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Bosnia: More 1325, Please!

By Jabeen Bhatti and Nurhan Kocaoglu*

War damages in Bosnia. John Isaac/UN Photos

As the UN Resolution 1325 marks its 10th anniversary, advocates say it has helped rape survivors of the Bosnian War get some relief but needs a fuller implementation.

It started at the cinema.

In 2006, a full house at a Sarajevo theatre watched Grbavica, the story of Esma, a Bosnian rape victim who raises a daughter born of that violence alone. Outside, women’s activists began gathering the first of what would become 50,000 signatures to push for greater recognition and relief for women like Esma, the victims of mass rape during the Bosnian War.

Soon afterward, the Bosnian government, spurred on by the petition and also UN Resolution 1325 calling for increased assistance for women in post-conflict societies, passed a landmark initiative: to classify rape survivors as official “victims” of the war and make them eligible to receive benefits.

It was a start, say activists and experts, warning that it was still only a beginning. “This achievement was revolutionary – worldwide it was the first time that in a post-war country, a parliament included this status into the law,” said gynaecologist Monika Hauser, who was awarded an Alternative Nobel for her work with rape survivors of war. “Though we can’t talk about complete healing, this is a step forward because the victim doesn’t have to resort to begging.”

Fifteen years after war ended, Bosnians continue to live in a highly militarised, traumatised and increasingly traditional society. In pre-war socialist Yugoslavia, women were highly visible in the political realm. After the war, they have been pushed aside and shut out of the rebuilding process: For example, no women were involved in the creation of the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, said Ana Lukatela, a United Nations Development Fund for Women consultant for Southeast Europe.

“The problems in Bosnia in terms of building a sustainable and just peace were there from the very beginning,” said Lukatela. “If we look at the Dayton Accords, there is not a single article addressing any type of reparations for sexual violence against women during conflict.”

That exclusion from the peace-making process is what UN Resolution 1325 intended to rectify when it was passed a decade ago. It was also the first UN initiative to address sexual violence during wartime.

“(Resolution) 1325 came at a time when violations against women were beginning to surface and become hugely visible,” said Jennifer Klot, senior advisor on gender issues at the Brooklyn-based non-profit Social Science Research Council who was involved in the creation of Resolution 1325. “Those working in conflict situations in the humanitarian and human rights movement saw that women were not benefiting enough from the (enormous amounts of aid available from international organisations).”

In Bosnia, that changed when in 2006, Bosnian lawmakers passed the Civilian Victims of War act. The law provided for 70 percent of the full disability pension – about 500 Bosnian marks (€250) per month – to rape survivors.

Experts say that the law has helped these women to survive and heal. Prior to the pension, the only state assistance certain survivors received equalled €15 a month in a child-care allowance. Still, problems such as eligibility, funding, judicial procedure and a lack of counsellors and other specialised personnel are hindering further progress.

For example, of the 20,000 to 60,000 estimated rape victims during the war in Bosnia, only 3,000 to 4,000 had the necessary documentation to qualify for the pension. Also, Bosnia Herzegovina is divided into two political entities and only those in the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina are eligible while those in Republika Srpska are not. Meanwhile, the stigma from society regarding rape has meant that many women are still unwilling to come forward. There needs to be greater outreach, say activists.

Sexual violence a war strategy

Getting justice has proved problematic, too. Sexual violence wasn’t a bye-product of Bosnian War, it was a targeted war strategy. Experts say that more needs to be done to recognise that through the courts.

“Receiving a pension is not the same as having a judicial verdict, which brings more (psychological) relief,” said Lukatela. Still, when former President of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadzic, was charged with war crimes in 2008, the rape charge was taken out of the indictment to make it easier to prosecute him.

Also, advocates say those who finally muster up the courage to testify against their rapists at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague are forced to re-live their experiences as prisoners: They are kept in isolation, forbidden from contact with family until after testifying. And afterward, these women need better protection from retribution when they return home, says Memnuna Zvizdic, director of Zene Zenama a women’s advocacy group that helps rape survivors in Sarajevo.

Fadila Memisevic, director of the Bosnia-Herzegovina’s section of the Society for Threatened Peoples, a human rights organisation which also works with rape survivors, says like Esma, many of the war’s rape victims continue to live on the fringes of society, isolated, stigmatised and lacking a strong support network, especially when they leave their hometowns. They need more support services available, she adds.

Such assistance helped Marie (a pseudonym) testify at The Hague against her attacker, return home and cope with survival there. Once a judge, Marie was one of the 6,000 prisoners in the Omarska detention camp near her town of Prijedor where she was repeatedly raped. After her release, she, like many, fled to Zagreb and after the Dayton Accords, eventually returned home. One of her rapists, Miroslav Kvocka, also from Prijedor, was released after seven years in prison. “Today, she sees him walking with his wife in town,” said Memisevic whose organisation helped Marie. “Most rape survivors don’t have the strength to live in the same town as their rapists.”

Another problem is that there are not enough qualified therapists for women rape survivors or their children, says Memisevic. Many children, such as Esma’s daughter, don’t know the truth about their fathers and are at a loss to understand the trauma that their mothers are going through. “These children need the truth and of course need the necessary counselling to cope with learning the truth, it is part of the healing process,” said Memisevic.

Hauser says that this trans-generational trauma is a growing concern and more training programs for therapists are needed: “It is necessary to interrupt and break the cycle before it is passed on to the next generation.”

The organisation, Medica Zenica, founded by Hauser and her Bosnian counterparts in 1992, is trying to do that. The centre offers medical and psychological support and safe houses for rape survivors. To date, more than 10,000 have received medical treatment or other forms of help. Many of these women need further medical and psychological assistance to survive, says Hauser: “These women are very prone to illnesses, chronic pain, panic attacks and suicide attempts.”

One of the biggest hurdles to the successful implementation of Resolution 1325 and providing assistance to rape survivors in Bosnia is financial. Most rape survivors are still of working age but are unable to obtain work because of unresolved trauma and also a lack of jobs in a country where the unemployment rates reach above 40 percent. Memisevic says these women need education and retraining programs and assistance to find employment. Most, she adds, are barely surviving financially.

The Bosnian government has recognised that it must do more since it implemented the pension initiative five years ago. In July, parliament adopted a National Action Plan with set initiatives to further the goals of Resolution 1325 but the legislation lacks teeth: There are few sanctions to force the involved institutions to comply, says Lukatela. Activists add that it is a waiting game regarding funding promises: Budgets are already stretched in a country still grappling with the aftershocks of war. Meanwhile, financial support from the international community is also diminishing as the Balkans becomes a lower priority for development organisations.

” Resolution 1325 was a great springboard to set things for women in motion, both in getting victims help but also empowering women and involving them in solving conflict situations,” said Pam DeLargy, chief of the Humanitarian Unit at the United Nations Population Fund. ” At the grassroots level, implementing 1325 has been great. Ensuring the sustainability of these activities at the national and international level is where the bigger challenge lies.” (Oct. 2010)

* Jabeen Bhatti and Nurhan Kocaoglu are affiliated to Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA), which reports on Europe and the Middle East.

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