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19 December 2012

Medica Zenica: war is not over - the forgotten suffering of Bosnian woman

Medica Zenica, Bosnia. More than twenty years have passed since the first publication of reports on mass rape of Bosnian women. Several thousand women have been systematically raped, tortured and detained in camps by Serbian soldiers during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina – some of them for weeks. Women of all ages became part of the malicious warfare strategy, serving the demoralisation of the enemy and the ethnic expulsion within the territories claimed by the Serbs. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), there were 20,000 cases of rape. Other sources estimate up to 50,000 cases.

Founding Medica Zenica

For a long time, many international aid organisations remained inactive regarding the atrocities committed against women. However, even while the war was still going on, the Cologne-based gynaecologist Monika Hauser joined forces with approximately 20 female psychologists and doctors from Bosnia to fight for the rights of traumatised women and children. In a joint effort, they founded the women’s therapy centre Medica Zenica in the central Bosnian City of Zenica in spring 1993. Since then, there has been specific support and assistance for women and girls who have experienced violence: gynaecological care, psychosocial counselling and legal assistance are still the main elements of the support programme today. Medica Zenica has become known throughout the country as an important women’s rights organisation. This commitment for women in Bosnia led to the founding of medica mondiale e.V. in Cologne in the following years. Both the German and Bosnian organisations continue to co-operate closely as sister organisations.

How medica mondiale came to life

Breaking the silence on war rape

The commitment shown by Medica Zenica was sorely needed. Women and girls who came to the organisation’s centre were severely traumatised by rape, the loss of family members and other horrifying wartime experiences. They suffered from nightmares, panic attacks and physical pains. Feelings of shame and the taboo around rape made it more complicated for women to overcome the traumatic experience. Instead of protection and support, many women experienced social exclusion and discrimination. In the beginning, it was not an easy task to work with women whose lives had been affected by violence and only the long-term and persistent commitment led to success.

Successes of a Long-term Commitment

In the years since it was founded, thousands of raped women have been given primary medical care, gynaecological treatment and psychological counselling in the women’s therapy centre of Medica Zenica. From 1993 to 2009, more then 900 women and 650 children temporarily stayed at the women’s therapy centre, participated in mother-and-child workshops and received financial support. The entire staff – female doctors, nurses, and therapists as well as cooks and cleaning ladies – received specific training to provide trauma-sensitive care for female patients. This helped to create a safe haven for women, allowing them to recover and regain new strength for their future. More than 600 women learned a profession: Medica Zenica financed vocational training courses for hairdressers, seamstresses and machine knitters. English language workshops and computer training courses were also offered. By participating in these courses, women did not only regain confidence in their abilities, but they also made plans for the future and were able to make a living.

Continued need for support

Even today, 20 years after the beginning of the war, women continue to seek assistance in the therapy centre. Several hundred women are treated in the centre every year. Some of them only now find the courage to ask for help and assistance. Others experience fresh panic attacks because they have decided to testify as a witness or because they have seen their tormentor in the street. When returning to their home towns or former workplaces, many women are haunted by the images of their past. Women who gave birth to a child as a result of rape will be reminded of the traumatic experience leading to the unwanted pregnancy for the rest of their lives. Children born out of rape also need support and assistance. In 2009, 61 women and children stayed in the centre.

Today, however, most women seek help with Medica Zenica because they experience violence in their families or in society. The situation in post-war Bosnia – marked by poverty, high unemployment and broken families – has lead to a sharp increase of violence in society. Medica Zenica took action in view of this situation and set up an emergency hotline: From 1998 to 2009, more than 1,900 calls were registered. All these aspects show how important it is to guarantee long-term support for women and girls in Bosnia. Since 2007, an additional Medica Zenica help and information centre has been set up on the premises of the public social services department. The centre has a separate entrance for women.