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Femicide as a new criminal offence in Croatia: Is more law the answer?

A banner at a protest reads “They can’t kill us all”. The author took the photo at the “Take Back the Night” march in Zagreb in 2022. 

The Croatian government announced in September 2023 new amendments to the Penal Code in which a new criminal offence will be introduced: femicide or ‘aggravated murder of a female person’. From 2020 to the end of September 2023, there have been 43 femicides committed in Croatia. An aggravated offence of murder already exists in the Penal Code, in article 111, with paragraph 3 stating that aggravated murder includes the murder of a person close to the perpetrator and previously abused by the perpetrator, prescribing a prison sentence of at least 10 years or a long-term prison sentence. Introducing femicide as a separate criminal offence has been advocated by women’s organisations and women’s rights advocates after recent cases of femicides and the government’s response to it. The idea behind introducing femicide in the Penal Code is the general prevention of future murders of women and to unequivocally show that violence against women is unacceptable in Croatian society. Back in 2021, the proposal for introducing femicide was rejected by the current ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), when it was proposed by the Club of Social Democrats. So why the change of heart two years later? The most obvious answer is the upcoming parliamentary election in 2024 and the subsequent presidential election in 2024 and 2025. The current prime minister, Andrej Plenkovic, has long established himself as a ‘moderate’ centre-right figure, favouring EU policies and clashing with more conservative, far-right party members. This heightened interest in the penalisation of domestic and sexual violence can be seen as a useful political agenda rather than actual involvement and practical focus on the issue. He attended the first protest organised by the celebrity-led initiative #Spasime [#Saveme] back in 2019. Since then, the initiative’s most famous representative, actress Jelena Veljača, has been a frequent guest of the government. The demands of the initiative #Spasime for harsher penalties for the perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence were accepted by the government back in 2019 and put into practice in 2020. Representatives of feminist NGOs and women’s shelters celebrated this as a success, much like they are now celebrating the new announcements as progress in combating gendered violence. I argue that this new legal amendment will do very little to change the socio-political climate in Croatia in which violence against women and other marginalised groups thrives, where victims of violence are routinely disbelieved, and where economic inequality prevents victims from leaving. Even if cases moved swiftly and perfectly through the criminal justice system and even if every report resulted in a long-term prison sentence- the criminal justice system ultimately fails to give the survivors what they truly need. What survivors truly need is state-provided financial support, the unwavering societal condemnation of rape and abuse and the radical transformation of the abuser’s behaviour. Prisons cannot be considered a feminist solution for domestic and sexual violence since they are overridden with violence, homophobia, misogyny and hatred. Prisons are also places where rape is structurally normalised. Furthermore, prisons will not keep us safe– higher sentences for violent crimes are not associated with lower violent crime rates. 

The dominance of the carceral logic in Croatia

In former Yugoslavia, women had opportunities for free education and mass employment in state-supported industries and were able to attain financial independence for the first time in the region’s history. Currently, with the proliferation of low-paid and precarious part-time jobs, employment no longer guarantees financial independence. The normalisation of women’s precarious employment carries the greater risk of becoming economically dependent on their partners, complicating their decision to leave or to press charges in cases of violence.

The fight to combat violence against women and femicide has been almost entirely relegated to the criminal legal arena, ignoring the socio-economic climate in which such violence thrives. The critique of feminists advocating for carceral solutions has been an integral part of the historical tradition of Black women’s struggle in the US and UK, which inspired and popularised the terms abolition and anticarceral feminism. In simple terms, carceral feminism is the strong reliance of feminist groups on coercive state institutions, such as prisons, police and the criminal punishment system, to manage and prevent crimes of gendered violence. In the region, The Feminist Autonomous Centre for Research (FAC) based in Athens, Greece, advocates for abolitionist care and alternative conceptions of justice that are not based upon state control, punishment and carceral logic.

