Last week, on December 5th and 6th, the United Nations Population Fund in Bosnia and Herzegovina organized a conference about justice and reparations for conflict-related sexual violence. One thing was immediately clear: victims are still not adequately supported, and high-level government representatives were not there.
The conference participants were greeted by: Vjekoslav Bakula, Adviser to the Minister of Human Rights and Refugees; Nuzhat Eshan, UNFPA Director for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria and the Ukraine; Emine Bozkurt, member of the European Parliament; and Erika Kvapilova, Regional Programme Director for UN Women as well as Faris Hadrovic, UNFPA Assistant Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most importantly, Enisa Salcinovic was the voice of survivors of sexual violence, having experienced sexual violence during the Bosnian-Herzegovinian war 1992-1995.
The first day of the conference started with a discussion on the reaction of conflict related sexual violence and a victim-based approach. It included an excellent discussion by Madeleine Rees, the Secretary General of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. She reminded conference participants about the international legal framework, de jure and de facto barriers to women accessing justice and reparations. Among some of the speakers were Saliha Djuderija from the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other regional figures.
Unfortunately, Ms. Djuderija highlighted some issues that have been plaguing the victim’s access to justice since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She pointed to the stigma of being a victim of sexual violence, and that rape is shameful for the victim, not the rapist. She highlighted that it is very difficult to apply international legal frameworks within Bosnia-Herzegovina, citing poor communication and poor policy making. I would further suggest that the fragmentation of the BiH society also contributes to the problem because women are not a priority, and the complex structure of BiH’s administration creates further obstacles and problems, while women are still waiting for justice. According to Ms. Djuderija, victims cannot access the mechanisms of transitional justice, compared to women and men. Especially problematic is the access to justice of women in rural area, unemployed returnees, women without resolved housing and women who are searching for their missing partners.
Ms. Salcinovic, a rape survivor highlighted that “victims do not want pity, they want their rights and a system which would ensure that this would never happen to anyone again”. She furthermore suggested that there are women that are still struggling with stigma and suggested that the women are “marked and living in shame”. Emine Bozkurt from the EU Parliament also offered her support to women reminding the audience that she will continue to call for help for victims and continue to push for reparations to become part of national agendas. She remarked, “it was a disgrade that women are encountered with rapists that live in their neighborhood with impunity. Everyone needs to hold their politicians accountable for not fulfilling their promises”. The idea of reparations for victims was also welcomed by Erika Kvapilova, the Regional Director for UN Women.
The conference included a voice from the non-governmental organizations from the region: Viva Zene with a presentation by Jasna Zecevic, Centre for Women Victims of War ROSA with a presentation by Nela Pamukovic. All non-governmental groups highlighted their continuous work with women, offering them support but also participating in activism in advocacy to ensure gender equality and women’s rights.
Participants were also divided into groups and topics included psychological support for survivors of conflict related sexual violence, the fight against stigma, socioeconomic empowerment of victims, and the establishment of a regional mechanism to address justice, reparations, and rehabilitation.
The final day included a discussion by Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences. She further highlighted the need for reparations programmes and how programs like these can operationalize principles of gender equality, anti-discrimination, and human rights in the conflict context and have a transformative effect on women’s lives.
My intent here is to give an overview of the conference rather than analyze the content of it. Very soon into the conference, it became clear that there is still a lot of work to do, that women, especially victims of wartime violence are not a priority. The evening included a short film about a rape victim who lost her husband and is still unable to find him. She was there, among us and I commend her for speaking out and continuing to be strong. It was also inspiring and heartbreaking when one of the victims shared her story of living in a small town, where she is stigmatized and ridiculed because she receives assistance from two levels of government. She said “they all know what the mailman is bringing.” But she bravely said: “I don’t know very much about things, but I will keep fighting”.
And I hope that she does, and that other women find the strength to break the silence.