Case Study: “Here the Walls Have Ears”

Ending violence against women with disabilities in Serbia’s custodial institutions


MDRI photo Viktor Ljevor
Photo: MDRI/ Viktor Ljevar

"Our rights were violated. We could not set our goals, make decisions, fight for us and others.” These are the words of Edith Vera* a woman who spent over 20 years in residential institutions in Serbia.

Women with mental disabilities held in Serbia’s institutions often suffer multiple forms of violence. A recent study by Mental Disability Rights Initiative-Serbia (MDRI-S) uncovered multiple forms of violence, including forced medical treatment such as the administration of contraceptives without informed consent, and forced abortions and sterilization.

One woman, Kiva Laka*, who has spent over 30 years in different institutions, said:

"They inserted [an] intrauterine device in me. They did not ask me anything. When they finished, they just asked if I had felt nausea and vomiting."

Edith added:

"[Caretakers would] madly bang their keys to our beds to wake us up... They bang as if we were some animals… We couldn't do anything about it.”

A survey of 13 service providers in Serbian custodial institutions highlighted major barriers women with mental disabilities face in custodial institutions:

  • isolation,
  • lack of privacy;
  • inaccessible information; and
  • not knowing to whom or how to report violence, especially if perpetrated by custodial staff. [1]

The UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund) is supporting a project run by MDRI-S, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for the rights of women with mental disabilities, with a small grant. MDRI-S is the first organization in Serbia bringing the lives and narratives of women with mental disabilities living in custodial institutions to the attention of the public. The voices of these women had previously been silenced in Serbia until MDRI-S presented their research and a collection of testimonies for the world to see. These testimonies from women showed the magnitude and severity of the neglect, abuse, and denial of basic rights such as autonomy and hygiene. MDRI-S advocates for the deinstitutionalization of people with mental disabilities and for the model of living in residential assisted living centers, while at the same time it invests in improving conditions of women still living in custodial institutions by sensitizing service providers to women’s needs.

MDRI-S has brought together numerous policy makers from government, parliament and independent bodies such as the Ombudsman and Commissioner for Equality, to present the findings of their research and recommendations for change. MDRI-S has so far trained 60 service providers on how to address violence against women with mental disabilities in custodial institutions. By involving policy makers and service providers, MDRI-S is ensuring that those working directly with women with mental disabilities are sensitized to have the information needed to prevent abuse from occurring, and encourages policy makers to become advocates and actors for deinstitutionalization.

The project is driven by the active participation of women, both living in institutions and those with the experience of being institutionalized, in creating change. Fifteen women with intellectual disabilities who have a history of institutionalization were included in the training programme. Among other things, they helped devise plans on how best to support women survivors of custodial violence. These women engaged in making change for themselves and others in the same circumstance in an intrinsically empowering approach.

Edith, who now uses home-based services to live and work in her community, said:

“Now, I can say what's on my mind… I feel as if I'm fully empowered, as if I have no fear. Of course, I am afraid that I can be placed in [a] residential institution again... I wish that everyone can go out of institutions. I wish residential institutions do not exist."

The project has already had a significant impact. It has publicized the stories of women; helped change practice in custodial institutions; and ensured custodial violence is included in gender and disability policies.

Biljana Janjić, MDRI-S programme associate, said:

"It is important for us to present the testimonies of women with disabilities about the violence they survive. Their voices need to be heard by the public and their personal stories [need] to be more visible."

 *Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.

[1] Submission for Universal Periodic Review (Third Cycle) of the Republic of Serbia, Mental Disability Rights Initiative (MDRI-S), Human Rights Council, June 2017