hand, the GRETA report states that the quality and range of the services provided vary and that there is insufficient staff who have undergone specialized training for work with women with experience of violence. The coverage of beneficiaries of the Roma population, migrants, women with disabilities in shelters is worrying low, and the conclusion is that the shelters are not specialized in providing these categories of beneficiaries with protection from gender-based violence. Danijela Čukić Vlahović also said that there are no standards for an integrative approach preventing secondary victimization. In connection with this, one of the recommendations laid down in the GRETA report refers to expanding the capacity of shelters. Čukić Vlahović added that reporting for GREVIO is under way, that all data is sent to the Coordination Body for Gender Equality that will summarize the data and compile them in a report. She also stressed that in 2021 the Ministry began implementing an IPA project for women and girls that consists of three phases.

Danijela Čukić Vlahović also said that, according to the official Ministry information, there are currently 6 licensed shelters and one shelter for human trafficking victims. In connection with this, one of the aims of the Deinstitutionalization Strategy will also be the formation of service networks in the society, thus also of shelters for women, because the capacities and the geographical distribution of shelters is unsatisfactory. The IPA project 2020-2024 is also being implemented, which aims to empower women and women’s organizations providing social welfare services. The Ministry will provide support through grants for the provision of services for women (shelter, telephone helplines, psychological-social support). At this point the advisor stressed that special attention will be paid to strengthening women’s initiatives for taking over and implementing social welfare services, as well as to the setting up of women’s groups comprising women with experience of violence who would provide support to other women with a similar experience. She also underline that there is continuous education of experts and that the Republic Social Welfare Institute  has many accredited training courses focusing on gender-based violence. It was also said that the Law on Protection of the Rights of Users of Temporary Accommodation was adopted in 2022, which, in articles 20 and 21, defines the prohibition of abuse by service providers.  Danijela Čukić Vlahović also noted that, in the course of 2022, the ombudsman requested inspection of shelters for women victims of violence, and that all 6 shelters were inspected. She ended by saying that funds from earmarked transfers should be used more in this area, as well as that greater inter-municipal cooperation should be established.   

Following her presentation, Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković presented the goals of the project Better Support for Women and Girls Victims of Violence in Serbia. She said the project is part of a wider regional initiative for ending violence against women in the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey entitled Implementing Norms, Changing Minds. The main goals of the project include: increasing the capacities of safe houses by mapping the challenges in the implementation of the existing minimal standards and in the licensing process; analysis of the current situation and recommendations for new functional quality standards; mentoring support to safe houses in drafting crisis situation response plans; specialized training for service providers and qualified workers that were held in the course of October 2022. The trainings were created on the basis of data obtained through research. The first day of training was dedicated to understanding sexual violence and the traumatic experience related to experienced violence, while the second focused on work with children witnesses of violence. The trainings were attended by 43 professionals. Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković also said that the research was carried out in 13 shelters for women and one shelter for human trafficking victims, and that a total of 38 representatives of these services participated. In addition, 5 focus groups with 21 participants were also held. Mixed research design was employed, consisting of quantitative and qualitative research. Following the analysis, a Rulebook on detailed conditions and functional standards of provision and implementation of the service of accommodating in shelters women and children with experience of gender-based violence was drafted. The main aim of producing a Rulebook was to separate this service as specialized from the other social welfare services in order to further define the standards related to the quality of service provision.


Radoičić Nedeljković also referred to mentor visits that were organized in 6 safe houses in Serbia (Kragujevac, Sombor, Zrenjanin, Pančevo, Novi Sad and Sremska Mitrovica), which produced a Rulebook on emergency response in shelters for women and children victims of domestic violence. Commenting on the results of the research on quality standards in safe houses in the Republic of Serbia, she noted that there were certain challenges during the research process. First of all, there were ambiguities regarding the functioning of shelters and their operation, and it was difficult to determine the exact number of services that were actually being provided. On the other hand, what was also noticed was that the organizational function of the service varied, in terms of the founders and service providers, which made the data collection and structuring even more challenging.


