Against the odds: Sustaining feminist momentum in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina By Cynthia Cockburn

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Cockburn, C. 2013. “Against the Odds: Sustaining Feminist Momentum in Post-war Bosnia Herzegovina.” Women’s Studies International Forum. 37 (1): 26–35.


Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse


The work of civil society has been instrumental in building resilience and solidarity in the Yugoslavia destroyed by the nationalist wars. The article “Against the odds: Sustaining feminist momentum in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina” by Cynthia Cockburn elucidates the case study of an organization named “Medica” . It is a women’s organization in central

Bosnia-Herzegovina which was set up to help the women who were raped and traumatized.


A case study has been attempted by the author to understand the role of civil society in responding to the needs of traumatized women who are the survivors of war. Cockburn conducted interviews with the staff of Medica Women’s Therapy Centre in 1995 and 2012 which gives a strong glimpse into war prone and post war BiH.


Cockburn starts the article by revisiting her initial days of interviews in November 1995 which was just after a week of the Dayton Peace Accord. Her visit was oriented to explore how in the war destroyed Bosnia- Herzegovina, Medica Women’s Therapy Centre, is acting as a resource which offers medical and psycho-social care to women survivors of war-time rape. She interviewed the teams of doctors, psychotherapists, nurses and office staff that played an indispensable role in building resilience amongst various women in the town of Zenica. She later also writes about her second fieldwork in 2012 which was seventeen years later. This time the motive was to retrospect the war time solidarity and also study the developments of the post-conflict period. The reason behind her second fieldwork was to see the success of civil society in retaining its struggle or what Annette Kuhn puts it, as “material for interpretation, to be interrogated, mined for its meanings and its possibilities” (Kuhn, 2005, p.15).

Medica Women’s Therapy Centre was started in 1993 by an Italian gynaecologist named Monika Hauser who was greatly disturbed by the mass rapes of women in the Serb and Croat nationalist campaigns of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia. Medica, therefore, came as a resource of medical and psycho-social care of women survivors. Mentioning about her first visit in 1995, Cockburn described that patients ranged from “teenagers to elderly women, survivors of not only rape but wounding, imprisonment, uprooting, bereavement and loss” (Cockburn, 2013, p.28). A striking feature of this centre was the staff who was aiding these women were themselves survivors of the Bosnian war. According to Meliha Branković, who had been Medica’s anesthesiologist they all “were all pioneers back then, at a loss to know how to handle the situation. The amazing thing is that we found ourselves, and each other. We were learning from one day to the next how to help women survive trauma. Each woman that worked in Medica contributed in her own way” (in Cockburn, 2016, p.32). This way, Medica offered support to the women who didn’t have male support and also trained them to live independently.

Cockburn associates the central value of Medica as feminist as the whole project is described as “autonomous, feminist, politically independent, decentralized and [implemented] in conjunction with women from all the republics of former Yugoslavia. It was a revelation about women’s engagement and power. It was a huge gain for me,’ she says, ‘seeing what women can achieve through solidarity networks and sharing”. This civil engagement and the power of civil society “created circumstances which facilitated women’s broader engagement in the spectrum of women’s activities, roles and presence in the public sphere. In some cases, this experience of activism has also led to the development of a clear political commitment toward feminism which still shapes women’s agency and activism in the context of today’s Bosnia” , (Deiana, 2011, p.256)

One striking feature of this organization highlighted by Cockburn was their refusal to view ethno- national differences with vehemence. Seven out of seventy staff members of Medica is not from Muslim/ Bosniak identification and identified themselves as Bosnian Serbs or Bosnian Croat and this according to Cockburn was the strongest point of this organization. When people around them were busy killing each other this civil society organization worked on the transnational factor for building solidarity amongst people ravaged by war. Drawing from that Medica extended itself to the victims of various sufferings such as male violence in home, women in distress and prostitution in which they were trafficked. It got involved into the movement of “women against violence against women”. The team at Medica kept renewing their methods to cater to the needs of various kinds of trauma.

In order to establish a stronger link with the civil society, Medica also accepted help from the local state which “they see it as an important goal to get the government (of BiH as of any state) at all levels and in the long term to recognize the prevalence and seriousness of male violence against women, take responsibility for addressing it in law and set up the institutional arrangements to prevent it, and to care for survivors”. Ferida says, ‘After all, it’s the duty of the state, the police and social welfare, to take that responsibility Medica should be an adjunct, a helper, of the state in its work”. Despite the preferences of some international donors, activism in BiH civil society was enabling women “to gain moral authority and real, though indirect, power with which to achieve their often very political goal” (Helms, 2003,16).Medica’s Sabiha Haskić and Udružene Žene’s director Nada Golubović also provided strong examples of how Medica created progressive approaches like the law of social protection which accepted women war rape survivors as a category needing financial support from the state. They also explicated that domestic violence was not considered to be a crime in Bosnian law. But through their lobbying and help of other civil society members they successfully got the Law on Protection against Domestic Violence which states: “domestic violence shall be any act of inflicting physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm or suffering, as well as threats as regards the aforementioned, and lack of due care and attention which may seriously impede family members from enjoying their rights and freedoms in all areas of public and private life which are based on equality.”



The existence of organizations like Medica exemplifies the power of civil society in re-establishing the countries destroyed by war and violence. The untiring efforts of Medica in helping war victims in general and women in, particular have made significant changes on the grassroots level to bring sustainable change. Medica has also been in a continued partnership with Udružene Žene and various women’s NGOs in the Republika Srpska. They have now also extended to provide therapeutic provision for male victims because one of the interviewees stated ‘people who have experienced violence are more likely to be unable to control their own aggression’. One way or another, she says, ‘We can’t evade it, we have to work with men”. The upcoming challenging of Medica according to Sabiha is to empower women under the clutches of capitalism where women work with poor trade union and their wish of self-employment is hampered. In this culture they are merely reduced into “consumers, articles of consumption and objects of fun” (in Cockburn, 2016, p.34).


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