“There is hope, and people really believe it is possible to live together,” said Zilka Spahic-Siljak, a visiting lecturer on women’s studies and Islamic studies and a research associate in women’s studies at Harvard Divinity School.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

Women on a mission

4 min read

Book spotlights 11 voices of peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where memories of war are still fresh, mothers and grandmothers are working at the grassroots to bring about reconciliation and build a peaceful future for their country, a scholar who is highlighting their stories in an upcoming book said Monday at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.

“These women don’t give up,” said Zilka Spahic-Siljak, a visiting lecturer on women’s studies and Islamic studies and a research associate in women’s studies at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). Her talk, “Women Make Peace, Men Negotiate It,” was presented by the Southeastern Europe study group and co-sponsored with the gender, politics and society study group at the center.

For her book, “Women and Peace-Building in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” which will be published in Bosnian this year and in English in 2014, Spahic-Siljak interviewed 11 community leaders from eight cities. “I have been working with most of these women in the field and I felt I needed to bring to the surface their stories,” she said.

“So far we have only had [stories about] genocide, war-crimes prosecutions, corruption — all negative and depressing portrayals of the country. I wanted to show some positive developments.

“There is hope, and people really believe it is possible to live together.”

Women were brutally targeted in the war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early to mid-1990s. Rape was used as a weapon against women of all ethnic groups, but especially against Bosnian Muslims, an estimated 20,000 of whom were sexually assaulted by Serb forces.

Today, 18 years after the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the conflict and 13 years after the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which urged the protection of women’s human rights during conflict and the greater participation of women in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction, few women hold seats at the table as Bosnia-Herzegovina charts its course, Spahic-Siljak said.

Women are significantly underrepresented across the branches of the government and military in Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose Council of Ministers is entirely male, she said. Spahic-Siljak showed an image of an official Bosnia-Herzegovina delegation to Brussels — nine men and, in the background, one woman.

She cited the cultural and societal factors at play in a nation where women, especially in rural areas, are perceived as part of the household, under the direction of men, and do not inherit family property. “Women do the work, men make the decisions,” she said.

Meanwhile, there has been a general lack of will to implement Resolution 1325, which is not legally binding and contains no sanctions for lack of compliance, she said.

Nonetheless, in the face of these challenges, individuals are working in their communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina to bring their perspectives to bear while forging a more just and peaceful society, she said.

Victims of rape and torture have “been able to cope with their trauma and go on, keep their families together, and to be accepted within the family,” Spahic-Siljak said. “In this society it is hard to say you were [a rape victim] and be accepted again.”

The women whom Spahic-Siljak spotlights in her book were selected based on their recognition as peacemakers within their community, their leadership skills, and their ethnic and religious diversity. All are mothers, spanning generations. The group includes Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and agnostics.

“Some of them are involved in the issues of domestic violence, wartime rape, and the protection of children from violence,” Spahic-Siljak said. “Some of them do education and training about political participation and empowerment of women in public life and politics. Some of them do projects to empower women economically. Some of them do media work through local radio programs and the Web.”

What they have in common, she said, are particular leadership traits: They “see the whole, not only a part,” are “focused to finish the task,” and “believe they need to empower other women, to give them a voice, to give them authority and self-confidence.”

Spahic-Siljak said she wanted to tell the stories of these “peace-builders” to convey a message to coming generations: “Your next-door neighbor may have been a peacemaker. They were able to preserve their humanity in the darkness of war, to protect their neighbors and friends and to stand for dignity, to be there for other people, not to be defeated by fear and hopelessness.

“They were simply strong enough to say ‘no’ to ethnic and nationalistic divisions, to do something that is incredible and important in this country.”