In late August, two men left the bloodied and severely battered body of an 18-year-old woman in front of a hospital in Ferizaj, a town in southeast Kosovo.
Marigona Osmani was found to have been sexually abused and tortured for two days until she succumbed to her wounds. One of the two men recorded to have left the body by the hospital’s security cameras was her husband of two months.
The news of the murder and its particularly brutal nature sparked protests across Kosovo, from Ferizaj (also known as Uroševac) to the capital of Pristina.
In Ferizaj, protesters gathered on August 24 and symbolically threw red paint at the police officers in front of the local police station, shouting “police have blood on their hands.” The specific implication being that the authorities were culpable because of their inability to keep the offenders behind bars.
The two suspects, Osmani’s partner Dardan Krivaqa, 29, and Arber Sejdiu, 32, both have significant records of prior crimes.
Over a hundred offences
The two have been apprehended, with Krivaqa having been arrested after a nationwide manhunt. Prior to the murder, Krivaqa had a record of 135 offences, including rape, extortion, fraud, intimidation, robbery, physical assault, theft and stabbing a police officer.
Krivaqa’s hearing in front of the court has been postponed in the meantime, with medical reasons cited. Local media in Kosovo have reported that he was beaten by fellow inmates because of the murder.
The murder has sparked unprecedented levels of anger, especially among women, says sociologist and activist Aurela Kadriu, who participated in the August protests.
“When you are constantly threatened, you feel like you should react. I think it’s representative for many of the women living in Kosovo.”
“I’ve never felt it closer to me than these past few years that I can be killed for any sort of reason. The first two days after I read the news about the murder of this young woman, my muscles were all very tense, I was in a constant state of emergency,” Kadriu explains.
“You get into that mindset, as much as you want to fight it. As much as there are men you coexist with, that you live with,” she says, “you still see a potential killer in most men. I don’t think it’s a crazy thing to think because it’s so present and so possible.”
The question now is could Osmani’s murder represent a tipping point for Kosovan society? Women, certainly, have had enough, says Kadriu.
“If another case is reported like this, I feel like the outbreak of protests would be much uglier,” she says. “Because I and all the people, all the women who were a part of the last protests, we were like, ‘this is enough. This is it.’”
The country’s government is expected to react, and promises of work being done with no visible results are particularly exasperating.
“There are urgent steps, urgent measures that can be taken. Like announcing femicide as a national emergency because it is a national emergency at this point. This is not how a society should work, not what a society should be exposed to on a weekly or daily basis,” Kadriu believes.
More women in parliament - so where's the legislation?
Failure to curb violence against women in Kosovo is a result of decades-long institutional neglect, with most political leaders – almost exclusively men – failing to prioritise the issue.
After former president Hashim Thaçi resigned in November 2020, elections held in February saw the alliance between Albin Kurti and his party Vetëvendosje (or VV) and independent candidate Vjosa Osmani score an unprecedented victory, with 50,28 percent of the vote representing the largest margin of support won in any election since 1999.
The February elections saw more women enter the parliament, with the 30 percent quota easily surpassed in the voting. Of the 40 women MPs in the 120-person strong parliament, only nine were elected using a quota system within party lists – another first.
Osmani, who was elected president, became the second woman to hold the office — a precedent not only for Kosovo, but also for the rest of the region. PM Albin Kurti was also widely perceived as a breath of fresh air on the political scene which was mired by corruption for two decades.
But the change in power and a stronger presence of women in decision-making positions has not meant a change in policies, at least not so far. Having politicians attend protests, as justice minister Albulena Haxhiu did in August, is seen only as a symbolic act at a time when actions must go beyond that, explains Kadriu.
“Our anger, even if it is inherited anger, it’s gone beyond symbolism. Now we want something concrete, now we want something done. I feel like this kind of response to our resistance would have worked if it was 10 years ago, but now we are so angry and so furious that symbolism does not do it for us,” she said.
