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30. November 2018

Violence against women: Reparations, recognition and coming to terms with the issue

Estimates suggest that during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina some 50,000 women and girls were systematically raped. In spite of the international outrage about this sexualised violence, no process of coming to terms with these crimes found its way into the Dayton Peace Agreement. Similarly, the peace process as a whole barely devoted any attention to the interests of survivors. Today, there has still been no serious acknowledgement of the injustices. In this regard, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not an exception, but the rule.

During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-95), Larisa was raped by Bosnian-Serbian militia. Today, 25 years after the rapes, she is living in poverty and ostracised by the people around her. Her health is also poor: she shows symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Most survivors of sexualised wartime violence are in a similar situation to Larisa’s. In a study on the long-term consequences of wartime rape, conducted by medica mondiale and Medica Zenica in 2014, more than 70 per cent of the participants indicated that the rapes were still significantly influencing their lives.

“After all these years I am so deeply disappointed by any sense of justice. As far as justice from social institutions or courts is concerned – I don't believe in it any more. I no longer consider that to be justice. For me, it just makes the victims look ridiculous. Nothing else. There is no justice there.” Larisa (Name changed)

Throughout the world, survivors are experiencing the same issues. They face stigma and exclusion from their communities. Affected women and girls are often left alone to cope with their trauma; slipping into existential crises. The consequences for society as a whole are also extremely serious. Trauma can be carried over into the next generation. The spirals of violence continue. Vital human resources for reconstruction and reconciliation are blocked. So how can society come to terms with this issue and these crimes? What needs do survivors of sexualised wartime violence have?

Violence against women: The responsibility of society as a whole

In its National Action Plan on "Women and Peace and Security”, the German Federal Government has set out approaches to combat sexualised wartime violence. It places a priority on the judicial prosecution of these crimes, with an almost complete lack of measures to ensure that society takes steps to deal with its past. These could include memorials, museums, remembrance days and other literary or visual forms of remembering. Social acknowledgement of this injustice, as the counter-example to social stigmatisation, plays an important role in helping survivors of sexualised violence to regain their stability. The responsibility for dealing with the consequences of sexualised wartime violence cannot lie with the individual alone. So the new strategy from the German government on dealing with the past (Transitional Justice) should be used to fill exactly this gap.

Laws on reparations: Need for a trauma-sensitive procedure

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, survivors of sexualised wartime violence have been able to apply for the status of ‘civilian war victim’ since 2006. This status entitles them to draw a monthly financial benefit of approximately 275 euros. Additionally, they have access to special assistance programs – including medical care. Bosnia and Herzegovina was actually the first country anywhere to pass a law on compensation, recognising survivors as war victims. This was partly due to the hard work of women’s rights activists. However, in all the years since the passing of the law, only about 800 women have been granted the status.

Few women receive compensation: Why?

Survivors reported significant difficulties with when making an application. The administrative procedures initially necessitate an approved women’s rights organisation like Medica Zenica issuing the survivor with a certificate. Then the application is checked by a statutory commission. The government side of the process is drawn out, unclear and complicated. Time and again the affected person is called in to repeat their ‘story’. They are not believed. And sometimes they are even ridiculed. As a consequence, the survivors repeatedly find themselves in a situation they have no control over, where they might feel great insecurity. In other words, they are subjected to a new experience of humiliation and old wounds are ripped open.

In order to ensure that survivors can perceive the status of civilian war victim as a sign of recognition, several changes are needed to the way it is put into practice. Above all, the Commission has to adopt a trauma-sensitive procedure. The term trauma-sensitive describes an approach to dealing with people who have had traumatic experiences. This type of approach is characterised by empathy and being prepared to empower the affected person. It is about creating a feeling of security for the survivor, enhancing their feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem, and enabling them to integrate socially. For the decision-making committee, a trauma-sensitive way of working would see them helping the survivors to activate their own resources, regaining control over their life as well as trust in themselves and others. In this way, reparation laws could actually make an important contribution to coming to terms with wartime rape.

Source: This is an excerpt from “Coming to terms with sexualised wartime violence: Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina”, an entry for the Peacelab Blog of the German Foreign Office written by Jeannette Böhme, Advocacy and Human Rights Officer at medica mondiale.

Current initiative on the issue of “Compensation and Prosecution”

Monika Hauser, founder of medica mondiale, in conversation with the Congolese Nobel Peace Laureate Dr Denis Mukwege on laws relating to compensation and prosecution. The Mukwege Foundation is carrying out an international initiative on the issue of reparation for victims of sexualised wartime violence. At a symposium in The Hague on November 28, numerous activists, including Monika Hauser, met to discuss their proposals on compensation payments. Other participants included survivors of sexualised violence from ten different countries, representatives of women’s rights organisations from Columbia, Uganda and Kosovo, experts, government representatives such as Maria Teresa, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, and the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten.


Related Topics

Pension for survivors of sexualised wartime violence (1.2.2018)

“We have been harmed but we are brave and strong.” – medica mondiale presents the results of a study on long-term consequences of sexualised violence

Sarajevo: Children of War – Decades of Silence

Sexualised wartime violence: “Trauma is a serious obstacle to peace-building.”

Dayton Peace Accords