BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: The Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
The Guardian
Bosnia and Herzegovina
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

On July 11th, Remzija Delic will see her children again. For most of them it will be a long journey home - from Austria, the Netherlands and the USA. The family left after the war but every year they return to see their mother and remember their father. He was murdered with 8000 others in 1995, in a massacre later described by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as the worst crime committed on European soil since the Second World War.

In 2002 Remzija returned to rebuild what remained of the family home in Potocari, a small village nestled in misty mountain shadows, 6km north-west of the town of Srebrenica. "I love this house," Remzija says. "It is here that I brought my children into the world. My husband built it so I would never think to leave now." She returned alone, without a family and without a job.

When the Bosnian war ended in 1995 the Dayton Agreement was signed and the conditions for a multi-ethnic state were enshrined in the constitution. Today in Bosnia & Herzegovina, the institutional set-up remains the same. The country is split into two autonomous entities, each with their own constitution, and a third region, the Brcko District, is governed by local administration. The state is lead by a tripartite presidency, a chairmanship that rotates every 8 months, 13 jurisdictions, 130 ministers and 148 municipalities. The male dominated power struggle that continually plays out in this bureaucracy consumes approximately half of the state's GDP.

Maintaining equal ethnic representation of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs has been paramount to the peace-building process in Bosnia & Herzegovina. But in the meantime, has equal gender representation and the rights of ordinary women been neglected?

The constitution of Bosnia & Herzegovina abides by the highest level of internationally recognised human rights and explicitly recognises the principle of gender equality. In 2003, the Gender Equality Law was passed to advance gender equality at every level of the country's administration.

Many laws were amended to bring them into line with the new legislation, such as the Elections Law which now states that 30% of all candidates must be women. This was respected by all parties in the elections of 2010 and yet of the 488 officials elected, only 17.01% were women. Legislation, it seems, is not enough.

"We need an Angela Merkel" laughs Remzija. "The politicians here are almost all men and they do not get anything done. It is the women who do what they say they will do." But women are not being represented at the highest level and as a result, their issues are being neglected. In March 2012, Amnesty International published a report criticising the government for failing to honour its commitments to survivors of wartime sexual violence. The report highlights the political deadlock that continues at state level and a lack of political will on behalf of the newly elected government.

Instead, they commend the work of women's NGOs in Tuzla. One such organisation is Snage Zene, 'Women Power' in English. Its Director, Branka Antic Stauber, believes that traditional values are largely to blame. "Women are repressed from politics here – traditionally they should not be involved in decision making. Women must be aggressive and persistent if their voices are to be heard."

However, if political empowerment is a challenge, so too is economic empowerment. With one in four households headed by a woman, running for election is not generally a priority when food needs to be put on the table. But this is not always easy in a society in which nearly half of the potential labour force are out of employment. Of those who are in work, there are twice as many men as women.

With long-term unemployment such a chronic problem, self-employment can seem like the only viable option. Yet the 2009 UNDP National Human Development Report advises that starting a business in Bosnia & Herzegovina is more difficult than in any other country in the region.

"It comes down to tradition" declares Seida Saric, Director of Women for Women International in Bosnia & Herzegovina. "Our country has come from socialism. Entrepreneurship is not acceptable, and certainly not for a woman. If a woman starts a business that fails, the entire community will give her a hard time. Women are scared to death of failing. Legally, it is difficult, but socially, it is completely unacceptable."

When help arrives, it comes from women's NGOs. "We are playing the role of the state" remarks Seida. The organisation runs a year long programme that provides women with the business training and financial support they need to maintain their own economic livelihood and practise their rights.

It is a holistic approach that meets the challenges as they come. The traditional values of property ownership make it harder for women to negotiate a loan, so the NGO has set up their own microcredit foundation to do just that. As women have limited access to traditional business circles, Women for Women link their clients into the market, bringing customers to them.

Outside Remzija's house, a space has been cleared. It is reserved for the people who come to visit. She likes to sit on her porch, to gossip, to offer around baklava and the jam she makes. But the people she reserves this space for do not come to socialise; they come to organise. She hosts community group meetings and they lobby the council for change. She travels to cities for meetings of the Social Democratic Party, a multi-ethnic political party of which she is a member.

In 2006, she completed Women for Women's programme. Today, she has two greenhouses in which she grows an array of flowers, vegetables and herbs that she sells in her local community. She makes homemade jam, keeps more than 30 chickens and is now seeking a loan to purchase a cow.

Remzija remains optimistic about the future. "The war is still part of the present but things are changing. Women are becoming politically active." There is evidence for this at Women for Women International. When women begin their programme, only 21% have voted in local or national elections. By time they graduate, the figure has risen to 95%.

There is an ancient Bosnian proverb that says that 'a tree does not grow from the sky'. Though the growth will surely take many years and require persistent care, the women of Bosnia & Herzegovina hope that the seeds they have planted will continue to flourish.