Zenica, Bosnia
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Confined to her home, it took Mary three decades of relentless marital abuse - violence, humiliation, isolation and control - before she finally broke cover and rang Bosnian police.

Officers dismissed her story as trivial.

"One policeman even told me: 'So what, I also slap my wife sometimes,'" said Mary, from the safety of a shelter for women and children in the central Bosnian city of Zenica.

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Senior police inspector Sanja Sumonja in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on 27th November. PICTURE: Cormac O'Brien/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Mary had been locked indoors and slapped around for years, pelted with beer bottles, drinking glasses and even forced to stand on one leg to amuse her husband's drinking buddies.

Contact with the outside world was strictly forbidden so the call she made for help in 2011 was a bold breach of rules.

"Most families think that everything that happens inside the family needs to stay in the family."

- Sabiha Husic, the head of Medica Zenica, a women's rights group running a shelter for abused women in Zenica.

"He used to forbid me to go out," recalled the 56-year-old, who declined to give her real name.

"I would run away, I would hide...I hid everywhere...At my neighbours' houses, in their basements...Horrible things followed."

Almost one in two Bosnian women have experienced some form of violence, mostly at the hands of their own partners, according to a 2013 United Nations-backed survey.

Yet only about five per cent of those seek help, the study said.

"Most families think that everything that happens inside the family needs to stay in the family," said Sabiha Husic, the head of Medica Zenica, the women's rights group running the shelter.

Some officers even advise victims to give their partners a second chance, ranking family unity above safety, said Husic.

Almost one in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner, according to the United Nations.

Mary said it took five years after her call even to find a supportive officer - a woman - who then booked her into the shelter, where she found legal and psychological help.

Now a group of female police officers have launched a formal initiative to ensure women like Mary get better, quicker help and the perpetrators get punished.

The team has been training fellow officers on how to handle domestic violence cases, while also waging a wider battle from within male-dominated law enforcement for a more equal society.

"Domestic violence has not been treated as enough of a serious crime but we want to raise the level," said Sanja Sumonja, who runs the initiative in the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia's two autonomous regions.

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A room in Medica Zenica, a safe house for survivors of domestic abuse in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina on 26th November. PICTURE: Cormac O'Brien/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Last year, the European Union said laws against gender-based violence were broadly in place in Bosnia but implementation was poor, with protective measures rarely issued and support for victims falling short.

Police training began in 2015, with women training fellow officers - men and women alike - about how best to interact with abuse victims, Sumonja told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Focus is then put on investigative work.

If detectives are sloppy, prosecutors have to rely on victim testimony, which is no guarantee of success, Sumonja said at police headquarters in the city of Banja Luka.

Abused women often depend on their partners for money so after filing the first complaint, many turn tail and ask police to drop charges or recant their testimony, she said.

"We do not want to be in position where it is left to the victim to decide about the case."

- Senior police inspector Sanja Sumonja

Witnesses are also hard to come by as few want to meddle in what they see as their neighbours' affairs, so police reports are key to secure the convictions that activists say are essential to deter further violence.

"We do not want to be in position where it is left to the victim to decide about the case," said Sumonja, who worked on domestic violence cases as an inspector for 15 years before moving onto to organised crime.

From crying children to broken furniture, officers are told to note down every little detail. "If we do not write it, it's like it didn't happen," she said.

With a glut of firearms from the Bosnian War still in circulation, officers are also told to seize any weapons they can find at the site.

Since the two policewomen networks were started in 2011 and 2012, about 1,000 police officers have undergone training.

Over the same period, the number of domestic violence cases in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnia's other autonomous region, has remained steady at almost 900 a year - but arrests have gone up 46 per cent to 440 in 2018.

Authorities in Republika Srpska did not provide figures.

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Senior police inspectors, Marina Zovic (right) and Suvada Kuldija (left) during training for police officers on domestic violence response in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on 28th November. PICTURE: Cormac O'Brien/Thomson Reuters Foundation

The battle to end domestic abuse is harder to win in a society where gender stereotypes run deep and men dominate.

"If we want to create equal society, it means that we really need to have more women in positions where they can [have] power and opportunities to make decisions," said Husic the NGO worker.

Only one in three Bosnian women are in work, compared to 46 per cent in neighbouring Croatia, according to the World Bank.

The police is no exception.

Women make up 15 per cent of the country's police force and work largely in the lower ranks, said Marina Zovic, a senior inspector in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She does not mince words about how men treat women at work.

"They see us as a weaker gender; they think that women don't have anything to do in the police, that they belong [at] home with children," said the 39-year-old.

Sitting at her Sarajevo desk overlooking a building still pierced with bullet holes from the war, Zovic laughed, recalling how suspects even took her for a secretary sometimes.

"I just laugh and move on," she said.

Launched with support from the UN Development Programme, the networks want more female officers, targeting potential recruits through campaigns in schools and public spaces.

Their efforts have helped double the share of women in law enforcement in the Federation from seven to 14 per cent, said Zovic.

In Republika Srpska, women now make up 17 per cent of police, compared to 30 per cent in Britain, 36 per cent of federal police officers in Australia and 16 per cent in Italy.

But it's still a long way to equality, said Zovic.

"You can't be promoted the same way men can, you have to work twice as much and even then some women never live to get what they deserved."