RECOM Reconciliation Network



Humanity with a woman’s face in Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Zilka Spahić-Šiljak


“Women are people too”, the feminists used to repeat persistently, hoping we wouldn’t have to bring this up in the 21st century. But, as soon as we thought we would no longer have to talk about it ever again, it turned out that one more international document had to be adopted in order to put additional pressure on international and national legal subjects to ensure equal participation of women in all areas of life. That is how UN Resolution #1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000) came to be adopted – as a way to support the international legal framework for the protection of women’s human rights.

More than six decades have passed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms (1948) which, for the very first time, put in place guarantees of equal human rights for all human beings – not just for men, like the famous American Bill of Rights (1776) and the French Declaration of Human and Civic Rights (1789). Eleanor Roosevelt fought to have the Universal Declaration use gender-sensitive language in place of one with the traditional masculine norms. Soon afterwards, numerous international and European human rights documents were adopted, including the CEDAW convention, seen as the most comprehensive instrument for protection of women’s rights, since it included civic, political, economic, social and cultural rights, with the aim of their becoming legally binding. This did not seem to suffice, and states had to be reminded over and over again to adhere to the obligations they had undertaken.

The intention was to use Resolution 1325 to demand further efforts towards both conflict-prevention and ensuring the active participation of women in peace-building processes. In wars, women and children suffer the most, and the female body is often used as a battlefield where opposing national interests face off. Rape has thus been used as a powerful means for the embodiment of such policies – as a way to occupy the female body (territory) of one nation or ethnic group, and use it to breed soldiers for another – something we all witnessed in the Balkans during the campaign of mass rapes, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Resolution 1325 emphasized, once more, the enormous importance of women being the masters of their own fates and active participants in policy-making in their communities and states. But, with women occupying just a small percentage of existing positions of power, they do not have either the opportunity to negotiate peace or to create conflicts.

This we also witnessed in the Balkans during the wars of the nineties, when women were, unfortunately, not just objects of ethno-national politics, but often their proponents; since women are not naturally predisposed towards peacemaking, despite their social roles, which do make them more inclined to communicate and resolve conflicts peacefully.

My own experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina over the past 25 years can attest to the fact that women of different ethnic, religious and non-religious identities were indeed engaged in peace-building efforts within their communities both during and after the war. As Johan Galtung, a great author of many peace studies claims, peace-building begins the moment the conflict itself does, and the women in B&H were indeed building peace all the while, presenting a human face at the hardest moments of their lives – without even being aware of what they were doing, since, in their own words, they were only doing what their conscience told them to do, or better still, were acting in consistence with their own humanity. It was only afterwards that they learned to articulate their actions as peace activism. Despite a large number of women having been involved in peace-building efforts within (and often well beyond) their own communities, they still don’t have a place at the negotiating tables where important decisions about peace are made, and peace implementation strategies devised. They were not involved in the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, nor were they invited to sit at the tables of many other important peace talks, and no one even thinks to bring this up as something important. I personally believe that the majority of political leaders in B&H have never even heard of Resolution 1325.

My research from 2011 to 2013 about women and peace-building has shown that, despite the fact that women have been engaged in peace-building work for over two decades, their efforts have remained largely invisible, and haven’t been adequately valued in the society. Women themselves have no time to promote their work, as most of them are preoccupied with getting as much done and as much accomplished as possible, while leaving, as they like to say, all the talk for when they retire. Their stories show the strength of humanity, capable of overcoming all the imposed divisions, hatred and fear of others, be it their neighbors or the friends they used to live with in peace before the war. Women peace-builders from B&H are heroines, but they are not saints. As ordinary women with unusual peace-building experiences and the strength of their spirit and humanity, they have shown us all that change is indeed possible if we dare to make a step forward and overcome our fears, which keep most people petrified and unable to react to violence and injustice as responsible human beings.

