Sixteen years after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, survivors of sexual violence and torture continue to suffer lasting trauma. The Vive Žene ("Long Live Women") Center for Therapy and Rehabilitation is one of the leading organizations working in that country to protect women survivors of violence. Vive Žene also urges authorities to provide women access to justice and reparations, including compensation for the crimes committed against them during the war; and to improve domestic violence protection measures. We spoke with Mima Dahic, the organization's cofounder. The Open Society Foundations have supported Vive Žene since 2007.
Women survivors of war-time violence continue to suffer trauma and other problems. Over the years, Vive Žene has helped thousands of women. Can you describe some of the women you help?
Through our rehabilitation programs and community work, we have helped over 11,500 women since 1994. We help women with lasting psychological and medical problems resulting from the war: torture and rape, missing family members, detention, and displacement. Other women are victims of domestic violence who encounter abuse within their families on a daily basis. We don’t divide violence experienced during and after the war because they’re interconnected. Most often, domestic violence cases were also affected by the war.
For example, a client named Nezira came to our center in 2007. She was 45 years old with no job and no money. Her husband, an alcoholic, had been psychologically and physically abusive to her since they got married in 1994. One night he came home drunk. He severely beat her and threw her and their three children out of the house. She called the police who referred her to our center. Through the six months she spent in the center, she went through therapy and learned about her legal rights.
When she left six months later, she divorced her husband who was finally prosecuted by the police two years later. We helped her get temporary housing and some cattle. On a small plot of land she acquired, she also started growing some crops to sell in the market and started a small farm. The income she received allowed her to support herself and her children and to eventually build a house. She’s finally been able to turn her life around. Today, she is living free from violence and able to support herself and her children.
What kind of support is available for women survivors of violence?
Survivors of violence don’t receive adequate support from the state, and laws aren’t implemented effectively. Only the most severe cases are actually prosecuted in court. We often hear from women who suffered domestic violence that their friends or family advised them to stay with their abusive husbands. Most victims don’t receive support from their immediate families. In rural communities especially, it’s still shameful to talk about violence against women.
We help the women to acquire leadership skills to take an active role in improving their community. Group members analyze problems and then together, they create plans to solve them, dividing responsibilities among the group. This helps to develop a sense of belonging and trust. We’ve seen increased self-confidence and self-worth among our members.
What prevents women from reporting domestic violence?
Ninety-eight percent of the women we work with are unemployed, which means they are financially dependent on their husbands. And, if a woman goes to court, the process takes a long time, which means she may end up eventually withdrawing her case. There is also weak punishment for the perpetrator, and protective measures such as restraining orders are rarely enforced. This is because judges lack sensitivity and there aren’t enough resources. Courts don’t have the capacity to properly support witnesses so most survivors refuse to testify. More cases are reported now than in the past, but the data’s still not completely accurate since many cases go unreported. We have a lot of work to do to help break the stigma and end discrimination around the issue of violence against women.
On the positive side, women’s NGOs have worked to educate and raise the sensitivity of the police and to make people more aware that domestic violence is in fact a public responsibility.
Vive Žene advocates for victims’ rights. Why is this work important?
Our goal is to contribute to positive systemic changes in society that protect human rights, especially the rights of women who survived wartime rape and torture. We want to ensure that such crimes are not repeated. It’s important that policymakers design laws that adequately respond to the real needs of victims. The consequences of violence shouldn’t be discussed only by professionals who work directly with survivors, but also by policymakers who are ultimately responsible for the overall development of the country. We believe that avoiding an open discussion about what happened during the war can lead to new conflict. It’s important to break the silence and teach people how to deal with the past.
Vive Žene is working on the grassroots level to help bridge the gaps between small, isolated, and ethnically divided communities. How do you work with local communities?
In 2009, we began working in Konjević Polje, a village in the northeastern part of the country. Before the war, the village was almost entirely comprised of Bosnian Muslims. During the war, it was “ethnically cleansed”—the houses were burned, the village mosque destroyed, many people killed, the survivors expelled. They became internally displaced refugees. Many of them returned to the village in the years after the war.
To get to know the community, we started first to work with children. Then we started therapy groups and helped with legal assistance and medical care. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of positive changes in the people who’ve taken part. Only through wide participation can you achieve significant social change, so we plan on making visits to the neighboring village as well. Last year, through a local women’s organization based in the village, we established a therapy group for women. Ultimately, by working on empowering ethnically divided communities, we hope to establish dialogue and overcome the divisions created during the war.
What are your thoughts on the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Despite all the problems, there have been many positive changes and I am inspired by how Vive Žene has worked to help so many women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are a lot of people who are willing to work to improve the country. For me, the most important thing is for people to start taking personal responsibility for themselves and their role in society. I hope to see improved implementation of laws preventing domestic violence, including better support for victims and state-financed shelters. We also hope to see women victims of wartime rape and torture receive reparations, including psychological support, healthcare, legal aid, and economic compensation. We will continue to push the government to establish a national reparation strategy.
See Vive Žene and Amnesty International's joint campaign “Justice For All: The Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina Are Still Waiting.”