Sexual violence in Bosnia: how war lives on in everyday life

Rape has been recognized as a war crime in international and Bosnian law, but women survivors seldom receive the reparation they are owed. Meanwhile, persistent male violence makes daily life in Bosnia-Herzegovina a battleground for many women.

Cynthia Cockburn
28 November 2013

When does "post-war" become a time that truly merits the name "peace"?  Eighteen years after the (so called) Dayton Peace Agreement brought the armed conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina to a close, many women and girls have yet to see this hope fulfilled. The guns may be silent now, and the armies de-nationalized, but the majority of an estimated twenty thousand women, and not a few men, who were subjected to rape during the war are still far from achieving the justice and reparation they need if they are to put the trauma behind them and rebuild their lives.

Recently, two hundred women gathered in the Bosnian city of Zenica to review the current situation for women survivors of sexual violence inflicted during the nationalist aggressions of the 1990s that tore Yugoslavia apart. The conference was hosted by Medica Zenica Women's Therapy Centre (BiH) and medica mondiale (Germany) to mark their two decades of support for women. Medica was founded in 1993 through the inspired intervention of a young Italian-German gynaecologist, Monika Hauser. Appalled by the breaking news of mass rape, she came to Bosnia, formed a partnership with local professional women, and raised funding and organizational support for this facility for survivors. Straight away, even as the fighting continued around them, Medica Zenica began offering medical, psychotherapeutic and social care to women and children - including many babies conceived in rape. Back home in Cologne, Monika Hauser and other women simultaneously established medica mondiale, a nucleus from which have since sprung therapy centres in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Liberia and other war-stricken countries. At this gathering, Monika was present, as founder and executive member of the managing board of medica mondiale, alongside Medica Women's Therapy Centre director Sabiha Haskić-Husić, to welcome the return of many old-timers to Zenica to commemorate their twenty years of achievement.

There were successes to be proud of, for sure. We recalled that it had been the anger and courage of Bosnian women in speaking out about the mass rape being committed, notably by soldiers of the Bosnian Serb army and those of the Croat nationalist forces, that had brought worldwide attention to an issue that had escaped public scrutiny after earlier wars. This time the world's media listened. Women's activism had contributed to getting the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) established at The Hague as early as 1993, and eventually winning its recognition of rape as a war crime. Subsequently, women's organizations had helped women bring cases to the Bosnian courts, at state, entity and cantonal level. In 2006 a Federal law was enacted that conferred on women rape survivors the status of civilian war victims, without the requirement of proving the infliction of further physical or psychological injury, and entitling them to regular, if small, welfare payments. This valuable piece of legislation had been won through the sustained activism of Medica and other women's NGOs, with support from a handful of women politicians and international agencies.

The tone of the presentations and discussions at the conference however was not celebratory. Getting a law onto the statute book is one thing, getting it implemented is another. Gabriela Mischkowski, a co-founder of medica mondiale, has been monitoring and analysing the judicial process at international and national level. She told the conference of two outstanding problems. The first is actually getting a multitude of still-unheard cases to the courts for prosecution. The second is that legal procedures need changing so that women who are willing to step forward and testify are treated not as victims in need of protection but as witnesses, possessed of agency and empowered to look after their own interests. 

Gorana Mlineravić, a researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies in the University of Sarajevo, has also been monitoring court cases. She stressed the importance, and the difficulty, of ensuring anonymity for those women witnesses who have reason to fear exposure will lead to their social marginalization and rejection. While a woman may testify in the criminal court without disclosing her name publicly, to get the compensation that is her due she must subsequently apply to the civil court, where her full identity will be disclosed. Another problem, Gorana told us, is that convicted perpetrators of war-time rape are currently being moved from secure to 'open' prisons, with access back into communities in which they know their victims, and are known by them.

'The courts are part of the patriarchal system', Gorana said. 'Yes, we got rape recognized as a war crime. But since then things have not gone smoothly. This is a misogynist and patriarchal society, and twenty years after ICTY was set up, here in Bosnia the momentum has failed. We still can't make the law work for women in Bosnia without a struggle'. In theory women survivors are entitled to a small monthly stipend, medical help, legal aid and priority in employment and housing. But, in a country with a flat-lining economy, the provision is often simply not forthcoming. Many women besides are disqualified. If you are living in the anomalous Brćko District or in the Republika Srpska (the Serb entity, 49% of the state's territory) the law does not cover you. Besides, you may not claim if you have lived for three months outside the country - a rule that automatically deprives of their right to assistance the many who sought refuge abroad.