The stories of women from B&H also show that they started to work on implementing Resolution 1325 long before its adoption in 2000. They just accepted the resolution with open arms and proceeded to use it as another tool that might be of use in promoting women’s human rights and peace-building. Their work encompasses a wide range of activities in local communities, but it also includes concerted and coordinated efforts to adopt laws and policies needed to implement Resolution 1325. What is particularly fascinating about their work is their profound belief that they are doing good things, and that they need to persist and keep looking for a solution, despite all the obstacles they face. And there are indeed many obstacles. I would like to point out just the most important ones: a) patriarchal culture based on gender hierarchy; b) women’s economic dependence and poverty; c) lack of institutional support and the dominance of ethno-nationalism; d) fear of losing one’s achieved position; and e) misunderstanding of the concept of peace-building.

Patriarchal culture and gender hierarchy

Most women peace activists I interviewed brought up excellent examples in their stories of the engagement of women in local communities, which in some cases looked like the essentialization of female peace-building. They attested that it was actually the women who had borne the huge burden of war and post-war reconstruction on their shoulders. Men would return from the war preoccupied with the traumas they had experienced, while the women, as if they had no traumas of their own, did all they could to help their families survive and build their lives anew. Danka Zelić from Bosansko Grahovo speaks of this when she talks about the Serbian returnees to that part of B&H whom she helped after the war, as a consequence of which she was subjected to tremendous pressure by her own Croatian community. Women from these returnee villages would talk to her about anything and everything, but when it came to making decisions – for example, about whether to attend some seminar or provide someone with humanitarian aid – they would call their husbands, fathers or fathers-in-law, and leave it up to them. As Danka can attest, the women took care of all the logistics and communication, they did all the work, but it was the men who made all the decisions. Through her efforts, she did to a certain extent manage to convince the women that it was important for them to engage personally and participate in the decision-making, not just within their families, but in the whole community. But, as she herself says, there is a long way to go before we get to full equality. She refuses to give up, however, because for her and other women peace activists, there is no alternative to peace.

Economic dependence and poverty

It was only to be expected that most people in the Balkans would be affected by post-war poverty. This has, of course, affected women the most, as they generally inherit just a fraction of their families’ property, particularly in rural areas, and therefore never get the opportunity to make decisions or to independently engage in business ventures. This impression was echoed by the experiences of female peace activists who worked in the field on post-war returnee and reconstruction programmes, attempting to use Resolution 1325 to demonstrate how important it was for women to be included in these programmes, and for them, not men, to be awarded these grants. However, they were faced with legal obstacles with respect to ownership, as the property was, in most cases, registered under the names of their husbands or fathers-in-law. One such example can be found in the story of Nada Golubović from Banja Luka, who used to engage in peace-building by trying to link the villages along ethnic borders in the western B&H. The men there took issue with the fact that their wives were the ones being given cows and other assistance to rebuild their farms. But then some grandpa explained to the younger men that they should not object because the land and the stables belonged to them, and that the women were theirs too, and that the cattle would therefore indirectly belong to them, despite those NGOs having registered the cows under their wives’ names. In this anecdote, one can see the actual situation on the ground, which, owing to the women’s economic dependency, prevents them from making significant progress.

But, through economic empowerment programmes, female peace activists have continued to motivate women to engage more and stand up for themselves, to attain economic independence and additional education, so that they will be prepared to secure better positions, not just for themselves, but for other women as well. They believe that economic independence is the key to achieving equality within their families and societies, and continue to work towards this goal.

Lack of institutional support and the dominance of ethno-nationalism

In order to implement any international norms dealing with human rights, or any such state laws, one needs institutional support involving appropriate action plans and funding for these norms truly to come to life on the ground. All Balkan states have ratified the CEDAW and Resolution 1325, and have laws in place to regulate the issue of gender equality, but their implementation is weak. Women remain under-represented in decision-making positions; and even when they do get such an opportunity, it is, by and large, through political parties that base their work on ethno-nationalist programmes. When women get to decision-making positions, they care more about the interests of their political parties than the interests of women in general, and even when they do advocate for other women, they do so only partially, and mostly on behalf of the women from their own ethnic or national group. Ethno-national compartmentalization is present in all areas of life, and because of it, we have advocacy (for the participation of women in peace-building and enforcement efforts) in lieu of implementation (of Resolution 1325), but it is constrained by the conditions imposed by ruling ethno-nationalist ideologies.

