Lawyer Aida Ćosić finally feels that she is in the right place. Two and a half years ago she gave up her own practise to help women who have been subjected to violence—and she hasn’t looked back.
About an hour’s drive north-west of the capital Sarajevo lies Zenica. With just over 100,000 inhabitants in the area, it’s one of the bigger cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And right in the centre, not far from the river that runs through town, you find the office of Centar ženskih prava or Center of Women’s Rights—one of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s longstanding partner organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Center of Women’s Rights was founded in 1996, to help women exercise their basic human rights in the post-war period. To this day, they remain committed to providing direct support to women who need legal assistance and serve 1,000 women yearly. Raising awareness about domestic violence and advocating for change is also an important part of their work to serve the community.
The office space of Center of Women’s Rights is small and crowded but full of warmth. This is a committed team who are used to working long hours and with difficult issues.
Lawyer Aida Ćosić has been working at the centre for almost two and a half years. She decided to shift focus entirely after working ten years as a private lawyer, running her own law firm.
“The turning point for me came when I was defending a man who had had a relationship with a minor,” says Aida.
“We, the defence, were claiming that he wasn’t guilty of a crime, because the minor had consented to the relationship.”
She explains that to build the case, the team of lawyers she was part of had used manipulative constructions which took no consideration towards the young woman involved.
“Someone even made the claim that she had tried to frame him by inserting traces of his DNA into herself.”
The case left Aida uneasy. She felt that it was in no way in line with her values and pushed her to think long and hard about what she wanted to dedicate her life to.
“There were so many women who came to me for legal assistance, whom I couldn’t help because they didn’t have any money. Finally, I decided running my own firm wasn’t right for me.”
She had learned about Center of Women’s Rights, and how they offered free legal assistance to women, through colleagues who had worked there before. But it was only when she started working there that she understood the extent of the work they do.
“I have never for a moment regretted my decision. Working here has changed my view of women’s situation and the kind of assistance they need. And thank God that this centre exists. Seeing the difference we make, that’s what really drives me,” says Aida.
About 80% of the women seeking assistance at the centre have been, or still are, victims of violence. And perhaps that comes as no surprise, since 48% of women in Bosnia and Herzegovina have experienced some form of gender-based violence.
When asked about what kind of change she sees in the women she meets, Aida lifts her arm to show actual goosebumps. That’s how strongly she feels about the women she is helping.
“Let me tell you about a case we had during the pandemic. It was a woman who was a victim of domestic violence. She called me, at maybe 10 or 11 in the evening, which meant that there was a curfew in place. Her partner, with whom she had two minor children, had thrown them out of the house after a quarrel. She was out on the street in the cold, with her children, without proper clothing and breaking curfew law. The police came and she didn’t know what to say or do. That’s when she called me on Viber. I instructed her what to say to the police and what to do as a next step the morning after, when the relevant government institutions would start working with her case,” says Aida.
Center of Women’s Rights was able to help the woman get a restraining order. They also supported her through the legal process of securing half of the property and assets the couple had owned together.
When the woman later texted Aida, to thank her personally, Aida’s heart swelled.
“Even though we never actually met in person, I really felt that I had had a huge impact in her life,” says Aida.
The centre was kept especially busy during the pandemic when cases increased with 200%. Women who were locked inside with their perpetrators became desperate for help. The processes of leaving an abuser can be quite jarring—especially if you have suffered from physical, sexual, mental and economical abuse for years, which is often the case.
Aida finally felt that she was in exactly the right place.
“There is no money in the world that could replace the feeling that I can use my knowledge and ability to help people, especially women who are unable to pay for the support.”
She lights up at yet another memory:
“During the pandemic, we had a client who had been in a violent partnership for 37 years. 37 years! I went to court with her to help her file for divorce and when we succeeded, when everything was over, this lady who is 60+ was literally jumping with joy, saying ‘Free at last!’”.
She pauses for a second and then says:
“What we do is so little, but it means the world to them.”
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.