05 June 2014: Almost twenty years on from the end of the war, a new campaign aims to increase understanding and decrease stigmatisation of survivors of rape in Bosnia.

bosnia-breaking-silence-1 Image credit: Midhat Poturović

Women who have until now been forced to suffer in silence will be provided with an equal platform to share and discuss their experiences of violence, as well as the social stigmas and lack of support that they have since endured.
An estimated 20,000 – 50,000 Bosniak, Serb, and Croat women were raped during the Bosnian War. These crimes were not perpetrated at random, but were systematic. Towns such as Foça, and prison camps such as Omarska, Čelebići, and Dretelj, were epicentres of a crime that was used as an instrument of ethnic cleansing.

In the wake of the conflict, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia declared the use of ‘systematic rape’ and ‘sexual enslavement’ as a crime against humanity. The decision has come to represent a significant step for women’s human rights and in defining the field of international humanitarian law. In response, the UN’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict praised the women that testified within the landmark case for ‘breaking what is called history’s greatest silence’.

However, though the silence of history was once broken, the silence of thousands of women remains to this day. In Bosnia, rape continues to carry such a high social stigma that admission to can cause family abandonment, isolation, and economic and social marginalisation. Many women are still too afraid to come forward and meet with other victims of their own ethnic group, let alone others, and so mutual experiences remain unvoiced. At best this serves to reinforce the current status quo, denying victims the opportunity to seek professional support, and at worst this allows the experience of women to be subverted by ethnically-based political interests.

Image credit: Midhat Poturović Image credit: Midhat Poturović

For years there has been little sign of improvement, but since 2013 a change in the chairmanship of the G8 group has provided a window of opportunity. Britain’s assumption of the chairmanship led to the G8 Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence, which has since implemented the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative – a two-year partnership between the UK government and Angelina Jolie. The initiative aims to ‘replace the culture of impunity for sexual violence committed in conflict with one of deterrence’, identifying Bosnia as a priority country within this work.

In addition to a recently held regional military conference in Sarajevo, the work of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) now lies central to this focus. The Sarajevo-based NGO, in partnership with the British Embassy in Sarajevo, will launch the ‘Breaking the Stigma and Silence’ campaign in June 2014.

The campaign aims to increase awareness and understanding of the consequences of the use of sexual violence in war, decreasing the stigmatisation of victims at all levels of society. For the first time, the experiences of female victims from all three of Bosnia’s constituent ethnic groups will be presented and explored simultaneously. Women who have until now been forced to suffer in silence will be provided with an equal platform to share and discuss their experiences of violence, as well as the social stigmas and lack of support that they have since endured.

Image credit: Midhat Poturović Image credit: Midhat Poturović

Three roundtable meetings in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Mostar, each one bringing together key stakeholders from Bosnia’s three constituent ethnic groups, will discuss topics related to the prevention and consequences of sexual violence in conflict. These will include the current status ofwomen survivors of rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina and their access to the medical, psychological and financial assistance; the political deadlock regarding the government’s “National programme for women victims of sexual violence in conflict and beyond”; the physical and psychological aftermath of rape; and the impunity of perpetrators.

Each of these events will be covered by local and national media to increase wider public awareness, and accompanied by both topical film screenings and a photography exhibition entitled“My Body: A War Zone”, which features the stories and photographs of survivors from the Congo, Nepal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Cambodia.

The project will also be incorporated into the upcoming four-day Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, bringing worldwide attention to the issues that Bosnian women have faced over the past two decades, and, for now at least, continue to face on a daily basis. Whilst in the long-term it is hoped that the project will begin to inspire other women to come forward, either by forming networks or sharing their stories, to coalesce around this issue and break the silence and stigma together – regardless of their ethnic background.


Muhammad Tarique on June 5, 2014, 11:31 p.m.

<p>This and the alike events would help resolve the impending social/behavioral issue of the world. Violence against women arises by the fit strata of the involved persons who just have been living in the society to make it torn and keep doing it, under some shelters.</p>

Earle on June 6, 2014, 11:59 a.m.

"An estimated 20,000 – 50,000 Bosniak, Serb, and Croat women were raped during the Bosnian War." This blanket statement perpetuates the myth that all sides were guilty to the same degree of such crimes. This was not so, as the case studies indicate there was an overwhelming imbalance in the use of rape as a weapon of war. 'Ethnic culling' is an unimaginable horror that contradicts the values underpinning democracy, equality and human rights. It should be denounced at every opportunity lest it befall upon us all.

Tim Bidey on June 6, 2014, 1:44 p.m.

Thank you for your response Earle. I appreciate your concern regarding moral levelling and the perpetuation of the myth that crimes were committed equally by all sides during the Bosnian War. You are right in the sense that the final verdict of the ICTY concluded that the rapes of Bosnian Muslim were different from that of Serbian and Croatian women, as only the former were found to be ‘systematic’. That said, it’s worth noting that there is also debate around this issue. Some feminist critics, such as Copelon, consider rapes on all sides as systematic or even genocidal. However, I should add that levels of culpability are not the main focus of this article, nor indeed this project – such work arguably rests within the mandate of the ICTY and associated organisations. Instead, the focus of this work is on recognition of harm based on gender, and the stigmatisation that victims of sexual violence in Bosnia continue to endure regardless of their ethnic background. This is an issue that should transcend ethnic divisions, but is unfortunately subject to continued politicisation in Bosnia.

Tim Bidey on June 6, 2014, 2:29 p.m.

Correction: '...different from that of Serb and Croat women'.

Mik on July 16, 2014, 11:37 p.m.

The politicisation of this issue can be problematic only for the victims - who become representational vessels (according to the international prosecutions) - their experience of extreme violence (systematic or not) should mobilise important focus on all victims (female, male, young, old, of ethnic group, of all). The Balkans conflict opened up the idea of the global citizens and wider sense of moral responsibility as universal - yet the focus on the political agenda associated to the person who endured such act continues to obfuscate adequate durable responses and protections for victims well after the ceremonious and declarative moral ideology leaves the territory (or collected dust in documentation that says more about laws limits than actually alleviating the problems). Further to this is the extension of rape in 'post' war where sexual violations are ongoing - violence of this kind (towards women, men, young and old) - is still not linked. This is not just a battle for feminists - who draw distinct links (even these an be quite narrow and exclusionary). Lets not get entangled in what these victims 'represent' and focus on their conditions.

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