What is lacking from Croatian media narratives and opinion pieces on femicide is the fact that penal populism has not produced the desired results of general prevention for decades. Media reports are more saturated than ever with news of domestic abuse. Women’s organisations largely acknowledge that what is needed, besides higher sentences, is the holistic prevention of gender-based violence. This would include early education programs such as civic, health, and sexual education for children in elementary or preschool programs. However, the most visible campaigns are still focused on sentencing and the judicial process. The fact that there are not sufficiently designed prevention programs that would be implemented by professional services in the field, for both victims and perpetrators, seems to be swept away under the rug in favour of higher sentences as a solution.

While extensive research on the failures of penal policies in Croatia is lacking, the evidence speaks against higher sentencing as the general prevention for crimes of gendered violence. Globally, crimes of sexual and domestic violence are underreported and statistically underrepresented.  Women worldwide are faced with victim-blaming, re-traumatisation, lack of financial support and long and costly judicial processes. In Croatia, the length of the average rape trial can last between three and ten years. Domestic violence proceedings often involve parallel child custody proceedings making it a gruesome process for the survivors.  Survivors often face the risk of getting killed when they finally decide to leave their abusive partners.

Why abolition/anti-carceral feminism is needed in Croatia and where Spasime went wrong

A survey conducted in 2022 showed that 95 per cent of women in Croatia did not report attempted rape and/or rape. Statistics also show that on every reported rape, there are 15 to 20 unreported ones. Many women do not want to talk about the abuse even to their closest ones, let alone police officers, prosecutors and judges. It is unclear how exactly higher sentencing remedies this problem. But advocates from women’s organisations and initiative #Spasime remain steadfast in their resolution that minimum sentences need to be increased to prevent judges from reducing sentences due to mitigating circumstances. While there are compelling arguments in individual cases where incarceration can save a woman’s life, we should be wary of such blatant expansion of the carceral state. As abolition feminists warn, only those insulated from the state’s capitalist, racist and sexist agenda can feel safe under the imposition of higher sentences. After all, this is the same system that prosecutes and sentences abused women who kill their abusive partners.

The influence of the Catholic Church in Croatia and the neoliberal agenda of privatisation and commodification facilitated the re-emergence of traditional gender attitudes. Privatisation during the post-war period in Croatia mediated the systematic devaluation and defunding of the health, education and social welfare sectors. Social workers particularly come under attack when there are media-exposed cases of domestic abuse without subsequent acknowledgment that the whole system of social welfare has become chronically inefficient, unable to provide services to all who need them. Initiative #Spasime has been at the forefront of leading attacks against social workers, earning them a criminal charge. Something is unnerving about successful, middle-class actresses and media darlings leading a crusade against the faceless, demoralised, underpaid and largely feminised sector of social welfare. This of course does not excuse the individual mistakes of social workers or the devastating consequences of these mistakes. But once again the structural problems are effectively individualised and depoliticised.

Instead of using their media influence to argue for both politics of recognition and politics of redistribution, with the support of women’s organisations  #Spasime emphasised the criminal legal system as the final arbiter of social justice for gendered crimes. I want to acknowledge here the semantic and ideological significance of calling the murder of women as femicide and the powerful message it sends to society. However, the practical implications of advocating solely for legislative changes means the core reasons for patriarchal violence remain unchallenged.  

Celebrity-led, middle-class initiatives such as #Spasime illustrate what political sociologist Alison Phipps, in her book Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism, calls “political whiteness” which “describes a set of values, orientations and behaviours that […] include narcissism, alertness to threat and an accompanying will to power.” Political whiteness is also produced by the interaction between supremacy and victimhood. In other words, it is rooted in experiences of victimisation but it is often performed by privileged people who support the status quo. This includes taking a black-and-white view of abuse, where people can be victims or perpetrators but not both. The state is seen as protective rather than repressive, and shaming and punishment are seen as efficient strategies for preventing future violence. Phipps explored how the #MeToo movement’s focus was on punishing individual ‘bad’ men, despite the structural focus set by Tarana Burke, a Black feminist and the original movement’s founder. Similar to #MeToo, the focus of the initiative #Spasime was also targeting individuals rather than structural problems. At one point, they demanded a public list of all families in which anyone has ever been convicted of violence and information on the whereabouts of their children, alongside the legal prohibition of children living with convicted abusers. Even if we are fully unconcerned with perpetrators’ rights, we should still be wary of such demands since the expansion of the carceral state carries with itself unintended consequences such as survivors being arrested and prosecuted for not complying with the police or behaving in ‘improper’ ways. These demands only fuel moral panic and performative cruelty rather than help create a transformative approach to the harm the community has already suffered.

