Dealing with war-related sexualised violence: lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina


Jeannette Böhme

“After all these years I am so deeply disappointed in justice, that for some time it had a great psychological impact. The justice from social institutions, courts, I don’t believe in it anymore. It is not a justice for me anymore. For me that is ridiculing the victims. Nothing else. There is no justice there.” (Larisa (name changed)

Larisa was raped by Bosnian Serb militias during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today, 25 years after the rapes, her social and financial circumstances are precarious. She is in poor health and displays symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Most survivors of war-related sexualised violence are in a similar situation to Larisa’s: more than 70 per cent of participants in a 2014 study on the long-term effects of war rapes in Bosnia and Herzegovina said that the rapes were still having a major impact on their lives.

Survivors of sexualised violence are stigmatised and excluded

It is estimated that as many as 50,000 women and girls were systematically raped during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite the international outrage at the sexualised violence, no provisions on dealing with these crimes were included in the Dayton Peace Agreement. As a result, the interests of the survivors were barely considered during the peace process, and a serious effort to acknowledge the injustice has not yet been made. In that sense, Bosnia and Herzegovina is by no means an exceptional case; on the contrary, it is the norm.

It is the same all over the world: survivors are stigmatised by society and marginalised. The women and girls affected are often left to deal with their trauma alone and suffer financial hardship. But at a broader societal level too, the impacts are severe. Trauma can be passed down to the next generation, perpetuating the spiral of violence and blocking resources for reconstruction and reconciliation. But what can be done to ensure that the process of dealing with war-related sexualised violence is successful? What kind of needs do survivors have?

Addressing the issue: a responsibility for the whole of society

In its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, the German Government describes various approaches for combating war-related sexualised violence, placing particular emphasis on the criminal prosecution of these crimes. However, measures for a whole-of-society approach to dealing with this aspect of the past are largely absent. And yet social recognition of this abuse, without stigmatisation, would do much to restore stability to survivors.

Dealing with the impacts of war-related sexualised violence, therefore, should not be a matter for the individual alone: it is a task for the whole of society. The German Government’s new transitional justice strategy should close this gap.

What is needed, above all, is a trauma-sensitive approach

Since 2006, survivors of war-related sexualised violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been able to apply for the status of “civilian war victim”, which entitles them to a monthly pension, equivalent to around 275 euros. They also have access to specific support programmes, such as medical care. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the first country to pass legislation recognising rape survivors as civilian victims of war and providing such compensation. It was a hard-won victory for women’s rights organisations. However, to date, only around 800 women – and 100 men – have been granted this status. Why so few?

Survivors report considerable difficulties with the application process. First, the applicant must be issued with a certificate by an accredited women’s rights organisation. The application is then examined by a government commission in a protracted and complex process that lacks transparency. Applicants are required to tell their “stories” to the commission on repeated occasions. They are given little credence and in some cases, they are mocked or ridiculed. Survivors thus find themselves – yet again – in a situation over which they have no control, subjecting them to great uncertainty and repeated humiliation and reopening their old wounds.

For survivors to be able to perceive the status of civilian war victim as a sign of respect, various changes need to be made to the system’s practical implementation. First and foremost, a trauma-sensitive approach is required from the commission responsible. Trauma sensitivity means an attitude characterised by empathy and the willingness to empower those affected. It is about creating a safe environment for survivors, building their sense of self-efficacy and self-worth and enabling them to connect with others within society. A trauma-sensitive approach by the decision-making body would enable survivors to mobilise their own resources, regain control over their lives and rebuild trust in themselves and others. In this way, compensation legislation has the potential to make an important contribution to dealing with war rapes.

Gender justice – a cornerstone of peace

The problems with the application process are symptomatic of Bosnian society’s approach to dealing with the survivors of war-related sexualised violence. For those affected, silence – even now – is imperative. If they break this silence, they suffer discrimination. The destructive psychosocial dynamics that were triggered by the sexualised violence are thus perpetuated in Bosnia’s patriarchal post-conflict society. The striking lack of justice is highly destabilising and is diametrically opposed to any ending of injustice. Sustainable peace can only be achieved, however, if these survivors are able to participate equally and if their rights are enforced, at long last, at political, economic and social level. Ultimately, it is about making gender justice a reality.

The implementation of compensation laws must therefore be accompanied by other measures. For example, survivors need psychosocial counselling, legal advice and medical care. International partners should make it a priority to involve families and communities in efforts to address these crimes in order to prevent new dynamics of violence. Government institutions in the health, justice, security and education sectors must be sensitised to the impacts of war-related sexualised violence and trained to deal with survivors in a trauma-sensitive manner. At a whole-of-society level, campaigns are needed to raise awareness of the abuse. All these measures are important in order to break taboos, end stigma and avoid retraumatisation.

What should the German Government do?

The German Government should make gender justice and dealing with war-related sexualised violence a priority in its transitional justice strategy. The lessons learned from Bosnia and Herzegovina offer practical entry points here. First and foremost, this issue should be given the necessary consideration, and the rights of survivors set forth, in peace agreements. Women must be involved as equals at every stage in peace processes, including peace negotiations, reconciliation and reparation.

Compensation laws can be effective mechanisms for recognising injustice and providing financial safeguards for survivors. National governments in post-conflict countries have a responsibility to provide adequate financial resources for this purpose and to implement these laws in a trauma-sensitive manner. The German Government, for its part, should utilise the scope available through its foreign policy and development cooperation to ensure that compensation laws are adopted and implemented in an effective manner.

Providing financial and political support for women’s organisations

Even now, it is mainly the independent women’s rights organisations that offer holistic support to survivors and advocate for their rights. Many of their employees have been performing this often very demanding work for decades and have been working tirelessly to support affected women and girls. They themselves often encounter hostility and intimidation because of their commitment. The German Government should provide financial assistance to women’s organisations to enable them to establish integrated support services and protection systems. They should promote the advocacy work undertaken by women’s rights defenders and make rigorous efforts to protect them. 

Developing the strategy on dealing with the past is a whole-of-government task. For the strategy to have a practical impact, it must be implemented by the ministries in a coherent manner. The German Government should establish interdepartmental mechanisms for this purpose. Two measures are important here: firstly, the German Government should implement the strategy in consultation with the Inter-Ministerial Working Group 1325 and with civil society working in the area of women, peace and security; and secondly, it should provide adequate human and financial resources.


First published in PeaceLab Blog, 29 November 2018

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Jeannette Böhme is responsible for politics and human rights at medica mondiale e. V. The women’s rights organization supports women and girls who have survived sexual violence during wars.

Issue: Gender

a. Gender in practice is primarily associated with the integration of women and their perspectives in processes and institutions. Which challenges need to be resolved through practical action?
b. Which other topics that can be addressed through TJ measures lend themselves to consideration through a gender lens?