Sabina Mahić needed a change. Almost two years ago, she left her job as a corporate lawyer to support women who have been abused through various legal processes. But the new job is not without its risks.
Almost two years ago, lawyer Sabina Mahić gave up the corporate world to join the women’s rights organisation Center of Women’s Rights. And she hasn’t looked back.
“When you are working with legal representation at a company, you’re only looking out for their interests. Now, I feel that I am really providing support to the wider community, in particular women and children who are unable to pay for a private law firm,” says Sabina.
Center of Women’s Rights has been a partner organisation to The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation for 26 years. They operate in Zenica, a city about an hour’s drive north-west of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The organisation was founded after the war to support women claiming their basic human rights. To this day, they remain committed to supporting women who need legal assistance—many of them victims of domestic violence.
Sabina tells us about a case she had a couple of months ago, with a woman who lived with an abusive man:
“He threatened to throw the couple’s two babies off the balcony, literally holding them over the balcony rail. He also said he would set her on fire.”
Through Center of Women’s Rights, the woman was properly referred to social services and is now in the process of divorcing the man. Meanwhile, she continues to receive support from the centre, including psychological support with a counsellor.
“Unfortunately, there are many cases like this,” Sabina adds.
Center of Women’s Rights supports 1,000 women yearly and often they have several different legal issues they need support with. Not least related to gender-based violence—which a staggering 48% of women in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been subjected to, according to a report from 2019. During the most intense lockdown periods of the pandemic, there are strong indications that number dramatically increased. Only at the centre, they received an increase of 200% in number of cases.
Many women who seek help are in a rough condition.
“You can see it in their faces, that they have been through a lot. We want to help them put themselves first. And above all, we want them to know that they are not alone—that there is someone who will stand next to them, be with them and empower them. Many women for the first time feel that they aren’t alone when they meet us,” says Sabina.
She goes on explaining that when she supports a client of the centre, she often accompanies them to court, writes all legal documents that need to be presented and explains the procedures in a way that non-lawyers can understand. But perhaps most importantly, the centre also acts as a bridge between victims/survivors and relevant institutions in society.
“Sometimes it’s much easier and quicker for them to get the service they need if we, as an organisation, take the call than if they are asking for help on their own.”
Working with cases of domestic violence isn’t without its risks. Abusers can sometimes become violent, seeking out those who are involved as advisers in a legal process.
“A partner to a client once came here, in front of the office, when I was alone,” says Sabina.
She was on the phone with the client who was at the centre for social welfare.
“He thought that his partner was inside and shouted at me from the outside. He was very abusive and threatened to break in. I managed to distract him by talking which calmed him down and was able to lock the door from the inside,” says Sabina.
When asked if she wasn’t scared, Sabina shakes her head.
“In the moment, I wasn’t scared, just focused on making sure he didn’t get inside, because I thought he would smash the whole place. That kind of shiver comes afterwards when it is all over.”
Kvinna till Kvinna has supported women’s rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1993. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in 1995 but left behind a traumatised society. On paper, the equality legislation is progressive, but its implementation is patchy. Women earn less and few are appointed to decision-making positions in politics. Violence against women is also widespread. The Bosnian women’s movement works to promote peace, establish accountability for war crimes and end violence against women. Kvinna till Kvinna supports several partner organisations working with hotlines, shelters and legal assistance for women who are survivors/victims of domestic violence.