For Bosnian Women, No Justice—and No Seats

In the Balkan wars, women were targets. In postwar governments, they’ve been pushed out of sight.

Bosnian women flee Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Oct. 31, 1992.
Bosnian women carrying their belongings flee Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Oct. 31, 1992. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Both men and women suffer the consequences of wars, but conflicts and humanitarian disasters around the world tend to disproportionately affect women and children. Additionally, women’s voices are regularly excluded or ignored during peacemaking.

In the wake of political deals agreed between men, women tend to remain underrepresented in decision-making roles. This is clear from data compiled by UN Women and the Council on Foreign Relations showing that in major peace processes between 1992 and 2017, women made up just 3 percent of mediators, 3 percent of witnesses and signatories, and 9 percent of negotiators. The problem lies not just in the numbers, but in women’s influence on political decisions. Women first have to struggle for inclusion, then for the recognition of the benefits of it, and even then, they rarely have much political power to exert real influence.

The specific challenges that women face after the bloodshed has stopped is a whole different story. In my own country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, no woman was among the negotiators, mediators, or signatories of the internationally brokered Dayton agreement in 1995.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence, leading to a bloody war between 1992 and 1995 in which at least 100,000 people were killed. Of a prewar population of 4.3 million, 900,000 became refugees, and a further 1.3 million were internally displaced. Both the International Court of Justice and the United Nations war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague ruled that the slaughter of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces was genocide. Families of at least 7,000 missing persons still haven’t even found their loved ones to bury.

Today, 24 years after the war ended, there are many reasons why the country is still drowning in inertia, insecurity, and instability.

Fundamentally, the political structure that was set up by the Dayton Peace Agreement created arguably “the world’s most complicated system of government,” as the Guardian put it. It created two entities, Republika Srpska (populated mostly by Serbs) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (with mostly Bosniaks and Croats).

Multitiered, inefficient structures also include parliaments at state and lower levels, the self-governed Brcko District, and 10 cantons in the federation. The Dayton agreement affirmed ethnic power-sharing among Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats as three constituent peoples, “along with Others.” Jews and Roma, for example, don’t have the right to be an equal part of the tripartite presidency. The European Court of Human Rights ruled back in 2009 that Bosnia’s constitution is discriminatory.

It suits all nationalist elites to keep ethnic tensions alive, as it helps them remain in power. According to the most recent European Islamophobia Report, besides the continuation of the denial of genocide and war crimes by the Serb authorities, there is “a large increase in anti-Bosnian and anti-Muslim bigotry by the Bosnian Croat and Croatian political establishments and also by regional political actors.”In Bosnia and Herzegovina, no woman was among the negotiators, mediators, or signatories of the Dayton agreement in 1995.

In such a volatile environment, it’s not easy to find much of an audience interested in discussing gender issues or the peculiar problems that women have faced after war. This is both sad and disgraceful, particularly considering the atrocities and savageness many women survived in the 1990s.

Mass rape was used as a military tool—predominantly against Bosnian Muslims—alongside forced impregnations of women and other brutal forms of sexual violence. Today, there are still legal discrepancies with international standards, and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women recently recommended the amendment of the Bosnian Criminal Code and a definition of wartime sexual violence “including a specific definition of rape as a war crime and as a crime against humanity, in order to adequately reflect the gravity of the crimes committed.” But, in post-Dayton Bosnia, in which different narratives of the past dictate today’s realities, many rape survivors have had to fight with authorities to even get the status of civilian victim of war.

Moreover, as in many other countries around the world, sexual violence survivors in Bosnia still deal with additional stigmas in their communities. They also have little legal protection. Following the closure of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in December 2017, the war crimes trials were left to the national courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia. It all went downhill from there.

Rape and sexual assault cases were transferred to lower courts. “There have been cases when the surviving victim was a witness in the city where she survived sexual abuse and where her family members were killed. Witnesses have to meet the perpetrators’ relatives on a daily basis, and even though they are protected witnesses, their identities have been revealed,” Bakira Hasecic, the president of the Women Victims of War Association, said in a recent interview with Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.

In August, in response to a petition made by a Bosnian Muslim woman raped by a Bosnian Serb soldier in 1993, the U.N. Committee Against Torture made a decision for the first time ordering the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina to compensate the petitioner and provide her with a public apology and appropriate free medical and psychological help. It also ordered Bosnia and Herzegovina to set up a nationwide war crimes reparations scheme, including for sexual violence. That has not happened yet.