Radmila Žigić, a peace activist from Bijeljina, has written about this throughout her journalistic work, and fought as hard as she can to have human trafficking, sexual exploitation of women and domestic violence treated as a broader problem affecting all of society, instead of just one ethnic group. She has faced all kinds of opposition in her work, but also a lack of understanding from other women, who have succumbed to the pressures of ethno-nationalist ideologies. This has led her to conclude, with some regret, that the public discourse stage in B&H is not at all civic in its orientation, but ethnic and nationalistic, and that as long as this is the case, it will be very difficult to implement Resolution 1325. Of course, she herself, like all the other women peace-builders, has never given up, and continues to build small islands of dialogue and reconciliation, which she hopes will one day lead to the creation of a peaceful and orderly state, where one’s ethnicity will no longer matter as much as one’s humanity and willingness to work towards the common good.

Fear of losing one’s achieved position

Another reason why Resolution 1325 has yet to come to life 15 years after its adoption, is the fear experienced by women of losing their achieved positions. Even in patriarchal societies, some women do manage to build careers and attain certain political positions, but this does not mean that the majority of women have the opportunity to compete equally with men for decision-making positions in either politics or business, or to be selected on the merits of their knowledge and experience alone. Those women already occupying positions of power are, for the most part, not gender-sensitive, often in fear of losing their positions and unwilling to do anything to raise certain issues that might lead to real change. They will usually defend their actions by claiming they acquired it all through hard work, which might be true in a small number of cases, but, again, out of fear of losing it all, they will do nothing to enable other women to participate equally in decision-making. This was precisely what Sabiha Husić, a peace-builder from Zenica, encountered while trying to gather support from women in power, hoping to use it to facilitate certain initiatives to define the status of women survivors of wartime rape and domestic violence. She was faced with a wall of silence and inaction, which she attributed to these women’s fears of losing everything they had achieved should they dare to raise issues outside of the framework of interests of the ethno-national group in power. The presence of women in positions of power alone does not mean much by itself if these women are not gender-sensitive and aware, and women who lack gender awareness look like “honorary” men in positions of power. However, such a state of affairs has not discouraged Sabiha and other women peace activists from insisting on the issue of protecting the survivors of wartime rape, and it was thanks to their enormous persistence that the first protocol on witness protection was signed, and the status of victims of rape and violence legally regulated in some parts of B&H. Their fight continues, and raising gender awareness and sensitizing women in politics is part of that fight.

Misunderstanding the concept of peace-building

Amra Pandžo, a peace activist from Sarajevo, made an interesting observation concerning the misunderstanding of the whole concept of peace-building. When one tries to explain that one is involved in peace activism, it usually sounds like an abstract statement. Her mother used to tell her that, after all the years of her involvement in peace activism, she still couldn’t say for sure what it was that she did for a living. This isn’t something new, as such experiences have long been echoed by peace activists across the world, such as John-Paul Lederach (a well-known scientist and peace activist). He says that he has often had to answer at length questions about what he was doing, as people in general still do not see peace activism as real work, but as part of everyday communication and personal or group conflict resolution.

The reason behind this is the public’s insufficient awareness and understanding of the concept of peace-building work, which really ought to be valued more and recognized as much as any other type of work, as it requires skill, conviction and dedication.

Women peace-builders from B&H have shown what humanity with the face of a woman looks like. It looks like the humanity of someone unashamed of having to knock a hundred times on just one door in order to gather support for all the women and children who have been victims of war and violence, and for the adoption of all the necessary laws and policies that will allow them to enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms – not just for the women, but for all other marginalized groups in society as well.   Their humanity is bathed in strong empathy, ethics and a sense of justice, and drives them to fight hard and stand up for women’s rights, and to oppose all forms of discrimination and exclusion. We need to continue repeating that women are people too, as it seems apparent that many people still do not understand and accept this message, nor do they want to.


Author is PhD, Assistant Professor, currently researcher at Stanford University; also at Women Directors’ Program, TPO Foundation, Sarajevo


You can find more about the subject in the Zilka Spahić-Šiljak’s book:

Shining Humanity—Life Stories of Women Peace-builders in Bosnia and Herzegovina (TPO Foundation, Sarajevo, 2013; Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2014)


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