The protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) have not taken any observers of the country by surprise, writes Dr Laura McLeod. But, she argues, amid all the early analyses and demands, it’s vital to make sure a gender perspective is included.
Resentment about ongoing corruption encouraged and perpetuated by many politicians and political parties has steadily grown. Protests erupted in July 2013 over the inability of the state to address basic administrative matters like providing citizens with an ID number. It was, as many have said; only a matter of time before demands for change became widespread.
The protests and riots that have taken place in Sarajevo, Tulza, Zenica and Mostar over the past few days have been described as a “collective nervous breakdown” with government buildings being attacked as citizens demand political reform and the removal of politicians who they identify as being corrupt.
The demands of citizens from various towns and cities around BiH have been translated into English here.
Many of these demands can be linked to long-running debates about the need for constitutional reform in BiH. Some, like Eric Gordy, urge for a complete overhaul of the constitution created at the Dayton Peace Agreement of November 1995. Others, like Florian Bieber suggest that bad governance is the main issue.
However, there is something missing from all these early analyses and demands. An explicit discussion of gender.
It is not too early to start thinking about a gender perspective. The temptation is to say “we must concentrate on other things first” and think about gender – and women – as something to add on later. Let’s resist this temptation.
We must, as Cynthia Enloe argues, take gender seriously. Taking gender seriously means listening to, responding to, and carefully considering the ideas put forward. It means not dismissing ideas as “irrelevant” or “trivial”.
A gender perspective on constitutional reform in BiH already exists. In October 2013, a collaboration of 15 civil society organisations, led by TPO Foundation in Sarajevo, and Helsinki Citizens Assembly and Udružene Žene in Banja Luka launched the Women’s Platform for Constitutional Reform from a Gender Perspective.
The Women’s Platform includes five demands (see below) which are achieved through thirteen recommendations for constitutional amendments.
PLATFORM OF WOMEN’S PRIORITIES FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
1. Application of gender-sensitive language in the Constitution of BiH;
2. Introduction of affirmative action principles in the Constitution of BiH to work towards full gender equality;
3. Amendments to the existing catalogue of fundamental rights, to include provisions with respect to common health care services, social and family care;
4. An increase in judicial and legal protection of human rights and liberties;
5. The principle of direct democracy to be applied to the process of constitutional reform.
Extracted from a leaflet given out by Inicijativa Gradanke za Ustavne Promjene on 08.10.13 (author’s own translation).
These five demands are all responses to problems identified by activists. The current constitution only deploys the masculine gender in Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian (BSC) and does not reflect the equal rights that women have: so activists have called for the application of gender-sensitive language in the constitution. Activists do not feel that the current gender equality law (passed in 2003) is being used to its full effect, and so the second demand calls for the use of affirmative action principles within the constitution.
The third priority calls for the harmonisation of health and social care across BiH. This demand is in response to the unevenness of the social welfare system in BiH. An example cited by many activists is access to healthcare within the Federation of BiH, where healthcare is organised on a cantonal level. Because of geographical factors, in some circumstances, people need to bypass their nearest state hospital in order to access healthcare treatment provided by their “home” canton.
The current constitution stresses the collective rights of constituent peoples (i.e. the Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks) rather than the rights of the individual. Frustration with this has meant that the fourth demand calls for a higher degree of (i.e. individual) rights.
And finally, a demand for direct democracy. Currently, the institutions responsible for constitutional questions (the House of Representatives and the Presidency) are indirectly elected. As such, citizens are unable to directly state their approval or disapproval with politicians who have control over the constitutional reform process. Thus, the final demand is for some form of direct democracy.
It’s difficult to describe these reform proposals as a set of clearly feminist demands, and certainly many of those active in the process do not claim that these demands are ideologically feminist. But their demands are gender-aware, and take gender seriously. Significantly, these demands reflect the daily realities and desires of people in BiH: health and social welfare and meaningful inclusion in political processes (which echo many of the demands listed here by protest movements).
For the way in which these demands respond to the realities of day-to-day life in BiH, we should take them seriously.
Women have been missing from many of the institutional reform processes in BiH over the past twenty years. There were no women involved at the elite level during the 1995 peace negotiations to end the war in BiH. Nor have women been included in the elite-led reform processes that have taken place to date.
Furthermore, as Elissa Helms points out, women’s activism in BiH tends to be restricted to humanitarian concerns, rather than formal politics, because of the stigma attached to political involvement. The demands made within the Women’s Platform challenge this history of exclusion.
This is not to say that women have not been protesting. Indeed, the Women’s Network of BiH has called for the right of both men and women to protest, pointing out that BiH is a country which does not guarantee social, political and economic rights to those who are marginalised. But what needs to be taken seriously is a gender perspective for reform, whatever that might look like.
Much of the research that has taken place on our ERC-funded project based at the University of Manchester – “Understanding Institutional Change: A Gender Perspective” – has suggested that the key to successful gender outcomes is early inclusion.
These protests that are taking place across BiH at the moment are indicative of the frustration of citizens from long-term exclusion from elite political processes – a point which Valery Perry also makes. Let’s make sure that a gender perspective is included.