According to Radoičić Nedeljković, the results show that there are 11 safe houses for women and children with experience of gender-based violence in the territory of Serbia, in: Sombor, Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Sremska Mitrovica, Pančevo, Belgrade, Kragujevac, Niš, Priboj, Leskovac, Vranje, while the shelters in Smederevo and Jagodina participated in the research, however, according to the data obtained, these two shelters are currently not accepting new admissions nor do they have the basic technical conditions for provision of services (a functional facility). It was stressed that there is an unequal geographical distribution of shelters. Out of the total number of safe houses 5 have licenses, while, during the research period, 2 safe houses submitted requests for license renewal, and 7 were in the licensing procedure. When asked to comment on the licensing procedure, 85.7% of respondents said that licensing would make it significantly easier to finance the safe house service. Furthermore, research results showed that the biggest obstacle in the licensing process is the shortage of human resources (71.5%), which is also backed by the results showing that 50% of safe houses do not meet the licensing standards in terms of human resources. The second biggest challenge in obtaining licenses are problems with technical means (28.5%). In safe houses in Serbia there are 190 available beds for women with experience of gender-based violence, which is 74% below the Council of Europe standard for shelters. As much as 14.5% of safe houses do not have separate rooms for mothers with children.


Radoičić Nedeljković then turned to the issue of the structure of employees in safe houses and said the research showed that 50% of safe house managers have between 11 and 20 years of work experience, while in half of the safe houses managers also do the job of qualified workers. Furthermore, the results show that 42.9% of safe houses do not have access for women with disabilities, and that 64.3% of them do not have a space within the facility that is equipped to accommodate women with disabilities. This result indicates that in almost 2/3 of the shelters that can accommodate women with disabilities the quality of the service following admission will be drastically lower. The next important research segment referred to safety and security, so it was underlined that 42.9% of safe houses do not have defined security procedures, 42.8% try to keep their location confidential by not publicly displaying their address, 21.43% by having their users sign a statement on maintaining confidentiality of the location, while in 22% of safe houses third persons who are allowed access are restricted to representatives of institutions. The research showed that the safe houses are trying to ensure the women’s safety through increased police presence but that, in most cases, this kind of cooperation is not standardized but mostly takes the form of occasional visits by the police. In the course of their work all the safe houses at least once had situations when the confidentiality of the location was breached, while 70% of them have no security guards.  


In regard to functional standards, the results show that there is no standardized admission procedure, especially regarding information on the provision of services, medical examinations and the like. In the segment of economic empowerment, 52% of safe houses have signed memoranda of cooperation with local partners that increase the employability of the women in safe houses. On the other hand, 43.5% of safe houses do not have developed programs for economic empowerment of the women using their service. When it comes to psychosocial support, 82.6% of shelters say they offer psychotherapeutic support and counseling, however, none of the shelters employ professionals providing this service. This leads to a conclusion that the employees of safe houses provide supportive psychotherapy on their own initiative, without a clear standard and structure, but rather on the basis of their additional education and interests. Radoičić Nedeljković finally reflected on the topic of sexual violence and on the fact that safe house employees seldom raise the issue of sexual violence, while 82.6% of safe houses do not have protocols on response to sexual violence. Safe house employees have mapped a set of values they use in working with women victims of violence, which include confidentiality, respect, tolerance, prevention of victimization, empathy, empowerment, sincerity, full information. However, when it comes to the application of a gender-based approach in shelters, 95% of shelters insist on the violence being reported regardless of the position and opinion of a woman who experienced the violence, while in 34% of shelters the principle of confidentiality is violated if a woman refuses to report violence. Responding to a question on whether there is cooperation between the safe houses, Andrijana Radoičić Nedeljković said that this project has resulted in the establishment of additional linkages between the safe houses, that some of the safe houses were linked even before that, but that there is no systemic networking between the representatives of shelters.   