Carceral feminism of #Spasime adopts a neoliberal logic of individual responsibility where the structural problem of patriarchal violence is pathologised and displaced onto deviant others who need to be denounced and imprisoned. At the same time, their complicity with the patriarchal, racialised, capitalist system goes unrecognised. For example, Josip Aladrović, social welfare minister at the time, who was considering their demands, has since then lost his seat due to being charged with corruption. Or the fact that #Spasime’s Fund for Victims, recently renamed  Fund for Women, presents a neoliberal ‘solution’ by taking on the role of the state and relying on private donors to remedy social problems. The moment of political whiteness is also recognisable in the initiative’s initial gathering of funds by organising a glamorous gala dinner in one of the most expensive hotels in Zagreb, the Hotel Esplanade.  

While social workers are routinely under attack, the same scrutiny is rarely afforded to the police in Croatia. Nor is there any acknowledgement that the same police officers called upon to arrest perpetrators of abuse are abusers and rapists themselves. In August 2023, two police officers have been charged for raping and abusing their acquaintance several times in the county of Lika. In September 2023, they were released from pre-trial detention, without any protection orders which would prohibit them from approaching the victim. After the kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in the UK, a mass protest was held in London which ended up in more police brutality against the protestors. No such protest was held in Croatia after above mentioned case of police rape. The arrest of peaceful climate protestors in front of the LNG terminal on the island of Krk was not widely seen as an alarming use of police powers to protect private interests. Well-known reports of police brutality towards migrants at the Bosnian border also don’t seem to incite more public scrutiny of the police. The public in Croatia does not question the legitimacy of state violence even when there is evidence of police misconduct and brutality. 

Instead of conclusion- a call to action 

Croatian liberal feminism refuses to critique those in power and shies away from calling out the repressive organs of the state because it ultimately does not wish to truly change the status quo. The criminal punishment system on its own cannot deliver social justice but will grind down the most vulnerable members of our communities, including survivors of abuse. The problems of transphobia and advocating for the abolition of sex work strongly present in certain parts of the feminist scene in Croatia partly explain the ease with which mainstream feminism entangles itself with the criminal legal system. When you do not truly care about the liberation of all, it becomes acceptable to throw the most marginalised member of our society under the bus. If women’s safety can only be guaranteed through the means of state violence and repression, it simply continues the normalisation of violence already present in the patriarchal society. We need a grassroots movement that understands the interconnectivity of struggles: the fight against patriarchal violence is the fight against the capitalist state’s repressive organs. This is something that is already emphasised by the feminist collective Faktiv which organises Women’s Night March in Zagreb. Laws can be useful, but they cannot be the endpoint of the struggle for social justice – we need to continue demanding the radical transformation of all facets of society. Feminist abolitionist thinking has already taken root in the region with the Feminist No Borders Summer School which was organised in Novi Sad, Serbia, among six other cities in June 2023. The topic of the summer school was abolitionist care as a type of collective care that aims to create a world without borders, prisons and carceral logic. It also includes a political reaction against the privatisation and state withdrawal from providing housing, food, healthcare, and other necessities. This is precisely the kind of feminism we need more of, not just in Croatia, but everywhere.

Jana Kujundžić is a researcher, writer and queer-socialist activist from Zagreb, Croatia. She is a Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University, United Kingdom. Her research focuses on the socio-legal structures and institutional power dynamics of gendered violence as well as abolitionist feminist responses to state violence. Jana is also a trained legal observer and a part of the Independent Legal Observer Network in the UK. She spends her time between Zagreb and Newcastle with a passionate hatred of airports and border regimes.