During the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, tens of thousands of women and girls were raped, tortured and sexually exploited. Even today, violence against women is widespread in Southeastern Europe. Despite some progress, such as the introduction of mechanisms to compensate survivors of sexualised wartime violence, the process of coming to terms with the violent conflict is still very slow. Many survivors continue to suffer from trauma and social stigmatisation, and they lack sufficient access to appropriate offers of support. National and regional political discussions mostly ignore the perspective of the survivors. In general, there is still a prevailing culture of silence regarding the war.
Estimates suggest that as many as 50,000 women and girls in Bosnia and Herzegovina have experienced sexualised wartime violence. In Kosovo it was about 20,000, and in Croatia 3,000. No reliable data is available for Serbia. This violence they experienced is compounded by social exclusion and stigmatisation, and all of this has effects that spread through their families, since it has been shown that trauma symptoms can be passed down to the next generation (transgenerational traumatisation).
2. Sexualised violence today
Sexualised and gender-based violence (SGBV) is still widespread in the region today. Almost two thirds of women in Kosovo (64 per cent) and Serbia (62 per cent) have been subjected to SGBV at some time in their lives. In Bosnia and Herzegovina the figure is 48 per cent, and in Croatia 13 per cent. This violence is often rooted in wartime experiences, especially in the context of families.
3. Women of ethnic minorities experience multiple discriminations
Many women who belong to ethnic minorities, such as Roma, Balkan Egyptians or Ashkali, have been subjected to sexualised wartime violence. Even today they are still subjected to violence and discrimination almost everywhere in the region. Most of them live in poverty and difficult social circumstances, with poor access to health services or education. This particularly affects girls, who are often married off at a young age.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, compared to others in their age groups, children born out of rape suffer more frequently from psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. During their childhood they often experienced emotional deprivation. And they continue to face problems in everyday life, often due to incomplete documentation. For example, if they want to study in higher education, it is not sufficient to show a birth certificate without the name of the father on it.
5. Rights and protection for survivors of sexualised violence
The individual countries in the region have ratified a range of international agreements on protection against gender-specific discrimination and violence. Furthermore, their constitutions expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender. However, the standards for protection of survivors of sexualised wartime violence are often insufficient since there is no coherent legal framework.
One of the successes for the women’s movement in the region is the right that survivors of sexualised wartime violence in Kosovo (since 2018), in Bosnia and Herzegovina (since 2006) and Croatia (since 2015) now have to claim compensation in the form of a monthly pension. However, complex application procedures increase the risk of retraumatisation and since the laws include both time- and place-related restrictions on eligibility, many survivors do not actually qualify for compensation.
7. Insufficient access to health services
Healthcare institutions are often the first points of contact for survivors of sexualised and gender-based violence. Unfortunately, they are often met by prejudices and discriminatory behaviour from the healthcare staff, leading to experiences of shame and stigmatisation. Until now, there has been a lack of binding standards in state-run healthcare facilities which would ensure an appropriate manner of dealing with survivors.
As government initiatives, memorial events tend to concentrate on the victims or survivors of whichever ethnic group now prevails. Even schools and universities do not always portray the whole picture when it comes to the conflicts in the 1990s. And in all of this, there is hardly a mention of the sexualised wartime violence, its causes or its consequences.
9. Inadequate prosecution of sexualised wartime violence
Individual countries have seen an increase in the number of prosecutions of war criminals for crimes connected with sexualised wartime violence. However, the numbers of cases are still extremely low in comparison with the total number of survivors of sexualised wartime violence. Most perpetrators are still at large. This discourages other survivors from taking their cases to court.
10. Regional networking
In the individual countries of Southeastern Europe there are a number of different civil society women’s rights organisations working on the issue of sexualised wartime violence. However, their effectiveness is often very local, without any common, cross-border agenda. In order to enhance the impacts and influences of women’s rights work, there needs to be a sharing of lessons learnt and an exchange of expertise, including “best practices” and other proven approaches. This cross-border cooperation also needs some coordination.
(Status of: 2021)
"A different kind of politics is now needed. And it is important to strengthen civil society initiatives and to promote an interethnic and feminist coming to terms with the past. This is the only way to break the spiral of hatred and violence."
