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In Serbian Academia, a Flawed Fight against ‘Tradition’ of Sexual Harassment
Sanja Pavlovic. Photo: ShockArt.
Educational institutions in Serbia have been rocked by allegations of sexual harassment. With a few noteworthy exceptions, the response has largely disappointed and discouraged victims.
It was billed as a ‘kafana lecture’, a class held by a professor in a Belgrade diner because student protests had shut down the university. It turned into a drinking session, recalled one of the students who attended, a 22-year-old who is quoted in this story under a false name – Elena.
Three professors attended. After one left, “seeing where the evening was heading,” another grabbed her knee under the table, said Elena. The third, kissing and licking her hand, asked her for sex. In return, he said he would allow her fellow students to complete the course he had expelled them from because of their participation in the protests.
Pursuit of justice
The trial of prominent Serbian drama teacher Miroslav ‘Mika’ Aleksic began in February. He is charged with multiple counts of rape and illicit sexual acts against seven women, all members of an acting group he taught. Aleksic denies any wrongdoing.
In July last year, prosecutors dismissed a criminal complaint filed by actress Danijela Stajnfeld against famous Serbian actor and politician Branislav Lecic, accusing him of rape in 2012.
Elena refused. But with little trust in the university authorities and fearing for the rest of her studies, she decided not to report the incident. “All I could see was how much they protected each other,” Elena told BIRN. “Imagine an old predator starting on you in some dive – well that’s what it looked like, only the predators are your professors.”
That was 2014. The episode left a deep scar. Angry, disappointed, and disgusted, Elena is still to graduate.
Seven years later, in 2021, Serbia had its #MeToo moment – victims went public with allegations of sexual harassment and rape in the arts and at a number of prestigious educational institutions. The accused included several prominent figures in Serbian society.
The University of Belgrade responded, publishing a ‘rulebook’ to protect students from sexual harassment and setting out procedures under which they might safely report abuse. The rulebook gave each individual faculty – all of them separate legal entities – six months to adopt their own rules and inform their students.
Complaints, however, remain scarce, a result – experts say – of fundamental flaws in the university rulebook and the stigma that endures in Serbian society, where sexual harassment is frequently made light of and victims portrayed as manipulative.
Fundamental flaws in university rulebooks
As of February this year, only six of 31 faculties under the University of Belgrade had published rulebooks on their websites concerning sexual harassment.
One of them, the Faculty of Philosophy, had received only two complains by the end of 2021, both concerning another student, not members of staff.
Yet according to a survey conducted by the Belgrade-based Autonomous Women’s Centre, AZC, a third of students in Serbia say they have faced a situation where a university employee has told a sexually explicit joke, looked at them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, or changed the subject of a conversation from studying to sex.
So why are they not coming forward?
Defining sexual harassment
The University of Belgrade’s Rulebook on Prevention and Protection against Sexual Harassment defines sexual harassment as:
any unwanted verbal, non-verbal, or physical act of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or consequence of violating the personal dignity of the student or employee;
disparagement of sex, gender or sexual orientation;
inducing the acceptance of sexual behaviour with the promise of reward, threat or blackmail;
making remarks regarding sex, gender or sexual orientation that are against the will of another person, as well as sexually intoned body language;
initiating suggestions for intimacy to the employee or student against their will, as well as denying the right or threatening to damage the honour and reputation of the employee or student due to non-acceptance of such a proposal.
Experts say the rules as they stand do not go far enough to convince students they will not face repercussions, nor do they take into account the time it can take for a victim to process what happened to them and muster the courage to speak out.
Under the rulebooks so far adopted, for a complaint to be considered the victim has to submit it within six months of the alleged incident. The victim must also still be a student at the faculty in question.
Experts say this is problematic on many levels, not least given the fact that a victim may face being taught be their alleged abuser throughout the duration of their studies. Many victims also only feel ready to come forward long after the incident has taken place.
“Cases quickly become obsolete and when sexual harassment and blackmail happens, especially when a professor commits it against a student, it takes a long time for the victim to become empowered and go through various stages of dealing with trauma to speak out,” said Milica Resanovic, a researcher at the Institute for Sociological Research and the author of a 2021 study about the practices of reporting sexual harassment at the University of Belgrade.
Those whose allegations are rejected run the risk of being punished for making a ‘false complaint.’
The notion of a ‘false complaint’ is “clumsily defined” in the rulebooks, said Resanovic, meaning that the difference between what is false and what cannot be proven because of a lack of evidence is poorly defined.
“A complaint in which not enough evidence has been found is not a false complaint,” said Resanovic.
According to Sanja Pavlovic of the AZC, “This situation leaves room for students to withdraw from using their right to protection, fearing that there would not be enough evidence so they will be penalised.”
Fear of perpetrators “and their colleagues”
Indeed, fear is widespread.
Aleksandra [not her real name] was in her first year of university when, during lectures, a certain professor would touch himself when talking about women and use discriminatory and insulting language to his female students.
