Three decades ago, Duška Andrić felt a calling deep inside of her. A roar from suffering women that she just couldn’t ignore. In the midst of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she started working for women’s rights. She talked with us about what it takes to be a feminist and create change that lasts.
We meet at the office of one of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s longstanding partner organisations: Center of Women’s Rights in Zenica. An organisation which women human rights defender Duška Andrić also has been committed to for a long time.
In the early years of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, Duška became involved in Medica Zenica—which would later initiate the establishment of Medica Mondiale—an organisation founded by the German gynaecologist Monica Hauser. Ms Hauser was shocked by the mass rapes of Bosnian women during the war and set up a centre to support women and children suffering from war trauma.
Duška recalls “the rainy June” in 1993, when she first met with the women who sought help at Medica. She came to stay 15 years there. Throught that time, she was in contact with Center of Women’s Rights, which was established by a lawyer from Medica—a centre focused on legal aid, psycological support and political advocacy for women who had suffered violence and abuse.
Men’s violence against women, and the need to support women who were victims and survivors, came into gruesome light during the war.
“Yes, it was a war. Yes, rape was used as a weapon of war. And yes, it was motivated by political interests. But war rape has always been part of a women’s history — being survivors of rape. In all wars, thousands and thousands of years back, women have been seen as somebody’s goods that can be targeted for destruction and humiliation,” says Duška.
She wanted to spread the word about what was happening in the region at the time.
“I wanted to share the stories of women — what women had survived during the war. It felt like the third World War for me, much like many people feel now that the invasion of Ukraine is a fourth World War for Europe.”
When the war finally ended in 1995, people started talking about “getting back to business” and “doing something useful”.
“I said: ’No, I think I’m doing the most useful thing I can with my life.’ Everyone, myself included, thought I was joking when I said that I would ‘earn pension’ as a feminist activist,” says Duška.
Sure enough, there has been plenty of work to be done — and still is. Women need much of the same support today as they did after the war. The levels of violence are still high and women are still falling behind in terms of economic rights.
“Still today, in the 21st century, women are giving up their inheritage to their brothers. They are left with no property of their own and programmes for economic support often depend on that,” says Duška.
War propaganda is also still a huge part of Bosnian society. Everytime there is an election, tension between different groups rises. The political climate of rising traditionalism is also a contributing factor.
“People are still living with the consequences of war. And huge parts of the population, several generations, still remember the war. But my biggest worry is about the generation born after, because they hate for reasons they don’t even understand,” says Duška.
Even amongst younger generations, domestic violence is common, and in line with rising traditional values, women are fed the message that their job is to save their marriages at any cost.
“Women are still staying in violent relationships, regardless of laws that protect them, shelters or free legal assistance that are available —because the whole society thrives on double moral standards. On the outside, we have this modern society, but underlying is a patriarchical structure. I think you can relate to that in Sweden too,” says Duška.
Over the years, Center of Women’s Rights has developed their approach to create lasting change.
“Ten years after the war, we mainly worked directly with women and that was it. You might have cooperated with institutions to help women. Now, we are also trying to create systemic change by influencing these institutions, so that, in the end, we won’t be needed. We probably won’t succeed in our lifetime, but we are making small steps.”
The will to create durable change is what drives Duška in her activism. Her message to younger activists is to be patient.
“If you expect major changes happening in your lifetime, then this is not the job for you. This job requires a very patient person who is ready to make such small steps that they are almost invisible. But you are laying the ground for the next generation to follow. It’s sustainable, it will last after you are gone. And this is the kind of change that we want to achieve; the changes that will last after us, not only as long as we are here.”
One of the most important and rewarding parts about her job, according to Duška, is training professionals within public institutions. At seminars, they talk to judges, police officers, doctors and social workers about their prejudices to slowly change and sensibilise the system from within.
“Sometimes, professionals hide behind their roles and positions. But they are still human and I tell them: ‘Your attitude, emotions and prejudices are controlling you. If you don’t recognise that you are a patriarchical jerk, that part of you is going to influence your decisions unconciously’,” says Duška.
Meeting, and working with, women who had survived war rape in 90’s—hearing their roar of suffering—was a wake-up call for Duška.
“These women are still on my shoulders. They are with me in everything I do, especially related to war, because their stories never left me. The lifes of those women, the deaths of those women.”
She says that if you ever hear a call like that yourself: don’t cover your ears and don’t close your eyes.
“Hearing those screaming voices helped me to understand that this is not only a war story, but it’s happening on a more massive scale in our everyday lives. We are victims of sexual violence every day—every day, in every corner. War is just an extreme manifestation of the ongoing sexual violence against women and men’s violence against women.
“I think that whoever receives that call, and there are people who will never have that call, but those who do, I think that they are chosen to do something.”
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 with hotlines, shelters and legal assistance for women who are survivors/victims of domestic violence. Learn more about our work in Bosnia and Herzegovina »