Women Prisoners in Kosovo Share Their Stories

Shqipe Gjocaj

‘When a man kills someone, it’s manhood. When a woman does the same, it’s called tragedy’

Security was tight at Kosovo’s only prison for women, a fortress of barbed wire and concrete surrounded by fields some 20 kilometres south of Pristina. No bags or cameras allowed. Holding just my notebook and pen, I walked with a guard through the yard and into the compound.

Kosovo’s only prison for women is seen against a sea of green in the municipality of Lipjan, south of Pristina. It houses 33 female inmates, including 17 convicted of murder. Photo: Shqipe Gjocaj

The Correctional Center for Women and Minors in the municipality of Lipjan is home to 33 women inmates, who have a building to themselves alongside various facilities for boy offenders. Sleeping two to a cell, it houses women convicted of crimes ranging from theft and corruption to trafficking and murder. Seventeen are doing time for murder. 

In a stuffy room strewn with old chairs, I met a prisoner they called “the minor”. She’s 20 and is preparing to take her high school exams after two-and-a-half years of studying behind bars.

She was 17 when convicted of conspiring in the brutal murder of a call centre employee she helped lure to his death — for a paltry 200 euros. Her boyfriend and another man did the killing. “I was there,” she said. As adults, the men were sentenced to 25 years. As a minor, she got nine.

“My childhood was a catastrophe,” she said, describing years of abuse by her father, whom she later forgave. In Kosovo, the bonds of family loyalty are often strong. Even when they lead to disaster.

“Families must never neglect their children. If you don’t protect her, she’ll be used by men and eventually end up in prison.”

Her hair still wet from the shower, a 45-year-old inmate came into the interview room to tell her story. She’d been in an arranged marriage, she said. It only lasted five months.

“He used to beat me, torture me, and provoke me with anonymous calls and messages. One day, it happened.”

By which she meant she killed him.

Space is tight in the women’s compound, so prisoners aren’t segregated by age, seriousness of crime or any other classification. Petty criminals share cells with murders.

Some women I spoke to complained of having to live alongside “the mad woman”. Officers had another name for her: “the trafficked one”, even though she was a convicted trafficker herself.

According to her account, she was 13 when her half-brother started raping her. He then trafficked her into the sex trade, for seven terrible years. She showed me scars on her arms from the men she was sold to. She said they punished her for the slightest sign of unwillingness to indulge them.

At the age of 35, she was convicted of trafficking a teenage girl she met at a housing shelter. Like most of the women I interviewed, she protested her innocence. 

Speaking in a quiet, pained voice, she admitted her struggles with mental health: “I shouldn’t be here. I have been living with psychiatric therapy for 11 years now. I should be in hospital getting mental treatment. There are moments I go mad. I scream and shout because I hear voices and I see men with knives attacking my baby girls.”

In all, I interviewed eight women at the prison. Hearing the way they spoke about each other, it was clear many had developed friendships, no matter the crimes, no matter their backgrounds. You might almost call it solidarity.

Most lit up when asked about the future, when they could get on with making something of life on the outside.

Going through the women’s files, the same themes came up again and again: difficult childhoods, domestic violence and sexual abuse, poverty, illiteracy. But there seemed to be something more – an extra weight of stigma in a fiercely patriarchal society.

“When a man kills someone, it’s manhood. When a woman does the same, it’s called tragedy,” said one inmate, condemning a mindset common in Kosovo.

One of the women officers put it another way. “A female manages to put the devil in a bottle,” she said, complaining that working with the inmates was mentally exhausting. She was quoting an old Albanian saying suggesting that women’s nature is inherently manipulative. 

Five minutes after my last interview, the cells started emptying. It was time for sports.

Shqipe Gjocaj is a freelance journalist who specialises in human rights. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, she is investigating gender issues in the justice systems of Kosovo and elsewhere.

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Shqipe Gjocaj

Shqipe Gjocaj is a blogger and feminist activist in Kosovo.