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Activists walked with white umbrellas, symbolizing protection from bad weather and bad times. The banner reads: “We demand that the suffering of women in war is not forgotten”. Photo: Emir Burlovic.
Activists walked with white umbrellas, symbolizing protection from bad weather and bad times. The banner reads: “We demand that the suffering of women in war is not forgotten”. Photo: Emir Burlovic.

Long-awaited spotlight on war victims

Over 200 women marched through Sarajevo to the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina today, to put focus on women’s sufferings during the war. What women were subjected to has to date mostly been ignored. To change this, the activists demanded the creation of an annual Memorial day for women victims.

“While walking to the Parliament building, we could hear female citizens saying ‘Ah, this is to remember women victims of war. Finally!’ and they joined in,” says Belma Becirbasic, Senior Program Officer for The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who participated in the march.

The action at the Parliament was the culmination of a two-year-process, where women activists have been trained in working with transitional justice and facing the past. They have then been out in local communities throughout the country, sharing this knowledge and methods with other women, and invite them to tell their stories.

Peace with women’s faceWomen in 12 towns took part in workshops on dealing with the past, and trained in concrete ways to work with peace building on a local level.

Every workshop also included a local peace action, like advocating for changing names of public institutions or streets, or commemorations of events related to sufferings during the war.

The aim is fort the joint group to continue on as a strong voice of women for peace on the national level, as well as participants working in their local communities. “For the first time, women have been recognized as an important factor in peace activism, which before exclusively was a field for male activists,” says Radmila Zigic.

Peace with women’s faces is the first mass-mobilization of activists from women’s non-governmental organisations [NGOs] in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 200 women from different parts of the country have been involved – also politicians, journalists, academics and educational workers,” says Radmila Zigic. Her organisation Lara has run the initiative together with the organisation Horizonti – one from each of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two political entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. It was funded by Kvinna till Kvinna.

Justice and reconnection

”The challenge of dealing with the past involves how to bring war criminals to justice, how to serve justice to victims and survivors and how to reconnect a destroyed society. We opened up questions of how women have been excluded from the collective cultural memory and how gender has affected justice in the aftermath of the war. We talked about the extent of sexual violence against women that took place, as well as other forms of women’s sufferings. It is important that this dialogue put aside national divisions and focused on what we as women had to go through and the terrible consequences it has had,” says Radmila Zigic.

Between 10,000 and 30,000 women in Bosnia and Herzegovina were subjected to sexual violence during the war, but nearly no perpetrators have been brought to justice. When women are invisible in the official peace process, so are often these issues.

According to Radmila Zigic, in Bosnia and Herzegovina women are excluded largely because of the traditional division of male/female roles in society, one of the outcomes being that women take very little part in the governing of the country.

”Women and children who have been exposed to sexual or any kind of violence during the war, can get satisfaction and understanding only through the active role of women. Building a lasting peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina is impossible without dealing with the past and rejecting the value systems that produces war and national division. It can only be built with women participating at all decision-making levels,” says Radmila Zigic.

Help across nationalities

During her involvement in Peace with women’s face she has been all over the country and talked to many women. One event that especially touched her took place at a workshop held in Bosanska Gradiska, a small town near the border of Croatia.

”There were women of different nationalities, telling their personal stories about how their neighbours, no matter what nationality, had helped them survive difficult situations during the war, even saved lives. It was very emotional. The first war victims in this town were three women killed by a grenade while at the hair salon – one Croat, one Serb and one Bosniak. We decided to initiate the placing of a memorial plaque with their names at the place were they were killed. Months have passed since I heard this story, but I still can’t forget it.”

Malin Ekerstedt

Updated in: 2016-06-22