The second session followed at which the draft Rulebook on detailed conditions and functional standards of provision and implementation of the service of accommodating in shelters women and children with experience of gender-based violence was presented. Slađana Čabrić and Lidija Milanović, a consultant on drafting the Rulebook proposal, spoke at this panel debate. Slađana Čabrić said that the Analysis of the current state of safe houses is good and that it provides a basis for the further development and improvement of this service. She underlined that the terminology needs to be aligned, and that the term shelter should be used instead of safe house. She also pointed out that the role of local self-governments is very important, and that they need to take on an even greater role in developing this service, because, after all, they are its founders, while the service is also funded from the budgets of local self-governments and by earmarked transfers from the republic level. In practice, it is necessary to develop as many services aimed at protecting victims of violence as possible. The Ministry realizes that there are many problems, that there is great diversity in the functioning of safe houses, and that the sustainability of this service is of particular importance. She also noted that an inter-sectoral service is needed, and the establishment of cooperation between the municipalities that will finance the service, thus that maybe one of the recommendations is the establishment of inter-municipal services. Social welfare centers play an important role in the process of providing protection, they offer professional assistance, refer to services, initiate court proceedings, etc. Both the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Social Welfare Center, as well as the prosecutor’s offices and the courts need to be involved in providing women and girls with protection. Slađana Čabrić presented data showing that there are 10 licensed providers of telephone helplines for women victims of gender-based violence. She also voiced the position that social welfare centers should not at the same time provide the service of shelters for women victims of violence. She emphasized the importance of improving the database, and increasing the accessibility of the shelters for women of Roma nationality, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people. She also said that a working groups tasked with drafting changes to the Rulebook on detailed conditions of provision of social security services has been set up. Regarding the draft Rulebook on the specialized service of shelters for women victims of violence, produced by Atina as part of this project, the Ministry has been informed and the next step is to submit the Rulebook proposal to the Minister.   


Lidija Milanović then presented the draft Rulebook on detailed conditions and functional standards of provision and implementation of the service of accommodating in shelters women and children with experience of gender-based violence. She said the specificity of this service depends on the specific needs of women and on their response to it, on the degree of risk to life and safety, on the level of traumatization, etc. She further pointed out that the wish is to provide, with the Rulebook, the concept of shelter service, which includes all relevant areas and content of work, as well as to try and resolve the dilemmas in practice. Clear work guidelines should be provided  through clearly defined activities in shelters, and it should be demonstrated how the principles of the users’ rights can be applied in practice. In addition, the goal is also to change the paradigm of viewing this service. She particularly stressed the importance of understanding the trauma and traumatic experiences both of safe house users and of its employees, which is little talked about. She added that the main question that arose in drafting the Rulebook is how to approach standards. She said the approach used was developmental and descriptive, and that the draft Rulebook includes all the standards and activities that women in safe houses should have, while these activities certainly need to be adapted to the women’s needs. Reflecting on the challenges that arose in the process of drafting the Rulebook, she particularly singled out the problem of the social welfare system’s systemic inconsistency, and the incoherency of legal regulations. She also noted that the regulations and the procedure defining the relations within the system are insufficiently developed. Licensing is also a challenge, as is the level of the functionality of knowledge that accredited training courses can offer. None of the trainings attended by social workers prepare qualified workers for actual work, that is, only 30% contribute to developing skills and knowledge, as shown by the results of other research. She also said that sexual abuse is least talked about, and the least work is being done in this area. The system is afraid to come to grips with the topic of sexual abuse because it lacks resources in all systems, which is why better inter-sectoral cooperation is needed.  


Lidija Milanović then presented the basic structure of the proposed standards consisting of: basic provisions, basic principles, minimal functional standards of professional procedures, minimal functional standards of activities and measures in relation to: users, children, persons supporting a user, in relation to common life, in relation to exercising rights and protection against violence, neglect and discrimination in shelters. The main idea is for this to be the initial spark for the adoption of the rulebook, and, along with an accompanying document, to serve as a manual for the provision of the service.


For example, the Rulebook defines the procedure for obtaining informed consent, defines how to perform a crisis intervention in shelters, explains the essence of providing support, explains what it means to be a person of trust, explains parenting support, explains how to work with mothers and children, how to work on a strategy for leaving a safe house, how to provide women victims of sexual violence with support.


