Empowering victims of sexual and gender based violence as an integral part of local peacebuilding

By Selma Hasić

The violent war taking place in the 90s brought a lot of distress to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and subsequent societal post-conflict reconstruction. During that time, many cases of sexual and gender based violence occurred in different parts of the country. This had a serious impact on individuals and communities. The trauma affected victim’s physical and mental health and deeply impaired their capacities to establish relationship with others, which has undermined the overall development of local communities. Tackling issues related sexual and gender based violence in post-conflict settings is a challenging process since there is no one sector that is able to address the core of the problem on its own.

The global response to the sexual and gender based violence has advanced in the past decades. The UN agencies have recognized the importance of the issue in Declaration on the Elimination of violence against women, adopted in 1994. This led to the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, endorsed by 122 countries in September 2013. Most recently, the UN General Assembly approved a new resolution to commemorate 19 June as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The Statute of Rome protects against crimes of a sexual nature, and since the International Criminal Court’s landmark decision on the Foca Case during the war in Bosnia, rape became recognized as a crime against humanity.

Sexual and gender based violence is very difficult to prove in the courts because it is necessary to demonstrate coercion. The exact number of victims of sexual violence and rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still unknown, but UN estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000. Many believe that this lack of a systematic approach towards addressing victims’ needs reflects the government’s inability to fully tackle and deal with war crimes.

The UN study on violence against women, released a couple of years ago, urges BiH authorities to improve the situation of victims of sexual violence, and stresses the importance of establishing a truthful account of war crimes committed against women, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, and recognizing obstacles faced by victims, so that they could find ways to remove them in the near future.

Last month, for the very first time in the modern legal history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Court of BiH in charge of dealing with war crimes, ruled on material compensation for victims of sexual violence and rape that occurred during the brutal Bosnian conflict. Members of the Army of Republika Srpska, Bosiljko, and Ostoja Markovic were sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment for rape and were bound to pay up a financial compensation of 26,500 marks to their victims. A few days later, the Court sentenced Slavko Savic, another member of the Army of Republika Srpska, to eight years in prison for the rape of women in Vogosca in 1993. The ruling also included duty to pay up 30,000 BAM in compensatory damages to the victim. These rulings were deemed as game-changing by many legal professionals, as they adjudicated compensation to the victim of sexual violence in the context of criminal proceedings, which was overlooked in the previous trials. The idea of compensation was derived from the notion of correcting past injustice through the transferal of material resources to the victims.

In the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I believe that other factors should also be considered:

  • a nation-wide culture shift in attitudes towards women in general, which will be accompanied with economic support and legal reform.
  • establishing solidarity and trust among different communities of sexual and gender based victims, so that it is not divided along ethnic lines and past divisions
  • helping women to gain full access to understanding of their rights and protection mechanisms, through local contact points
  • inclusion of different perspectives in creating victim based historical account of the past violence against women, which would be aimed at their empowering and active participation in other peacebuilding initiatives.

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