In the eight years since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, Kosovo has make great strides in domestic violence awareness. But, like the United States, it still struggles prevent further violence and to reach out to victims who have yet to come forward.

The issues of domestic violence and human trafficking were discussed at length this week, when a group of five delegates from Kosovo, along with a facilitator, traveled to La Crosse to meet with staff at New Horizons, and members of the law enforcement and the judicial systems. The eight-day visit was arranged by Carlene Roberts and Betty Kruck of the American Association of University Women, in partnership with the Open World organization, in an effort to share advocacy tips, legal advice and steps to implement them.

During the war for independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1998, women in Kosovo became victims of warfare, with rape, torture and human trafficking rampant. However, Rozelinda Hasani, state prosecutor of Pristina, Kosovo, says the country began to enact positive change within the next few years, as regulations and programs were formed to foster awareness of women’s rights.

The delegates met with representatives from the Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System coordinated response teams, learning about the trauma-informed care model for recognizing signs of abuse, as well as with Judge Ramona Gonzalez of the La Crosse Task Force on Human Trafficking. Additional stops included La Crosse County Family Court and a panel of UW-L students involved in campus-based anti-violence programs. On Tuesday, the Kosovo delegation spent a full day at New Horizons, La Crosse’s agency that helps victims of domestic violence.

In 2006, Kosovo had only one women’s shelter, named Liria. The country of 1.8 million now has seven shelters, as well as an additional facility specifically for human trafficking victims. In 2010, with the assistance of the United Nations, Kosovo became one of only a few areas in the Balkan Peninsula to pass a law against domestic violence.

“The punishment for abusers is more severe in Kosovo because it is regulated by law,” said Eron Prekzsi, a victim advocate in Mitrovica. “The reaction time to each case is shorter — we start prevention right away so the situation doesn’t escalate.”

“The sexual assault law is much stricter in Kosovo,” agreed Ann Kappauf, executive director of New Horizons. “But there are more options here for victims — we’re more advocate rich here in what we do to help these women. (Kosovo) is above us in some ways and behind us in some ways.”

While New Horizons offers on-site services such as legal and resource advocacy, women in Kosovo are escorted off the premises by law enforcement or advocates to locate additional services.

According to Kappauf, New Horizons has a waiting list for the first time in 12 years, while Prekzsi reports there has been a slight increase in those seeking help in Kosovo as well, though he attributes the uptrend to an increased awareness of resources and Kosovo’s mandatory reporting rules.

“Back home the victim has no will — they cannot make the decision (to turn an abuser in),” Prekzsi explained. “Hospital and law enforcement officials report everything, and the state automatically takes the steps.”

Hasini expressed admiration of La Crosse’s family court system, a system not yet in place in Kosovo, while Isuf Jahmurataj, senior legal officer of Pristina, was inspired by La Crosse’s sizable community volunteer base and tireless advocates.

“I appreciate the spirit of volunteering with these services,” Jahmurataj said. “What you do in your community is so wonderful. The strongest impression for me is the way you analyze and approach the problem with patience and attention to detail.”

For Roberts, the appreciation was mutual.

“This is such a passionate group,” Roberts said of the delegates. “They’ve educated themselves and gained experience. They’re remarkable and incredibly accomplished, and we were so fortunate to meet them.”

“The sexual assault law is much stricter in Kosovo. But there are more options here for victims — we’re more advocate rich here in what we do to help these women. (Kosovo) is above us in some ways and behind us in some ways.” Ann Kappauf, executive director of New Horizons