Interview for the magazine "Business&Finance": Work has protected women

Interview with Jelena Hrnjak from NGO Atina for the monthly magazine "Business&Finance"

Social inclusion of the victims of human trafficking and violence

Work has protected women

Adequate education and economic independence are key preconditions in combating human trafficking and violence against women. Thus, Citizens’ Association “Atina” supports its beneficiaries in finding employment or starting their own business. This association works on becoming economically independent itself, through social enterprise Bagel Bejgl with unique and quality pastries that are highly sought after in the market. 

Author: Marija Dukic

Women who find themselves in the trafficking chain are being forced to enter prostitution, hard physical labor, commit criminal offenses, and some of them have experienced forced marriage as young girls. In situations where they manage to exit these difficult life circumstances, it is very important to provide them with support to recover from trauma and manage to become independent. Citizens’ Association “Atina” is assisting them in that process - NGO founded in 2003 by several activists who realized that institutional solutions alone are not enough. “We first opened a Temporary House for the victims of human trafficking, which is even now, after 14 years, the only one of such kind in the country, and then we started providing them with other necessary forms of support,” says Jelena Hrnjak of “Atina”.

B&F: What kind of families and social environments are victims of human trafficking and violence predominantly coming from?

J. Hrnjak: These are extremely difficult stories, these realities of ours. There is a sea of women in Serbia who suffer violence and it does not stop. Wars are waged, and then over, but violence against women never ends. In Serbia today, women suffer violence from men, and very often this violence does not stop, but only changes forms. Women suffer family violence, and fleeing from one form become victims of other types of violence. It often happens that women-victims of human trafficking have violent partners even after they exit this situation. They come from such poverty that it is difficult for them to recognize violence, when they are faced with hunger each day. Before I started working in “Atina”, I thought I knew what poverty was, but now I realize that I was not even close to that knowledge. I find it most difficult when women who are suffering merciless violence and experiencing existential pressure are being condemned. Sometimes this exact conditioning and compulsion leaves women without other option but to sell their bodies, or parts of their bodies, in order to survive and thus secure their, and their families, existence.

B&F: This month, three more women lost their lives in partner violence. Are there any significant breakthroughs in solving this problem?

J. Hrnjak: In such situations, everyone is looking for some excuse, instead of finally, clearly stating that violence cannot be justified, and having everyone responsible for this issue begin working in accordance with such a social attitude. Thus, zero tolerance of violence! Measures prescribed by our law must be applied unavoidably and the institutions must respond more forcefully and give their united response to this burning issue. A threat alone is violence, and must be treated as such. In addition, it is necessary to raise awareness within society that violence is unacceptable, including the obligation of citizens to report it. Children should be worked with on these topics starting from primary school; especially with boys to whom, as I often quote, “rape must become as repulsive as cannibalism.” As we see from yesterday's murder in Rakovica, there is a rooted correlation between the possession and objectification of women, where the husband retaliates by murdering a child in front of her to show the ultimate power over their lives. As long as we, as a society, allow such surreality, there are not, and will not be, any significant breakthroughs.

B&F: What are the most important measures of support “Atina” provides to victims of human trafficking and violence?

J. Hrnjak: For women, victims of human trafficking, who find their shelter in our organization, it is crucial to go through the process of becoming independent. They have not even finished elementary school, and have no work habits, only a survival instinct. Social inclusion of women with such a story lasts from several months up to several years. Throughout that time, we are there, offering accommodation, psychological support in overcoming the trauma, going to trials with them; we are helping them in professional aspects of their lives, in returning to the education system or starting their own business. Acquiring economic independence is crucial for them, because in a majority of cases they have no one to turn to for help, because their environment harmed them in the first place, and participated in the situation of human trafficking. For example, in our Association after all these years, one beneficiary managed to enroll into university this year. This is the first such case for us! Six years ago, while she was still a girl who was twice rescued from the hands of traffickers, I began communicating with her. We were in intensive contact for two years, and only during the third year has she began showing trust toward me. In the meantime, she made a step forward, graduated from high school and enrolled into university, with the goal to one day work a job similar to ours, and it encourages me and makes me immensely happy and proud of her and all the brave women in our society who are showing us the strength of women through their examples.

B&F: Was that the reason for your decision to enter into entrepreneurship?

J. Hrnjak: There is a lack of state assistance to associations such as ours, and we could not wait any longer, although we consider it is the responsibility of the state to take care of this issue as much as we do. We decided that our association should enter the process of economic independence, that is, provide our own sources of income. We established the company Bagel Bejgl for bakery production, which is in full market operation. We do not have any privileges, but despite it all, we have created a successful business story. In the first year of operation, the company earned so much that it entered the VAT system. At the beginning of each month, we duly settle all our obligations toward the state, and the remaining profits are intended for our support programs. In addition to Bagel Bejgl slowly becoming a source of income, this company also serves for the practice and training of beneficiaries of our services so that they can find employment more easily. In our production facilities, they learn culinary skills, and various life skills. Of course, we also employ qualified professionals to maintain continuous product quality.

B&F: Why did you decide to produce this particular type of pastry?

J. Hrnjak: Our idea was to make only what we would eat ourselves, and our gastronomic criteria is very high. The production of bagel is quite demanding, and for this reason it is even better, which our customers recognize. We have also developed a catering offer for which there is a high interest on the market. We are slowly making a breakthrough on the market, mostly thanks to the quality. Of course, profits are not enough to accomplish all of our plans for the development of support programs, and that is why we are also thinking about expanding our production.

B&F: In addition to Bagel, you are helping your beneficiaries enter training in other industries as well?

J. Hrnjak: Of course, women have different affinities, and we are helping them recognize and realize those, too. We train them in various skills they need, and we also connect them with different companies that can support them. Among the beneficiaries, we also have those who are engaged in crafts, or doing administrative and other jobs in companies, and some of them are entrepreneurs as well. It is understandable that they do not like to mention their past, because it can cause discrimination, condemnation, and labeling, but I hope that we will advance as a society and that one day they will be able to talk about what they went through without any consequences. My heart is full to the brim with joy when I accidentally see them at their workplaces, at their best, smiling and eager to change the world.


An award for unique products

With its second project - making jewelry, souvenirs, and corporate gifts - “Atina” was one of the winners of the second round of the competition “Idea for a better tomorrow”, which aimed to contribute to the development of social entrepreneurship. This year's competition is once again organized by UniCredit Foundation, UniCredit Bank, Ana and Vlade Divac Foundation, and Smart Collective, and the prize fund is 40,000 EUR.

The original text can be found below.