Facts & figures from our practical work
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: Budućnost, Center of Women’s Rights, Maja Kravica, Medica Zenica, SEKA, Snaga Žene, The Forgotten Children of War, Vive Žene, Žena BiH
- Kosovo: Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT), Medica Gjakova
- Croatia: Centre for Women War Victims – ROSA
- Serbia: Autonomous Women Center, Humanitarian Law Center, Community Development Center LINK, Roma Novi Bećej, Roma Women of Vojvodina, TRIAL International, Women in Black Belgrade, YIHR Serbia
- Capacity building in the healthcare system
- Coming to terms with the past
- Regional networking
Funding and funders:
- German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
- Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ GmbH)
- German Foreign Office
- Louis Leitz Foundation
- Foundation Anne-Marie Schindler
- Foundation for War Trauma Therapy
- Own resources
Source: Annual Report 2020
The wars in former Yugoslavia may have taken place more than 20 years ago, but the effects can still be felt today. Together with partner organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia, medica mondiale places a particular emphasis on processes of dealing with the violent past and encouraging reconciliation. The aim is to bring about positive changes for survivors of sexualised violence at all levels: political, institutional, societal and individual. Survivors, their families, and subsequent generations all have a right to truth, recompense and justice. These rights need to be upheld.
“One of the greatest challenges for women who have survived sexualized wartime violence is stigmatization: by society, but also by their own families.”
The work has three priorities:
In order to prevent sexualised violence, it is necessary to take a critical and transparent approach to the past, dealing with the standards and values in society that are actually discriminatory. A range of activities can contribute to transforming awareness at various levels, helping to lend visibility to and assert consideration of the perspectives and needs of survivors of sexualised wartime violence.
The partner organisations are developing educational and training materials and courses on the topic of sexualised wartime violence for use with youth, school pupils, students, government workers and staff at non-governmental institutions. The topic is dealt with from a feminist and inter-ethnic perspective. Survivors of sexualised wartime violence have been involved in the development of the modules.
Exhibitions and youth meetings should help to encourage people to take a critical look at their own ideas of truth, their values, standards and life realities.
The partner organisations facilitate dialogues between survivors of sexualised wartime violence and school pupils of various ethnic backgrounds.
“Interethnic cooperation is particularly important when it comes to dealing with the past. Feminist solidarity has the power to oppose the dominant nationalist and patriarchal narratives.”
Most survivors of sexualised violence suffer multi-layered long-term consequences that adversely affect their well-being. When they apply for social support measures, they then frequently encounter stigmatisation and ostracism from the responsible staff at the institutions. Survivors also have to fight for any acknowledgement of their needs at political and social levels. In order to assert their rights to reparations, partner organisations of medica mondiale carry out the following activities:
Survivors of sexualised violence receive free, integrated support in the form of psychosocial and medical care, legal assistance and income-generating measures. This also includes the families of the survivors.
Assistance in applying for war victim pensions
In Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the partner organisations help survivors to apply for their compensation. By accompanying them through this application process, the risk of a retraumatisation can be reduced and the chances of approval increased.
Support during court cases
Survivors of sexualised violence benefit from representation, legal advice, and psychosocial support during war crimes trials and court cases on sexualised violence.
The partner organisations train specialist staff in the healthcare, social and legal sectors on how to adopt a Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach when dealing with survivors of sexualised violence. They are also drafting institutional standards.
The advocacy work aims to improve state reparation mechanisms and their implementation. At the same time, our partner organisations intend to make the health services and legal procedures more stress- and trauma-sensitive.
The women’s movements in South-east Europe are widespread but are not very well networked with each other, which makes it difficult for them to assert their demands, given the nationalist tendencies which prevail in the region’s understanding of its own history. Promoting feminist regional civil society co-operation is therefore a strategic component of our work in South-eastern Europe. It can help to enhance the political and societal influence which these like-minded women’s organisations have, as well as the broader impacts of their activities. The focus here is on the following activities:
Regional expertise sharing
The partner organisations promote regional exchange and sharing of approaches to their work, experiences learnt and best practice.
The partner organisations draft common definitions of fields of activity on the topic of sexualised wartime violence, in order to strengthen the cross-border advocacy work.
medica mondiale supports like-minded feminist women’s organisations in their efforts to engage in strategic regional networking.
Research studies are planned to investigate the long-lasting consequences of sexualised wartime violence and the impacts of compensation payments.
(Status of: 2021)
“We must work together for a lasting and stable peace in Bosnia and the region. With this we are also sending an important sign of hope to the survivors.”