National Assembly Deputy Speaker Elvira Kovacs took part in the conference “National dialogue on the protection of children from sexual exploitation and abuse – coming out of the shadows”.
The following is the National Assembly Deputy Speaker’s speech in its entirety:
"Ladies and gentlemen,
Violence against children (and women) has, for centuries, been accepted as the right of "male heads of families" to raise their offspring and discipline their wives as they see fit. Democratic societies around the world have been introducing gender equality and zero-tolerance policies for violence against women and children one step at a time. Sexual violence and child abuse were taboo political topics until a few years ago, and not only in these areas.
In 2010, the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia adopted the Law on the Confirmation of the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse. In the Republic of Serbia, ratified international agreements should be implemented immediately. However, in the practice of domestic authorities, they are applied directly in a negligible number of cases, which imposes the obligation to the state authorities to harmonise the national legislation with international norms and standards. The introduction of new solutions is slow, but it is happening.
The National Assembly’s Women's Parliamentary Network (WPN), the Government of the Republic of Serbia, its Ministry of Education, civil society and especially the world-renowned Incest Trauma Centre - Belgrade, were the ones that took the lead in our region.
At the initiative of WPN and the Incest Trauma Centre, the Criminal Code was amended - the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against children was abolished. Serbia is the second country in Europe, after the UK, to have righted this great injustice by amending the Criminal Code in 2013 and putting an end to the statute of limitations for sexual offenses. What does that actually mean? This means that a victim of sexual violence can file a criminal complaint against the rapist at any age. Before the amendment, the statute of limitations for a sexual offense was 6 years.
In 2013, we adopted “Marija’s Law" - Act on special measures for preventing the commission of sex crimes against minors, which, among other things, stipulates that these criminal offenses have no statute of limitations and introduces a register of persons convicted of these crimes.
On 25 September 2015, the Women's Parliamentary Network, in cooperation with the Incest Trauma Centre, held a round table where the results of the first National Study on the social problem of sexual abuse of children in the Republic of Serbia were presented.
It is important to note that elementary school students first turn to their parents, and high-school students, if they decide to take the step to confide, turn to a friend. Of the two-thirds of children who tell what happened to them, in more than half of the instances nothing is done about it, while only seven percent of the people the children confide in report the case to the competent services.
In 2016, research conducted by the Incest Trauma Centre showed that in 88% of cases, children who suffered sexual abuse are questioned in the courtroom, allowing the defendant to directly question the child, in 21% of cases children are questioned in chambers, and only in 4.7 % of cases in specially equipped rooms intended for children's statements.
In 2016, an Initiative was launched for - supervision by the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia over the implementation of legal measures to prevent the retraumatisation of children who have suffered sexual violence, - adopting protective measures such as removing the perpetrator from the family household, - reducing the number of child hearings during the criminal process procedure because the current practice is to interrogate the child 5 or more times.
The Initiative also endorses the motion that the proceedings be reduced to a maximum of 12 months, which otherwise takes 3 years and 3 months on average in the Republic of Serbia, and that the ban on the dissemination of information that may endanger the identity of the child-victim, especially the release of that information to the media, be implemented.
The Ombudsman’s 2019 Report (published in March 2020) states that despite the existence of legal provisions for the protection of children from retraumatisation in the case of sexual violence, the practice is such that children are questioned multiple times and are not protected from direct encounters with suspects. The institution notes that the legal norms in this area are not fully aligned with the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, or with the Ombudsman’s initiatives to amend the Criminal Code.
The research results show that children have basic, though not sufficient, information about exploitation and its manifestations. The fact that the media and peers are their main source of information is a big problem, which on the one hand shows that the state has not done enough to make the necessary information available to children in an adequate way and on the other indicates that preventive programmes should be organised through peer education because children feel more free to talk about this phenomena and problems with their peers than with adults.
The essence of the special criminal protection of minors is based, first of all, on: the social need to react more effectively to the endangerment and/or injury of persons at the earliest age categories, i.e. on the fact that in many situations, due to their specific age and psychophysical development, these persons are much more vulnerable than adults.
And of course, we must not forget that a large number of incidents happen via the Internet.
Children do not have their own voice in the public and political arena. For their safety, health, opportunities in life, parents are the first people who are responsible, the public to some extent, especially the education system, and above all we, who shape laws and policies, as the last and first line of their defence.
Serbia is a country where the parliamentary majority, with its work in the field of gender equality and violence prevention, has shown that there are values that have become a civilisational consensus that all democratic people stand for. Gender equality, zero-tolerance for violence against women and children, putting the best interests of children first, are an essential part of that civilisational consensus.
And in the new, XIII legislature, we are ready to cooperate, namely the Committee on the Rights of the Child as the working body that considers the reports of the relevant Ministry, the Ombudsman, and proposes conclusions related to this issue to the Government of the Republic of Serbia".