“I didn’t know what to do or how to do it; there was nothing presented to students at the faculty in terms of how to deal with or report these matters,” she told BIRN.
“To find out, I would have to go and ask questions. I didn’t even consider it.”
Aleksandra had just started her studies and said she feared becoming known as someone who “possibly wants to report being harassed by a professor who is an important public figure.”
“I didn’t want to have that linked to my name and to cause problems for myself, especially when I heard from other female students that it had taken them a long time to pass their exams because they didn’t want to go out to dinner with him or see him in private.”
That was 2013. Almost a decade later, Resanovic said it was still questionable whether faculties in Belgrade have “sufficiently developed their capacities to protect the victim’s identity.”
Pavlovic of the AZC said: “There is a fear of specific people, the perpetrators, but also there is a fear of their close colleagues.”
Aleksandra said she was ready to report the professor in question, but, since she is no longer a student at the faculty, under the rules she can’t.
Taking matters into their own hands
Lacking trust in official channels, university students frequently fall back on informal mechanisms to protect themselves.
“Students tell each other when not to a professor’s office alone; when they should wear turtlenecks to exams to avoid sexual remarks; or which professor invites female students out for drinks,” said Pavlovic.
Students at the Faculty of the Dramatic Arts, FDU, in Belgrade have gone one step further.
As part of Belgrade’s University of Arts rather than the University of Belgrade, the FDU was not subject to the latter’s order to all faculties to adopt their own rulebooks on sexual harassment.
So the Students’ Parliament, the representative student body at the FDU, formed a working group comprised of a small number of students and a few trusted professors.
“Somehow it made sense that it started with us,” said Jovana Jankov, a member of the working group. “We want our colleagues to be safe while studying. These things have been hushed up for years.”
In the absence of a faculty rulebook, the working group is the only body students can turn to in confidence.
“We are trying to prepare victims, to support them,” said Jankov. “We are presenting them with the possibilities in the specific case so they can decide by themselves whether they want to file a formal complaint to the existing Ethical Commission or not.”
This group is currently drafting a University of Arts Rulebook, with one important difference – that a victim still has the right to file a complaint after leaving the university.
In the summer of 2021, the Students’ Parliament went public with five complaints of sexual harassment between 1997 and 2020 against FDU professor Nenad Prokic, but only one complaint could be examined because the other four complainants had already completed their studies.
“We must fight for a deadline of two years after graduation so those who finish their studies have the opportunity to report what happened to them during studies without suffering any consequences while studying,” Jankov told BIRN.
Without naming Prokic directly, the faculty told BIRN: “Since the complaints submitted concerned events that occurred before the entering into force of the relevant code of professional ethics and behaviour within the University of Arts in Belgrade, i.e. at a time when no measures were foreseen for violations in the form of unethical behaviour when it came to the complaints submitted the responsible faculty bodies could only express the disagreement of the academic community with the unacceptable behaviour, but not also punish such behaviour.”
Call for culture change
Even in the event that a victim has the right to submit a complaint, their fate rests on the competence of those tasked with providing support – the faculty ‘commissioners for equality.’
At the Faculty of Philosophy, the post is held by Lidija Radulovic, a published author in the field of gender-based violence. The faculty’s rulebook was drafted with feedback from students and the AZC and is considered the most robust among those adopted so far by the Belgrade faculties.
But experts question what goes on at other faculties, particularly the so-called STEM faculties covering science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“At the faculties where the Rulebooks have been adopted on their initiative, we know that there are experts in the field of gender studies and that psychologists are employed who can take part in these commissions,” said Resanovic.
“But what will happen at STEM faculties? Do they have someone competent… to take on this role? And if not, will that person receive additional training so they can take a seat on that team?”
Radulovic told BIRN that she attended a “very comprehensive” one-day training workshop with experts from Serbia, the United States and Spain, but that the University of Belgrade had to provide a second workshop to address all the queries from other attendees.
As of January 2022, BIRN was unable to find any information on the website of the Faculty of Mathematics concerning its Commissioner for Equality. Asked why not, the faculty told BIRN it was “in the process” of adopting a rulebook on sexual harassment and selecting a Commissioner.
Even then, said Pavlovic, victims will need proof of the university’s readiness to really root out sexual harassment.
“After all, just adopting the rulebooks will not affect the number of reports of sexual harassment” if the flaws are not addressed and “without changing the culture within the academic community”.
Elena called sexual harassment in Serbian education institutions “a deeply-rooted tradition”.
“I need harassment to become a public issue and harassers to be called out and ostracised from the community,” she said.
“I need people who are present in the moment to react, and a setting in which, even though someone might have those predatory instincts, they are ashamed to think such a thing, let alone act upon it.”
Text in original could be found at the link: https://balkaninsight.com/2022/04/07/in-serbian-academia-a-flawed-fight-...
The article is being made with support from the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade.