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How Feminist Activism Offers Balkan War Survivors Hope for Change

As the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is marked, women involved in cross-border activism to support survivors of war-related sexual violence explain why solidarity and mutual trust are vital to overcome nationalist narratives and achieve lasting peace.

“No woman should suffer the way we did.”

This is one of the most common sentences heard from women survivors of war-related sexual violence after they are given support in safe spaces provided by women’s organisations in the post-conflict regions of the Western Balkans.

More than 20 years after the end of the wars in ex-Yugoslav countries, survivors still face exclusion, stigmatisation and anxiety. As well as the psychological scars, their physical health has been impaired – many of them struggle with cancer and other serious medical issues.

Lacking adequate institutional support, hundreds of them have only found proper acknowledgment of the crimes to which they were subjected and care for their feelings, needs and dignity from feminist therapists and activists at women’s organisations.

Many of those organisations were founded by feminist activists during the wars because of the need to turn feelings of pain and anger into solidarity activities.

“I felt responsible as a human towards fellow humans in tremendous suffering. I felt their pain,” says Feride Rushiti of the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims. “Their pain pushed me forward. It served as a constant reminder and guided my work. I had to be their voice!”

The Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture is one of seven women’s and youth organisations involved in a programme called ‘Amplifying Voices of Women Affected by War-Related Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Western Balkans’, which aims to contribute to a culture of recognition and reconciliation in the region by integrating the perspectives and needs of women affected by war-related sexual and gender-based violence into national and regional initiatives to deal with the past.

Also involved in the programme are Medica Zenica and Vive Zene from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Medica Gjakova from Kosovo, and the Autonomous Women’s Center, Women in Black and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia, in partnership with medica mondiale, a feminist women’s rights and aid organisation in Germany.

As activists involved in the programme, we wanted to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence that begin each year on November 25 by asking our colleagues why they believe that this work is vital.

Healing processes vary, but women from these organisations in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia that we talked with have a common belief, based on years of professional work with survivors, that individual and community support and therapy are important, but they must be followed by societal change and transitional, restorative and social justice.

These are the areas in which the whole region is still failing, as the past still influences the present, and the present influences how the past is dealt with. In this vicious circle, post-conflict transition became a constant process with no end in sight, and the whole region is still shaped by ethnic divisions.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have established certain legal reparation mechanisms for survivors, providing them with the status of civilian victims of war. These policies are now recognised around the world. However, too many women still live in silence and fear of their own families and communities. At the same time, too many perpetrators have not been sanctioned and remain free to walk the streets and even take positions in political life, becoming role models for new generations.

Feminist activists are aware, however, that “change is not a spontaneous occurrence; it’s a vision fuelled by knowledge, fresh perspectives, real-life experiences and unwavering determination”, explains Maja Zilic of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights.

“It’s not just a topic for contemplation and discussion; it’s both a deeply personal and political process that requires relentless dedication and effort,” she adds.

Making women’s voices heard

The wars in the former Yugoslavia were fuelled by hatred and their violent impact is still being felt in the dominant nationalistic and patriarchal narratives that persist in the region. That is why change needs to be fuelled by love, respect and trust, particularly towards those whose experiences were neglected and downplayed.

This is where regional feminist organisation has its place. Traditional processes of transitional justice often overlook women’s experiences. Through feminist cooperation, the voices of women, especially survivors, are at the centre of all activities, policies and demands.

Feminist leaders, therapists and activists in the region have also been marked by the traumas of the past themselves. The common thread that runs through the words of those who work with survivors of war-related sexual and gender-based violence is that supporting others and the relationship of trust they create is what motivates them to be active and continue the work they do.

Helping others provides meaning in times of meaninglessness, especially when you become a witness to the transformative process that sees a victim become an active member of the community. The atrocities of wartime happened within communities and the healing takes place within communities as well. “Recovery starts from the people, not from governments,” says Aida Mustacevic Cipurkovic of Vive Zene.

Rebuilding the trust that the war viciously destroyed on so many levels is particularly important when it comes to cooperation between women from different places in the region.

Stasa Zajovic from Women in Black in Serbia says that she felt “a mixture of feelings of guilt” when meeting survivors from other countries in the region.

“I felt guilty for coming from a country that committed crimes, they felt guilty for surviving while their relatives were killed,” she recalls. “There was fear – a reasonable fear from the other side – because survivors did not know what I’d been doing [during the 1990s wars].”

This is why “the values of critical self-awareness and power-sensitivity are at the core of joint work”, says Jovana Skrijel of medica mondiale.

Regional feminist work sometimes exposes activists to risky situations. Activists are subjected to threats and verbal and physical attacks when speaking out against a regime that started a war, or against war criminals, or even sometimes when working with survivors of different ethnicities. They are targeted because their work disrupts the politics of nationalism and challenges the widespread erasure of women’s experiences from processes aimed at dealing with the past.

The war propaganda that is still present in the region, visible in the glorification of war criminals or the denial of genocide, is based on demonisation of the Other. Feminist work represents the opposite of demonisation – it creates spaces for encounters in which both tears and laughter are shared.

“Working together with regional partners provides more help for survivors and makes us stronger against gender-based violence. Regional feminist cooperation is vital for creating long-lasting change that helps everyone in our communities,” says Mirlinda Sada of Medica Gjakova.

Cross-border feminist work often demands creativity and the finding of new ways to operate safely, to encourage young people to participate and to advocate for survivors’ rights despite being constantly told that we should “forget about the war and move on”.

We imagine peace not just as the mere absence of war, but the presence of human security for all. By creating spaces for the younger generation to be involved in peace-building work based on feminist values, activists involved in the ‘Amplifying Voices’ programme hope to sow the seeds for lasting change.

By “standing on the side of the victims regardless of who they are, what their names are, what their affiliations are and where they live”, activists “contribute to peace in their souls and peace in the community”, says Sabiha Husic of Medica Zenica.

Ultimately, we see peace as a moral necessity.

“I want to be in peace with myself in the first place, by knowing that I did what I could to support the fight for feminist justice and an end to impunity,” says Bobana Macanovic of the Autonomous Women’s Centre. “Without that, the future of the region will always be corrupted by the trauma of the past.”

Anamarija Divkovic, Sabina Kaqinari and Sanja Pavlovic are members of organisations involved in the ‘Amplifying Voices of Women Affected by War-Related Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the Western Balkans’ programme.

Source : Balkaninsight