Since the war ended, despite important developments in combating violence against women and legally binding international conventions, the situation remains bleak. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) quantitative survey on violence against women in Bosnia and Herzegovina published this year found that 48 percent of women there have experienced some form of abuse, including intimate partner violence, nonpartner violence, stalking, and sexual harassment since the age of 15. And 25 percent of all women, almost twice the rate across the EU, believe that domestic violence is a private matter and should be handled within the family. That leads to underreporting of violence against women.

Besides harm to the victims, the whole society incurs the costs. A recent U.N. study suggests that the total estimated annual economic cost of domestic violence is $37.2 million between the costs of system of services and costs borne by survivors—making a real dent in Bosnia’s economy.Despite important developments in combating violence against women the situation remains bleak.

In general, among the women who experienced conflict in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, the OSCE found that nearly half of women had property seriously damaged or destroyed, nearly two-thirds of women had a spouse or family member who took part in the fighting, and for almost 48 percent it was not possible to find work. More than two in five had to flee their homes, and 24 percent of those fleeing conflict in Bosnia were unable to return—many remain permanently displaced.

Theoretically, there are gender equality mechanisms in place to address these issues. According to the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Article 2 prohibits discrimination on any grounds, including gender. Bosnia and Herzegovina has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and signed the Optional Protocol. The gender equality strategy is implemented via gender action plans, and the country’s most recent National Action Plan covers the period of 2018 to 2022.

Bosnia and Herzegovina also adopted a plan for the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which reaffirms the importance of involving women in preventing conflict and building peace. But the political will to implement and uphold what has been signed simply doesn’t exist.

So, despite the existing institutional structure for gender equality promotion at all levels of government, it is not happening. Even gender quotas are ignored. They were first adopted in 1998 and last updated in 2013. National legislation, Article 20 (1), requires equal representation of women and men in all branches of government, including legislative power, setting the minimum representation of at least 40 percent.

Yet from year to year, women have not had close to equal legislative and executive power. In the legislative term 2014 to 2018, just 24 percent of all members of parliaments were women. In the same period, out of 147 ministers in governments at all levels, only 17 percent were women. Political underrepresentation of women happens thanks in part to a semi-open ballot list system that is applied for elections for legislatures. But overwhelmingly traditional perceptions of gender roles are crucial, as the electorate discriminates widely based on a candidate’s gender. One 2017 study showed that over 40 percent of citizens believe that “men make better political leaders than women and should be elected rather than women.” And a UN Women Public Perceptions survey confirmed that the stereotype that women belong in the domestic sphere is widespread.

Those women who have bravely entered the political arena are taking a risky path. The violence against women engaged in politics is one of the biggest obstacles to their active participation.Reducing women to the role of mothers birthing soldiers for maintenance of the nation is a dead end.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy recently published a landmark survey that explores gender-based pressures faced by female politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among the respondents, two-thirds had won seats at a municipal, regional, or state parliament. The study revealed that 60 percent of the 83 participants said they had experienced some form of violence while engaged in politics, and that 46 percent of the politicians had experienced violence just because they are women. Perpetrators were both strangers or party colleagues and leaders. Prevalent psychological violence was mostly in the form of verbal and emotional abuse, as well as online violence, most commonly misogynistic and sexualized threats.

Zilka Spahic Siljak, a leading local gender studies scholar, emphasizes the immense impact of the predominantly masculine political environment in a country with patriarchal values. As she notes in her recently published book Bosnian Labyrinth, traditional social values and ensuing gender stereotypes impact everything, including the positions of women in high leadership.

Throughout the last war and ever since, Spahic Siljak has facilitated numerous peacemaking efforts by women of all ethnic, religious, or nonreligious backgrounds. Thanks partly to her advocacy of relying on religious messaging—for example inspirational stories from religious sources that believers can easily relate to—her efforts have slowly become recognized as a powerful tool for peacebuilding and promoting women’s roles in reconciliation in Bosnia.

Everybody, including political parties, media, and educational institutions, has a responsibility to create an environment in which a half of the country’s population feels safe and encouraged to fulfill their potential in the labor market or politics if they choose to do so. As Spahic Siljak has argued, continuing to reduce women to the role of mothers birthing soldiers for maintenance of the nation is a dead end. It will result in stagnating societies mired in the conflicts of the past, while sidelining many of the country’s most ambitious and best-educated citizens.

Until there are more women at the negotiating and decision-making tables sharing power with men, in Bosnia and Herzegovina and elsewhere, genuine political progress is unlikely.

Riada Asimovic Akyol is a doctoral candidate at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. Twitter: @riadaaa

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