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‘Many abuse victims don’t know rights’

Family lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic wants to draw attention to the vulnerable legal situation of domestic abuse victims. Photo: Jason BorgFamily lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic wants to draw attention to the vulnerable legal situation of domestic abuse victims. Photo: Jason Borg

Battered and bruised, both physically and psychologically, a woman flees her marital home to seek refuge from domestic abuse in a shelter, taking her children with her.

Despite having filed a police report, a protection order is still to be issued, leaving her vulnerable and insecure.

Her husband forcefully takes the children away, using them as a pawn to lure her back – and because no court order has yet been issued, the police cannot do anything.

This is one of the situations which family lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic is striving to draw attention to. The 35-year-old is in the process of setting up a voluntary organisation called Women’s Rights Foundation.

Through her foundation, Dr Dimitrijevic will offer victims of domestic abuse free legal advice and initial free legal assistance.

“Victims often don’t understand what their rights and options are. They would need the help of a lawyer for a variety of matters, such as maintenance, care and custody and the filing of court applications. Their position needs to be regularised.

Why should the victim be the one to leave while the perpetrator is sitting comfortably in his own home?

“And at that point in time, they would be feeling lost and unprotected, with the world crumbling around them.”

Dr Dimitrijevic will be visiting victims in an environment of their choice where they feel safe and secure. The dedicated lawyer, who is married to a Serb and is mother to three children, admits that she never switches off her mobile and answers calls from distressed clients even late into the night.

She also has a number of suggestions up her sleeve.

“When a victim files a report, he or she normally heads straight for refuge. Why should it be like that? Why should the victim be the one to leave the house while the perpetrator is sitting comfortably in his own home?

“If there is a clear complaint, then the perpetrator should be the one removed. A temporary protection order should be issued automatically. Then the court can later review the case and decide whether it’s needed or not.”

Dr Dimitrijevic believes psychological assistance is imperative.

The service is available but is hampered by a long waiting list.

“It’s extremely important. They need to get stronger, to find themselves and to start believing in themselves. I tell them: ‘I’ll fight for you but I need you to be on board’.

“Sometimes my client is strong in the morning, only to crumble in the evening and drop everything.”

She believes that all domestic abuse reports filed at police stations should be fed into a centralised unit tasked solely with domestic abuse reports. Greater sensitivity training among some members of the corps is also needed.

“I’ve met police officers who were fantastic. Unfortunately, you do tend to come across some, especially junior officers, who need greater sensitivity training in dealing with vulnerable victims.”

The Women’s Rights Foundation will also be catering for an even more invisible group of people – victims of human trafficking.

Throughout her experience as a lawyer so far, Dr Dimitrijevic has never met a Maltese victim – but she has come across a number of migrants who were brought to Malta under false pretences and forced to prostitute themselves.

One particularly heart-wrenching story involved a 14-year-old African migrant she befriended who had ended up in Malta after her ‘good friend’ sent her abroad, promising her a good education in Italy.

After the girl was released from detention, she found another (much older) migrant waiting for her, who took her under his wing and became her ‘boyfriend’.

The innocent girl was smuggled into another European country, where she was forced to prostitute herself. She managed to escape after a few months.

“She got a lucky break. Others unfortunately aren’t as fortunate.

“If Maltese victims of domestic violence find it hard to speak up to the authorities, you can imagine how difficult it is for these migrants to speak up, where they’re in a foreign country they’re not legally authorised to stay in.”

Dr Dimitrijevic cites two of her clients as being of great inspiration. Despite the hardships they went through, they’re now settled down, got degrees and set up businesses.

“That’s why they need support – to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Victims wishing to contact Dr Dimitrijevic may do so by calling 7970 8615. A website on the foundation will be set up shortly.

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