Author:Isakovic, Nela Porobic


Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is approaching the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA). This passage of time gives us a valuable platform from which we can look back at what has been done with respect to building of peace. It also gives us an opportunity to understand what is still being done with respect to societal transformation.

The DPA succeeded in stopping the war in BiH, but it also codified new political categories. For the purpose of this article, the most relevant are ethnicity and international community. The so-called international community had a major role in negotiating peace. (i) This role enabled the international community to establish itself within the DPA as one of the power-holders in the post-war period, able to intervene and make decisions in relation to both civilian and military state matters. However, its poor understanding of the root causes of the war played into the hands of nationalist projects. Consequently, the DPA institutionalized ethnic and territorial divisions, which corresponded to the war-gains and nationalist projects articulated before and during the war. Ethnicity thus became central to the organization of the state. The Constitution of BiH, constituent to the DPA, ensured that only people who identify as one of three ethnic groups--namely Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs--were allowed to participate in decision-making bodies.

The arrangements in the peace agreement also led to a cultivation of the status quo in power relations established both during the war and throughout the period of peace negotiations. Even now the ethno-nationalist elites use their power to perpetuate the public discourse on ethnic conflict. (ii) On the other hand, through the DPA, the international community uses the context of "perpetual conflict" to maintain its power by acting as mediators.

Negotiating the DPA was not just about transitioning the country from war to peace. It was also about transforming it from one ideological system to another. The DPA closed the space for any societal discussion on what sort of political, economic, and social system Bosnia was to have after the war; capitalism was presented as the only viable option. (iii,iv) The country's post-conflict reconstruction and recovery processes took on a neoliberal character grounded in political and economic policies that became more pronounced post-2006, as well as in ideological interventions that had already started during the war. (v) Neoliberal values such as individualism, privatization, and competitiveness were promoted over socialist values, such as solidarity, equality, collective good, and social ownership. Socially progressive values introduced under the socialist doctrine of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), such as class and gender equality, were the first to be revised under the new system. (vi.1)

These changes framed the war as an ideological focal point, with the conflict serving to erase pre-war values and institutions. This sort of 'active politics of forgetting' led to a depoliticization of society, and references to the pre-war period became either nostalgic or demonizing. (2) This both allowed and forgave the dysfunctionalities of the system the DPA imposed. (vii) Within this framework of forgetting and demonizing prior structures, donor interventions, instead of rebuilding, strengthening, and helping reform existing societal structures, focused on starting from scratch, building new NGOs, new networks, and new institutions. (viii,ix) The same held true for gender equality.


Many actors have been involved in the construction of what most Bosnians would describe today as "precarious" peace. However, very few have been as consistently involved as organizations with feminist and women's rights agendas. Despite the continuity of their work, women's demands and attempts to participate in political decision-making have remained marginalized. The peace work feminists and women in the region did during the war was ignored throughout peace negotiations, as were the concerns they raised. (3)

The exclusion of women should not be understood as a historical mistake, rooted in the specificities of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian context. Although feminist research indicates that women's meaningful participation in peace negotiations and peace processes "increases the likelihood that an agreement will be reached in the short term while also making it more likely that the peace that results will be more sustainable," the participation of women in peace negotiations and peace agreements is scarce across the globe. (4,x) With the DPA and BiH, the total exclusion of women from peace negotiations and from the decision-making process occurred within a context where feminist and women peace activists from around the world were publicly engaged during and before the war in opposing the war and dealing with the consequences of militarized actions.

In 2013, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom conducted a retrospective exercise with women from BiH who were active in peace and women's rights activism during the war, and women testified on the international community's complete lack of interest in a gender equality agenda as an integral part of DPA. (5) There are various reasons why such an exclusionist approach dominated Bosnian peace negotiations and has continued to dominate the country's political, economic, and cultural space to date. The country's peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction and recovery process reveals how international politics and conventional frameworks of peacebuilding and development played a considerable role in women's exclusion. The international community's limited understanding of the gendered experiences of war led to treating gender equality not as an essential part of peacebuilding but as an added value to be dealt with later. At the same time, donor-driven, post-war interventions in gender equality treated women's rights as if none of these rights existed in the country before. This approach greatly affected the space for feminist political interventions into gender equality.


While it is not the focus of this article to discuss the different aspects of the grassroots feminist movement, it is necessary to demonstrate our understanding of the term. We do so bearing in mind the context and particularities of BiH and our own ideological and feminist position. In our article, "grassroot feminist movement" reflects our understanding that the demands feminists push forth must be firmly based in a local historical continuity of the struggle for gender equality, as well as the knowledge of lived experiences and local systems. The 'movement' within this notion reflects the ability to mobilize for collective action and to cultivate an ideological feminist debate that brings meaning to ongoing societal changes.

With such an understanding, we argue that no such grassroots feminist movement was fostered in post-war BiH, nor does it exist today. Instead, the different donor-interventions led to an "NGOization" of feminism and the "projectization" of gender equality. (xi) Donors insisted on working through formally registered NGOs, conditioning their work through rigid organizational structures, formats of work, and frameworks of action and topics. This led to the institutionalization of activism and the dismantling of the historical continuity of grassroots feminist work in the country. Consequently, the potential for women's organizations and feminists to contribute to building a peace reflective of societal needs was impaired.

Throughout the article, we use the terms donors and international actors as blanket terms for various actors including individual countries, UN agencies, international organizations, donors, as well as international non-governmental organizations acting as donors to local NGOs or as implementers of various projects. Interventions" refer both to funding for different local NGOs and organization's projects, such as UN agencies' projects. We recognize that over time the focus on gender equality of different international actors has changed, as well as the actors themselves, but we will use generalizations, as the outcome remains the same. Furthermore, we recognize that the international actors' role is not homogeneous and varies over time, and that one particular actor can have different roles, spanning from ideological framing, political decision-making to donor funding. However, in this text we mainly focus on the politics of donor funding and its consequences for gender equality in BiH.


Understanding donor interventions in war and post-war BiH requires a brief contextual overview of women's NGOs and their role over time. The concept of NGOs, and the way they operate today--as specialized, project-oriented experts and service providers--is in principle a post-war development, an adaptation to the changing ideological construct of the state and circumstances. Nevertheless, over the course of BiH's history, women have organized in different ways in order to improve their position in the public and private sphere.

From the beginning of the 20th century, records show significant activities in this field. Women organized both within specific women's organizations and within other organizations that were resisting exploitation at the time.'' During World War II, the Communist Party's proclamation of equality of sexes attracted large masses of women from rural and urban areas, both illiterate and educated, to the people's liberation movement. Eventually the women formed the Antifascist Women's Front (Antifasisticki front zena - AFZ) in 1942. (7) The mobilization took place in BiH and in other parts of the region that would eventually become part of the Socialist Federal Republic of...

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