“I don’t want [politicians] joining me in the protest and occupying that space of mine as well. You should leave me my space to complain, my space to be angry and to ask for accountability and keep your place as the person to bring solutions and not join us in complaining about the problem,” Kadriu concludes.
These protests represent the first major backlash from the public since Vetëvendosje came to power. The party, whose full name is the Self-Determination Movement or Lëvizja Vetëvendosje, was borne from protests against the international administration of Kosovo by the United Nations starting in 1999.
For many years, they were front and centre at every protest and their own protests would amass tens of thousands – the largest crowds since those against the oppressive government of Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s.
Now the protest party is in power the shoe is on the other foot, with the protests being directed at them – the government.
One murder every three weeks
In the past ten years, women’s issues have become less of a rarefied topic of public debate. But the numbers are still striking.
According to a 2020 report by the Kosovo Women’s Network, at least 74 women were killed by their male partners or relatives from 2017 to 2020, making it around one murder every three weeks. In most of the cases, the victims were assaulted or abused prior to the murder.
The Balkan Investigative Research Network additionally found that the number of reported cases of domestic violence in Kosovo has been on the rise, from 1,541 in 2018 to 1,915 in 2019 and just over 2,000 in 2020.
Another survey conducted by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, in 2019 found that 66 percent of women in Kosovo have been victims of some form of violence from their male partners.
A lot of the violence stems from the fact that women in Kosovo, especially in rural areas, have fewer opportunities to independently determine their fate, from employment to owning property.
“Kosovo has a very progressive legal framework, both in its constitution and bylaws, that ensure the equal representation of women and men in all institutions and public offices,” says Lura Limani, a civil society activist.
“Yet women are still disadvantaged in Kosovo society, they lack job opportunities. A very small percentage of women are part of the formal labour market, and even fewer women are part of decision-making structures,” explains Limani.
“So we have 50 per cent of the population dependent on their partners or traditional family structures, which perpetuates traditional models of living and organising family life, which leave women closed off at home taking care of children and the elderly,” she said.
But Kosovo’s young population – with a median age of 30.8, it's the youngest in Europe – means that there is a new generation of those willing to fight for the rights of women.
“In the last couple of years, we have witnessed an exponential growth in the feminist movement,” Limani adds, “and not only with protests that are specifically a reaction to femicide, but also in general such as rallies on March 8.”
“Gender-based violence is no longer seen as just an issue that women should care about. This is a result of years of work by feminists as well as a drive by younger generations of feminists who have their own idea about what activism should look like and they go out on the streets and do it.”
But there is still a lot of work to be done, they say, and the next move is firmly in the hands of the institutions.
“The last string of protests in August had very concrete demands, and activists see the government as part of the problem if they don’t change their policies,” says Limani.
“Progressive government or not, if they are not going to directly deal with the fact that a rehaul of the justice system is needed – and not just for corruption – they’re not doing any of the things they’re saying on paper. This is time for radical action, not lukewarm statements,” she concludes.
Eurisa Rukovci, the founder of the publication Grazeta, the name of which is a portmanteau of the Albanian words for woman (pl. gra) and newspaper (gazeta), believes that the murder of Osmani made women feel like they are being left to protect themselves.
“The case that happened was so shocking,” Rukovci says. “It was painful to see what happened. The shock of the case led to a lot of women speaking out. Society tells women, especially patriarchal societies, that they’re to blame.”
The problem is so deeply entrenched that for most men in Kosovan society, the violence that women endure is still largely invisible, and the society in general lacks compassion beyond superficial statements of support.
“There’s a lot of influence from the patriarchal society and institutions, it’s a lot bigger than just protests and having a law. It’s about taking apart the mentality that nourishes violence, toxicity, and machoism that affect women in every field of their lives.”
“Men are not quite aware of it. There’s a point of view that’s missing, a missing experience because they don’t experience it. In patriarchal societies violence is so normalized that it’s legitimized by cultural norms,” Rukovci said.
“When people say ‘imagine if it was your daughter or your sister?’ Well, what if it wasn’t, can’t you just imagine it was a human? If you’re related you care, if not, then she deserved it.”