Bosnia and Herzegovina: Peace and reconciliation through remembrance work and dialogue
“Women have been left alone.” Jasna Zečević from Vive Žene views the current situation in a sobering light. Women's rights organisations had long predicted all of this: domestic violence would increase because of the lockdown, and the existential insecurity would have a retraumatising effect on survivors of sexualised wartime violence. “We had some clients who were showing clear symptoms of strong anxiety.”
Instead of taking our warnings seriously, politicians made use of the crisis for short term power grabs and nationalist rhetoric. Many clients from Vive Žene have once again lost confidence in the state, says Zečević: “They have seen that their physical and psychological needs are not taken seriously during a crisis.”
Foresight of Vive Žene ensures support for women in times of crisis
Staff at Vive Žene stepped in where governmental institutions were failing. They distributed packages with foodstuffs and sanitary products. They offered advice via emergency telephone hotlines. And the safe house for women and girls affected by violence stayed open and became an important point of contact for many.
In addition to these emergency capabilities, staff at Vive Žene are characterised by their foresight. They knew that reconciliation would be even more important periods like this, to avoid old wounds being ripped open again.
Countering this risk has been the focus of a project running for three years where they bring together clients from different ethnic groups in two municipalities. At first they worked with the women individually and in ethnically separated groups to empower them. Subsequently the Bosnian women and Serbian women met each other in facilitated sharing sessions.
Friendly dialogue: “This time they are not fighting against each other.”
A core concern in this project was to build up trust between women from different ethnic groups. This continued during the lockdown, with the facilitators of these groups encouraging the women to use chat groups to remain in contact. In fact, the pandemic then became a connecting element, says Augustina Rahmanović, one of the project staff at Vive Žene: “Even though the restrictions reminded many of the war, this time they realised that they were not fighting against each other.”
The closing workshops were able to take place in-person, observing hygiene precautions. For several days, the members of the groups discussed their values and wishes for the future. They shared and laughed with each other. Trust grew and friendships arose.
Women's project demonstrates: Peace and reconciliation are possible
Many women have indeed fundamentally changed their attitudes. After the last meeting, 70 per cent of the participants indicated they were now generally more open than before to make contact with people from other ethnic groups. Especially encouraging: The younger the women, the greater the openness.
The project is therefore a clear signal to Bosnian society, says Augustina Rahmanović. It shows why remembrance work is especially important during a crisis: “If everything is only considered under the single aspect of ethnic identity, then somewhere along the way the people themselves are forgotten. With this project, we were able to make these people real and visible once again.” After all, the aim here was not just individual contacts, but the perspective of possible peace and reconciliation, even with personal memories and wounds.