WOMEN-BOSNIA: Breaking Down The Barriers To Peace And Coexistence

Kevin Sullivan

SARAJEVO, Sep 21 1998 (IPS) - To reach the head office of Zena 21, a glossy women’s magazine published in Sarajevo, visitors step from a pot-holed side-street through an ancient doorway into a vast and gloomy turn-of-the-century hall.

A winding stair with a wobbly wooden banister and steep worn steps leads through the upper darkness to the first floor, where a small sticker bears the magazine’s name.

In contrast to the exterior, behind the unprepossessing office entrance is a bright and bustling editorial complex. Zena 21’s head office is something of a metaphor — the magazine emerged in the darkest period of Bosnia’s war as a vibrant response to a very bleak environment.

Zena 21 carries a standard mix of popular psychology, celebrity interviews and articles on health, cooking and family issues. But it also devotes large amounts of space to covering the social and political status of women.

It is in the vanguard of a profound development in Bosnia’s postwar recovery — the return of women to parliament.

As a result of the war, “women realised that they have to participate in politics and they have to look for solutions themselves,” said Zena 21 Editor-in-chief Nurdzihana Dozic.

“They realised that they have to change things and that positive developments depend on them.”

Dozic and a handful of professional women joined forces in 1994 to organise a collective response to the war. Publishing a magazine was one of several initiatives; other activities included running courses on psychology, health counselling, a women’s pub lishing house and coordinating exchanges among women across the war-torn republic.

Zena 21, first published under siege conditions with an initial print-run of just 5,000 copies, now runs to 60,000 copies monthly and is distributed throughout Bosnia-Hercegovina.

“Women were the first in Bosnia-Hercegovina — if you don’t count smugglers and criminals — who started to make contact (across the communal divide), who started to communicate among themselves,” recalled Dozic.

“Throughout the war we had contact with women outside Sarajevo — they wrote to us, sent us symbolic assistance, even visited.”

Women’s groups around the world lent support, and, closer to home, Dozic emphasises the value of the solidarity which developed during the war among women in Sarajevo and women in the Croatian capital of Zagreb and the Serbian capital of Belgrade, united in their opposition to the war.

Infamously, the Bosnian war saw the orchestrated use of rape as an instrument of terror. Around 30,000 cases of ethnically- motivated sexual assault have been documented. This, together with a widespread perception that the war was a product of male-domin ated politics, has fuelled a move to re-establish women as a force in Bosnian politics, as voters and as candidates.

Under the old socialist system a swathe of legislation guaranteed women’s rights and ensured that almost a quarter of parliamentary deputies were female. In the 1990 multi-party elections the removal of gender quotas led to the removal of most sitting fe male MPs.

From 24.1 percent the figure fell to 2.92 percent. In the first — internationally-supervised — postwar general election, held in 1996, the figure for female representation in parliament fell again, to 2.38 percent. Yet women account for 60 percent of B osnia’s population.

“Men started the war,” Dozic observed bluntly. ‘Women didn’t participate in politics at that time. In 1990 the figure for female members of parliament was just two and a half percent. You can’t fight with such small representation.”

Bosnian and international NGOs pressed the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the body which supervised the Sep. 12-13 general election here, to change the rules.

It required all parties to include at least three members of the minority gender in the top ten names of its candidates’ list. (A women’s party was obliged to include three men.)

The move, supported in law by the U.N. Convention on Discrimination Against Women, is expected to significantly increase the number of female Bosnian parliamentarians.

Results are due later this week. “I’m expecting the number of women in parliament to be between ten and 20 percent,” said Mary Ann Rukavina, Women in Politics programme manager in the OSCE’s Democratisation Department.

The most prominent female Bosnian politician in recent years has been the radical Serb nationalist Biljana Plavsic, a later convert to the Dayton peace accord and cooperation with the OSCE.

But as a general rule, some observers argue, nationalist politics militate against women’s interests. “Nationalism doesn’t value women,” said Rukavina, “It sees women as being important for demographic reasons, their place is to produce children.”

Women, “can actually reach consensus (across the communal divide). Women are new to the political spectrum. They’re not deeply ingrained with wartime corruption. They’re a fresh force. The idea of having women there is not that women by their very natur e are going to be better. It’s that these women are new.”

These new women will face the task of rebuilding Bosnia’s health and education systems and tackling the widespread poverty and unemployment which have persisted in the three years since the end of the war despite a multi-billion dollar international aid


That may be the significance of this month’s election — not simply that the issue of male dominance in politics has been addressed, but that Bosnia can in consequence benefit from fresh political initiatives.

“The country won’t develop unless both men and women participate,” said Nurdzihana Dozic. “There can’t possibly be democratisation if all the power and authority remains in the hands of men. If that happens, all the rights guaranteed in U.N. charters and so on count for nothing.

“Until now we had so little political participation not just among women but among citizens in general. The process of political participation has started now and I don’t believe it will stop.”

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