Lidija Milanović also raised the question of whether Serbia needs the capacities prescribed by the Council of Europe, in the context of the fact that it has the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence and the measure of a restraining order. In the discussion that followed Gorjana Mirčić Čauković followed up on this and said that the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence must not be equated with safe houses. The Law is preventative, she added, it is “aspirin” in cases of lower risk assessment, while in cases of high risk of violence the safe houses are “morphine,” which is why they are needed. Bojana Samardžija from the Niš Social Welfare Center, who heads the internal team for violence, asked if it would be possible to explain how exactly the Rulebook regulates the work with children in regard to their contact with the other parent, because this is a situation that creates many challenges in practice.


Sonja Šćekić, the director of the safe house in Niš, followed up on this and said that, in these cases, the social welfare centers are the ones that make the decisions, and that the shelters provide support in implementing these decisions. She said it was important to differentiate between the work done by the social welfare centers and that done by the safe houses. A colleague from NS asked an additional question of who is responsible for assessing whether a child should see its father, seeing as the social welfare centers are the ones that decide on this, but added that it was unclear who is tasked with assessing a child’s best interest, whether a safe house qualified worker or a social welfare center, as envisaged by the new draft Rulebook. Sonja Šoškić noted that a social welfare center can ask a safe house employee to submit a report on the state of a mother and child. Lidija Milanović said that the Rulebook actually attempted to standardize the procedure precisely because of the diversity of practice and because of the question of what happens if a social welfare center does not ask for a shelter qualified worker’s assessment, or if these two assessments do not match, so a shelter qualified worker will submit an assessment on the mother and child within the given deadline regardless of a social welfare center’s request. Bojana Samadžija joined the discussion again, pointing out that very little time passes from the moment a child is accommodated in a safe house until a request to see the child is placed, thus that this process is very difficult. Gorjana Mirčić Čaluković got the floor once again and pointed out that cooperation groups need to be strengthened and that safe houses need them, especially for high-risk forms of violence. She also stressed the need to include safe houses in the work of cooperation groups. She said that the focus should be on protecting a child’s best interest, and not that of the father. If a father has committed violence against a child’s mother he has also committed it against the child, and that, in deciding on the model of visitation, the focus should be on the best interest of the child. Manager of the safe house in Novi Sad Nada Padejski said that, when it comes to financial allocation, not all cities are representative. She said it is important to define a Rulebook.  Professional procedures should be separated from activities and measures. She pointed out that children as victims of violence are often forgotten, that 5% of emergency measures have been issued in Serbia, and in Belgrade, for example, 25% of measures that include children. Participation in a cooperation group is important, the law recognizes safe houses and they can be part of working groups, however, in practice, safe houses are not invited to working group meetings. She also said that the Republic Social Welfare Institute has adopted professional methodological instructions for arranging contacts for victims of gender-based violence. What sometimes happens in practice is that the opinion of a safe house is different from that of a social welfare center. On the other hand, a child is always a victim of violence if a mother is a victim of violence. She also said that the safe house in Novi Sad is in the process of drafting, in cooperation with the Provincial Institute for Social Protection, a Rulebook on child visitation rights in cases of domestic violence. She also stressed the importance of the existing Rulebook on communication with social protection centers, as well as of the Rulebook on referral, seeing as they are very important for the operation of safe houses and as a source of information on documenting a service. Moderator Milan Aleksić thanked the participants for taking part and for a useful discussion, summarized the key messages from today’s event and closed the roundtable.


Some of the most important messages from this roundtable are as follows:

  1. It is necessary to clearly define and determine the capacities of shelters
  2. It is important to issue licenses to all centers accommodating women in order to ensure prerequisites for the provision of quality services
  3. It is necessary to specialize services for women with experience of violence in accordance with real needs, analysis of the current situation, as well as with the internationally undertaken obligations and recommendations
  4. The shelter service for women with experience of violence needs to develop and define programs and methods of working with the children staying with their mothers and these children must at all times be recognized as victims of violence
  5. It is necessary to standardize the service in terms of functional standards so it would be fully defined in line with the needs and experience of gender-based violence
  6. It is necessary for the service providers to define and provide, with the Ministry’s support, specialized training for qualified workers at the shelters, especially regarding sexual violence.