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. 70 per cent of all women aged 15 and older have experienced violence, sexual harassment and/or stalking, according to a survey conducted in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, Serbia, Moldova and Ukraine by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). This violence is often rooted in wartime experiences, especially in the context of families. With the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, violence against women increased. In Kosovo, the number of reported cases of gender-based violence increased by 17 per cent. Compared to 2019, Croatia registered ten percent more femicides in the context of domestic violence in 2020.
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 and laws 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. In addition, survivors who seek justice in court take a risk: if they lose, they have to pay the court fees. Many therefore are afraid to do so.
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: 2022)
"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: Association Žena BiH Mostar, Budućnost, Center of Women’s Rights, Medica Zenica, The Forgotten Children of War, Vive Žene
- Kosovo: Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT), Medica Gjakova
- Croatia: Centre for Women War Victims – ROSA
- Serbia: Association of Roma “Danica” Pančevo, Association of Roma Novi Bećej, Autonomous Women’s Center, Humanitarian Law Center, Roma Women of Vojvodina, Women in Black Belgrade, Youth Initiative for Human Rights
- A feminist culture of remembrance: Realisation of the rights to truth, compensation and reparation
- Supporting survivors: Improving access to healthcare services for survivors of sexualised violence
- Strengthening feminist action: Networked regional advocacy work
Funding and funders:
- German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
- Louis Leitz Foundation
- Foundation Anne-Marie Schindler
- Own resources
Source: Annual Report 2021
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.
Feminist, inter-ethnic remembrance work
Seven women’s rights organisations from Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina joined with medica mondiale to develop a regional programme whose long-term aim is to establish a feminist, inter-ethnic culture of remembrance.
Educational offers on 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.
Psychosocial 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. For example, our partner organisations in Southeastern Europe took the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on 19 June as an opportunity to conduct cross-border awareness-raising campaigns on this complex issue.
Strategic networking of feminist women's organisations
medica mondiale supports like-minded feminist women’s organisations in their efforts to engage in strategic regional networking.
Research on sexualised wartime violence
Research studies are planned to investigate the long-lasting consequences of sexualised wartime violence and the impacts of compensation payments. Furthermore, these scientific analyses are intended to contribute to improving the legal situation and social recognition of children born of wartime rape. They also contain recommendations for legislative changes and networking.
(Status focal points of work of: 08/2022)
“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.”