From war-time rape to #metoo. Amina Hujdur works at the human rights organisation TRIAL International and gives us a break-down on why gender inequality is at the root of violence against women in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Close to the city centre in Sarajevo lies the office of TRIAL International in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Amina Hujdur, who works with communications, greets us at the gate downstairs and takes us up a few flights of stairs. The premises are small, but airy with high ceilings and several bright and winding rooms separated by tall glass doors.
TRIAL International is one of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organisations. They provide support to victims/survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in attaining justice and redress. They have been working in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2008. Apart from free legal assistance to victims of war, they also engage in strategic litigation, advocacy towards decision-makers and capacity building in the judiciary system.
Just like the rest of the world, violence against women is widespread in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Crimes are severely underreported.
“Here it is seen as a personal issue that should be dealt with in the home. But we—organisations working with survivors—know just how un-true that is. If you look into it, you understand just how much society impacts the levels of gender-based violence,” says Amina.
She recalls the #metoo wave which swept across the majority of the Western Balkans last year. The ignition was when Serbian actress Milena Radulović reported her high-school drama teacher, a famous producer, to the police. Her actions encouraged many women and girls to speak out.
“The public reaction was massive. In Bosnia and Herzegovina—as part of the Facebook group “I did not ask for it”—thousands and thousands of people spoke out about gender-based violence that they had been subjected to,” says Amina.
It was a milestone, exposing the sheer magnitude of an issue that was “swept under the rug,” as Amina describes it. On the one hand, the support was overwhelming. On the other, victims/survivors were questioned on whether or not they told the truth or to what extent their own actions played a part. In short: victim-blaming.
The same lack of support, and shame imposed on victims/survivors, can be found in the country’s history following the war in the 90s.
“During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, over 20 000 women, men and children were raped or subjected to sexual violence. The total staggering number, however, will probably never be confirmed, as a lot of survivors will never tell their story. Still to this day, many are questioned and judged by society,” says Amina.
It falls upon the victims/survivors to keep their story alive.
Amina takes us back to two years ago, when she visited the city Foča to mark the international day for elimination of sexual violence in war and conflict. Foča is one of the cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which some of the most atrocious crimes were committed.
“Together with a group of survivors, we visited Partizan sports hall. In that very sports hall, just about 30 years ago, women and girls were raped in groups and subjected to severe torture. Every year, they come back to the site that once brought them immense pain and trauma, stand before it and speak their truth,” says Amina.
She remembers looking up and seeing a large mural of the convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić—glorifying him and his image.
“People in town were chanting his name at us. And I remember thinking how that moment exemplifies our treatment of survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While convicted war criminals are in a sense glorified, survivors are the ones who are being shunned. A lot of the times, they are forced to carry the blame of the crimes they were subjected to, rather than the perpetrators,” says Amina.
Gender inequality increases the likelihood of conflict-related sexual violence. In studying the sexual violence committed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 90s, two main patterns emerge.
“In some cases, it was committed for opportunistic reasons by the military during the occupation of certain cities. Then it was often committed in an environment within the military that was filled with toxic masculinity and the notion that men and women really weren’t equal. Rape and sexual violence against women were considered norm and used as a way of control or domination,” says Amina.
The second pattern of sexual violence was a systematic use of rape as a weapon of war.
“Unfortunately, it’s the same notion of men and women as un-equal that lies behind this second pattern as well. That women are the ones who should be conquered and if you conquer the women of the opposing side, you inflict damage not only to the woman herself, but to the society as whole,” says Amina.
She further explains that the sheer atrocity of some of these crimes—genital mutilation and imposed pregnancies, for example—was all committed in a calculated way to severely damage women, their families and their societies. To create as much trauma for a group of people as possible.
“Understanding the magnitude of how sexual violence was used as a weapon of war during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina is really important. We, as a country, still need to provide adequate support to survivors. The violence they survived cannot be diminished. It is not enough to solely recognise someone as a survivor, to give them this recognition with our legislative system, the support must be holistic,” says Amina.
Perpetrators need to be prosecuted and survivors need medical care—often psychological, to treat traumas.
“Many survivors need a sense of justice; they need a verdict as a public acknowledgement of their sufferings. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to take accountability when it comes to our judicial process, in order to make sure that that happens,” says Amina.
Going forward, TRIAL International argues that the narrative surrounding war-time sexual violence shouldn’t be dictated by society, but by victims/survivors themselves.
“They can, and should take over, the narrative. Survivors do not want to be presented as mere victims, filled with this trauma and unable to function. They want to be presented as these brave women and men who to this day stand tall and are not ashamed and are speaking their truth. The reason why they do so is because they don’t want this to happen ever again and it’s important that we support survivor’s in sharing their stories,” says Amina.
She explains that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the reports of sexual violence committed there are devastating to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a country, but especially survivors.
“When the news of the war broke out, I was talking with survivors and I was brought to tears by how they reacted. They were all asking me ‘how can we support them?’ ‘How can we provide safe spaces for them?’ And if you look into it, many survivors have taken the opportunity to issue messages of public support and are still looking into ways of supporting women and men who are subjected to rape in Ukraine.”
Kvinna till Kvinna has supported women’s rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1993. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in 1995 but left behind a traumatised society. On paper, the equality legislation is progressive, but its implementation is patchy. Women earn less and few are appointed to decision-making positions in politics. Violence against women is also widespread. The Bosnian women’s movement works to promote peace, establish accountability for war crimes and end violence against women. Kvinna till Kvinna supports several partner organisations working to promote women’s rights and women’s position in society.