Secret group chats, extortion and sexual violence. When the encrypted, sexist group chat ‘Public Room’ was leaked to the public, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation's partner organisation Coalition Margins took a stand for the girls exposed by the scandal.
Coalition Margins is based in an unremarkable residential building in Skopje. Irena Cvetkovic’s office might previously have been a bedroom, but the flat has been converted into an office and is furnished with desks. Creative use of space is not uncommon in North Macedonia. The iconic ‘We can do it!’ poster hangs on the wall behind Irena’s office chair: friends have photoshopped her face into the illustration. Coalition Margin’s executive director has a hectic schedule today, with one national media interview after another.
In early 2019, North Macedonia was rocked by scandal when the secret group chat ‘Public Room’ came to the public’s attention. The chat was riddled with personal data and private photos of women and girls, all shared without their consent. The group, which had been created via an encrypted communication app called Telegram, had thousands of members.
“Because of our work with high school students, we were already aware of the existence of these kinds of groups. But even we hadn’t grasped the extent of the problem,” says Irena.
With the support of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Coalition Margins works to prevent and end bullying at school. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for group chats to perpetrate sexual violence against young women and girls. But this time, the fact that such a large number of underage girls were affected caused a public uproar.
Even Irena found the incident particularly harrowing: “I consider myself someone who’s seen it all—it would take a lot to shock me these days. But the sheer amount of misogynistic hatred in this group was horrifying. It wasn’t just the pictures and videos themselves, but also the unbelievable amount of sexism.”
As the discussion gained momentum in the country, Coalition Margins worried that the nude pictures of teenagers would cause a moralistic backlash. Because of their anti-bullying expertise, the organisation became a prominent media voice in the debate. Irena and her colleagues warned that blaming the affected teens or confiscating their phones wouldn’t solve the problem.
Instead, the organisation demanded the focus be put on the perpetrators: to hold accountable and bring to justice not just the administrator who created the group, but every single member who uploaded private content. The fact that Coalition Margins publicly took a stand for the exposed girls sent a strong and important message in North Macedonia’s patriarchal society, in which the blame all too often falls on the victim.
Coalition Margins also advocated changes to sex education in schools, urging teachers to raise awareness about harassment. Better sex education has been on the organisation’s advocacy agenda for a long time.
“Sexuality is not just about being sexually active, the risk of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. The issue is so much broader than that. There’s a lot of gender-based violence in schools and sexual harassment among young people,” Irena explains.
North Macedonia is a conservative society. Openly discussing sexuality is considered shameful and taboo. Because of this, people don’t have enough information and knowledge about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Access to proper medical care is inadequate as well: in some cities, there are zero gynaecologists, and rape survivors struggle to access medical help or get evidence gathered.
Still, Irena believes norms can be changed. During the decade Coalition Margins has been working to improve sex education, public perception has already changed – these days, a majority of parents are in favour of their children receiving sex education at school.
“So it is possible to make a difference, even in just ten years’ time. It just takes a lot of hard work,” Irena concludes.
Kvinna till Kvinna has worked for women’s rights in North Macedonia since 1999. We support and cooperate with several local women’s rights organisations to end gender-based violence and defend women’s rights. We also work to ensure that gender equality, women’s participation and women’s rights are on the agenda as North Macedonia applies for EU membership, and that women participate in the negotiation process.