Midway through the conference a brief and unexpected interjection by a woman who was herself a rape survivor drove home everything the 'experts' had been saying, and it reduced many to tears. It was a hand-written letter, on a scrap of paper, read aloud on behalf of its author, who was in fact in the room among us, but who wished to remain invisible. She had chosen to write 'because I don't have the strength to speak'. Her letter depicted the conditions today of herself and other war-time rape survivors in her village, near Gorazde. 'I wrote this at the break of dawn... in the silence of my room. I was thinking a lot about what had been said yesterday.... As we celebrated last night, thousands of women victims probably spent a sleepless night thinking about how to survive tomorrow, cursing their destiny...' You all talk about rights and justice for victims, she wrote (and here I paraphrase). But the reality of everyday life among the women in my village simply doesn't reflect this. To get any of our rights we have to go from one institution to another, explain over and again who we are, expose our painful past, and even then we seldom obtain our due. A lot of us don't have proper housing, we are unemployed, we don't have the means to educate our children beyond primary school. A lot of us live in big families that depend entirely on our meagre benefits. Some women become suicidal in these circumstances. I plead with you, she wrote, humanists and activists that you are, to make yet more effort to help release women war victims from the shadow in which we're still imprisoned. Until we're safe and secure we continue to be not only victims of war but victims of peace as well.

Madeleine Rees was present at the conference. She had been representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sarajevo just after the war, and had been well positioned to observe the way the Dayton Peace Agreement and the subsequent involvement of the international institutions had privileged what she called 'the masculine narrative of war', had focused attention on demobilizing male combatants and prosecutors of the conflict, failed to acknowledge the full nature of the harms inflicted on women, and done too little to involve women in the peace-building process. Underpinning sexual violence in war is the perennial misogyny of a deeply gendered society and political economy. She said, 'There's no such thing as redress for sexual war crimes'. However, she went on, reparation - that is something that might and should be possible. What would it mean? In the first place an apology, an acknowledgment of guilt by governments, by those in authority. Secondly, justice - that every crime be effectively investigated, every perpetrator prosecuted, every crime punished. Thirdly, there must be compensation to those individuals who survived sexual violence as well as other kinds of injury, but also adequate state expenditure on health and housing, schools and jobs, so that women can participate fully in society.

At one point in the discussions, Monika Hauser said, 'We must stop seeing this as a women's problem. It's a man's problem. If men didn't rape we wouldn't have to gather here today. Women live in a culture of constant threat of rape... We need to draft a vision for an equal society'. This was one of the few and brief moments in the two days of intense talking that the uncomfortable reality of contemporary sexual and domestic violence was brought to view. There is an anomaly here, it seems to me. Medica Women's Therapy Centre as a campaigning NGO is fiercely pursuing justice for women war victims. But in support mode, day to day, its secure refuge, its drop-in facilities, counselling and training workshops, are filled by women, girls and children who have been subject to abuse by men, not soldiers in a 20th century war, but 21st century civilians in towns and villages. Men on the street today, men in the home.

What Monika Hauser's remark made me see is that, yes, it's right and necessary to have regard to a continuum of suffering - that injuries inflicted in war are felt long after war ends. But, in addition, I feel we need to pay attention to another kind of continuum, the continuum of male violence that spans peace and war. Men in our patriarchal societies have a perennial sense of entitlement to women's bodies. They are brought up, even in the most peaceful of times, to identify manhood with a readiness to exercise authority over women and to wield force, against women and other men. In war-time they are further trained, and rewarded, for the practice of wounding, raping, killing. Often this experience traumatizes men as well as their victims. And it shapes their behaviour after war, for the disposition to violence is not readily put aside with demobilization.

When women knock on Medica Zenica's door today they are seeking refuge from husbands, lovers, fathers, sons and total strangers. Some of these perpetrators are war veterans. But others are too young for that. Rather, they have learned their violence in the way young men in all our countries learn it - 'toughened up' in the school playground, watching the daily news, playing video games. The title of our conference was Working Towards Dignity. As Monika put it, 'the struggle we wage for the dignity of women war survivors has to be recognized as also a struggle for our own'. And that means whatever country we live in, and whether they call our times war, postwar or peace.

Read more 50.50 articles published during 16 Days: activism against gender violence




Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData