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11 August 2015

Women’s Court in Sarajevo – a Feminist Approach to Justice

From May 7-10, 2015, over 5000 women gathered in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, to break the silence regarding war crimes in former Yugoslavia. The women’s rights organisation “Women in Black” had initiated and coordinated the meeting in Hotel Sarajevo. Under their leadership, preparations for the symbolic court were carried out by women from more than 500 women’s organisations for five years. medica mondiale helped to provide psychosocial support for 38 survivors, since making witness statements at the Women’s Court would be a major psychological challenge for them.

The first Women’s Court in Europe

In Pakistan in 1992 a women’s court with this symbolic nature was organised for the first time and now the idea has been implemented in Europe. The women taking part came mainly from the countries of former Yugoslavia and even beforehand, during the preparation phase, the witnesses, activists, therapists, experts and artists were forming a close solidarity network. The witnesses travelled from Italy, Spain, Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, Latin America and the USA in order to report on the war crimes.

During the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s, tens of thousands of women and girls were raped, tortured and sexually exploited. The first slow steps to deal with the events of that period have been taken. However, the various forms of violence against women are not being sufficiently considered in national or international courts. So a court organised by and for women has become more necessary than ever.

Witnesses describe crimes committed during the Yugoslavia wars

38 women from all the countries of former Yugoslavia reported as witnesses on the sexualised violence they experienced. They testified about massacres, mass rapes and the loss of families or friends, as well as racist, ethnic and cultural persecution and discrimination. In spite of these terrible experiences, the survivors have not given up hope. One woman who lost her husband and sons explained: “I was alone but I fought on. I hope justice will prevail one day.” Those present will also remember another testimony, by a witness from Srebrenica: “I remained alive in order to tell this story. If we stay silent, how can the perpetrators be brought to justice?”

medica mondiale supported the witnesses before their testimony

The crimes portrayed were put into their political, historical and geographical contexts by twelve expert witnesses. One member of this expert committee was the psychologist Marijana Senjak, former director of Medica Zenica. She reported from her 15 years of experience working with women who survived wartime rape. In order to protect the witnesses from retraumatisation, medica mondiale provided assistance to ensure their psychosocial stabilisation. Trained therapists prepared the women for their testimony in the symbolic court. The symbolic international jury was made up of seven well-known activists including the Australian legal scholar and internationally active women’s rights campaigner Dianne Otto and the Slovenian peace activist Vesna Terselic.

Protest march through Sarajevo

The fringe programme of the Women’s Court included an art exhibition under the title “Solidarity – Responsibility – Remembrance”. During the tribunal, survivors and activists could meet here to chat, laugh and cry together. A protest march against forgetting saw more than 600 women take to the streets of Sarajevo with banners and red carnations, demanding justice for survivors. Many of the participants knew each other from their time together at Medica Zenica. One summarised the feeling of community: “We are all the same. The pain is the same. It does not matter if we are Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian. I can empathise with each of you.”