Unforgettable testimonies at court for women survivors

Demonstration opening Women's Court. The banderole says: "Women's court – feminist approach to justice". Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Milica Mirazic.

Demonstration opening Women’s Court. The banderole says: “Women’s court – feminist approach to justice”. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Milica Mirazic.

”I am a heroine!” said one of the younger women who testified. She had survived a long period of sexual violence, rape and torture as a teenager in one of the rape camps, a more or less forceful and violent marriage, divorce and a new beginning. ”They took most of my childhood. They took my youth. But the present, and the future are mine.”

Last weekend, May 7-10, Women’s Court in Sarajevo gathered some 500 women from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia, to testify and listen to witnesses and their personal life-stories about what happened during the Balkan wars in the 90s and thereafter – and how that affected, and still affects, women’s lives today.

The most powerful thing about the Court was that the women survivors and their testimonies were at the centre. They were made subjects, taking power of the space and of their own stories. The rest of us could only listen, and give our solidarity and standing ovations to their courage.

The process leading up to the Court has taken several years. As far as I know, the idea was first launched in 2001, and the work intensified during 2010. An enormous amount of work has been carried out in the last five years in each respective country as well as at the regional level.
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No Europe without women’s human rights

Advocacy trip to Brussels. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna

Recently, 14 women’s rights activists from the Balkans, together with Kvinna till Kvinna staff, visited Brussels to advocate for women’s human rights. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna

Violence against women and lack of justice for battered women is still a huge problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  At the same time, the country aims to be part in the EU. Sometime in the future. It is a golden opportunity for the EU to make demands and put pressure on the country to make a change for gender equality and women’s human rights! That is the message when women human rights defenders visit Brussels.

The new 2014 Bosnia and Herzegovina Progress Report*, recently published by the European Commission, was evaluated as the worst one so far. As expected, it reflects the lack of the collective political will by the government to implement reforms necessary for joining the EU.

Just like in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the European Commission keeps marginalizing issues concerning the protection of women’s human rights and gender equality, reducing them to a few general statements in the section of human rights. In dealing with other important topics, such as social policies, public health and trafficking in human beings, the report does not have a gender perspective at all.

In the beginning of November, a group of activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania had a chance to visit Brussels, thanks to support by Swedish foundation Kvinna till Kvinna. The activists meet with officials of EU institutions, talked to member states representatives to the European Union, visited the European Parliament and talked to members of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

I was part of this team of amazing women who have been cooperating for decades, without any political, national, ethnic or other obstacles. We are directly responsible for a series of successful peace building initiatives at both national and regional levels, and have contributed to the inclusion of women’s rights in laws, enhanced support to women and the increased visibility of women’s issues and problems.

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Sara: A woman from my homeland

Sara, refugee in Iraq

Sara’s third child wasn’t even 40 days when her husband, family’s only breadwinner, was killd by criminal militias in Baghdad.

I met her when I was volunteering, assisting displaced families in Baghdad. She had a baby in her lap, whom I thought was her brother. It would never have occurred to me that it was her third child. Her innocence, small size and paleness made me guess that her age was no more than 20. I approached her and asked about her condition. Her name was Sara, she was 18 years old and had three kids. She married when she was 13. She found no other way to survive after her father had died in an explosion in 2003, under the US occupation, and her mother also passed away some time after that. She had moved to her elder sister’s and to get rid of the financial burden that she was, her sister encouraged her to marry her cousin, who was 19.

“Never did I attend school,” Sara told me with frozen feelings and dry eyes. “I’m illiterate. My husband was a manual worker who earned daily wages. He was skillful in his work. I had two children. While I was visiting my relatives in Baghdad, I went into labour with my third child. My husband could not come to that Shiite area because he belonged to a different religious sect. I stayed with my relatives for nearly two weeks. Then, when my husband tried to come to take me back something must have happened, I lost contact with him. I looked for him for days until I found his body in the fridge of the Forensic Medicine Office. My baby wasn’t even 40 days old when I buried my husband.”

Her husband was killed by criminal militias who are still looking for preys in Baghdad to murder and mutilate. That is part of the sectarian violence currently taking place in Iraq.

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Gender equality in churches

“Africa – we want equality! Africa – we want liberty!”

This is the chorus of a song promoting women’s rights which was performed in an evangelical church in Uvira Territory in South Kivu last Sunday. This song and several others on the theme of women as agents for peace are part of a project conceived and executed by Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organisation MIFA to promote women’s participation in councils of conflict participation in local churches.

Dina Muhirwa Nagazura

Dina Muhirwa Nagazura from Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organisation MIFA.

MIFA (Ministère de Femmes en Action) is a community based organisation active in urban and rural areas in Uvira Terrirory.

The message of the project is transmitted not only through music, but also through training sessions for pastors, literacy training for women and awareness raising about the important role women have played in biblical history as peacemakers and role models.

“This project will be successful because it responds to a real need within the churches”, MIFA’s coordinator Dina Muhirwa Nagazura explains when we meet her in Bujumbura.

“There is a growing understanding among church leaders that women should be incorporated on equal footing with men on all levels on the organisations, not the least in the councils for conflict resolution. With a higher percentage of women in the councils, they will represent the population in a more adequate way and be of better use to the communities.”

Katarina Carlberg, field representative for Kvinna till Kvinna in DR Congo

Thirsting for justice – a review of the Sjövik seminar 14-16 June

The 11th Sjövik seminar 2013 started one day after the Swedish Minister of International Development Cooperation announced that Sweden should cut its development aid to Palestine, since it yields no visible results. The focus of the seminar was the water situation and the situation of women in Palestine. As usual, restrictions on travel for Palestinians implied that the planned participants were not able to attend which resulted in a list of guests that were not necessarily as familiar with the topic of women’s rights in Palestine as the original plan. However, the guests made up for it with compelling and moving personal stories about being women in Palestine.

The only guest from Israel, Lihi Joffe from New Profile, did a very good job of focusing on feminism and the impact of militarism on the Israeli society. She spoke in depth about the way in which militarism infiltrates all parts of Israeli society. Her talk started with the question: “Do we have a country with an army or do we have an army with a country?”  and went on to inform the audience about the societal sanctions that people who leave the army or refuse to serve will face in the Israeli society; how schools create a ranking system or a pecking order between students based on how many in their family that have served in the army during the history of wars in Israel.

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Breaking the silence

It is the 11th of May 2013, in Prishtina, Kosovo. 14 years after the war, seven young female students of arts and acting, ready to break the silence. From the outside, Prishtina looks like a modern city, recovered from its tragic past. For some, the trauma from the war has still not been treated, nor talked about.

During the 1998-1999 conflict, rape was used as a weapon of war, with the purpose of destroying families and the society. In the Kosovo context, rape is closely connected to shame, which makes it also hard to talk about in the aftermath of the war.

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