Last week, WILPF International gathered more than 70 women’s right and civil society activists in the city of Sarajevo for an innovative and ground-breaking conference on women’s participation in conflict and post-conflict countries.
The conference was entitled “Women organizing for change in Bosnia and Syria.” This international meeting enabled women’s rights activists from Bosnia and Syria to share and compare information on how to organise and mobilize during conflict, with a special emphasis on how to influence the peace making process.
Five intensive days in Sarajevo
The timing was opportune: as the women met in Sarajevo a new wave of demonstrations were taking place in the streets of many of the major towns in BiH, protesting still at the straitjacket the peace agreement of Dayton had placed on real people and real lives, and whilst second round of the Geneva II peace talks, negotiating only between warring parties without women lead civil society, continued to fail.
During five intensive days, conversations, seminars, and group discussions took place, some of them almost brutally honest, but all constructive and done in the spirit of solidarity and support. Specifically, the women addressed three fundamental elements to attaining peace: women’s participation in peace processes, addressing gender based violence and justice.
An overall theme of the conference was the multiple roles and potential of women as agents of change, revolutionaries, policy makers and peace builders.
The nontechnical aspect of peacemaking
The conference was not just about the technicalities of peacemaking, but also about sharing the pain, fear and a sense of despair regarding the current situation on the ground.
Both the Syrian and the Bosnian women related how a life after conflict seems impossible, when your reality is filled with the terror of war. Sharing these personal stories was an important step to take before starting to discuss how women can gain influence in their country’s peace processes.
As one of the Syrian participants concluded, “it is the first time anybody outside Syria has understood the processes and challenges I am going through, and I feel their connection and support. The Bosnian women are proof that life continues in one way or the other after the horrors of conflict and we need to continue to build on these experiences.”
Pushing each other forward
The Syrian women were not the only ones inspired. The Bosnian women used the conference as an opportunity to reflect upon and analyse their work during the past 20 years. Through the conversations with the Syrian participants, the Bosnian women tested the logic of their work and discussed what their future work should look like. As one of the Bosnian women remarked, the Syrian activists “had slapped Bosnians in the face” by pushing them to take a stand in regards to the ongoing protests in Bosnia.
During the conference, the Bosnian women organisations developed further strategies for mobilising their demands for accessing rights in the context of post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Never seen before
The conference was the first of its kind. It provided a space for Syrian and Bosnian women activists to come together and interact and to learn and draw lessons from shared experiences in conflict and post-conflict zones. This type of meeting has never been seen before. All of the conference’s participants and organizers left with the feeling that something amazing had happened.
One conclusion was clear: sustainable peace and development cannot be reached if women and civil society are omitted from the process of negotiating that peace and transition.
For the Syrian activists, who are currently organising and readying to participate in the Syrian peace negotiations, the conference provided a more in-depth discussion on how they could mobilize their resources, develop their approaches, sharpen their demands and broaden their constituencies.
The Bosnian activists, on the other hand, left the conference with the motivation and inspiration to re-evaluate their activism in the past and to re-think their strategy for future. The women mobilised and reached a common ground in response to the ongoing demands in the street and read them out at the plenum in Sarajevo the same day!
Next steps organizing a change in Bosnia and Syria
WILPF International is now preparing a longer analyses and outcome report of the conference.
The report will go into much more detail with the experiences, the components, the obstacles and the opportunities for women’s civil society in Syria and Bosnia. We expect it to be done soon, so keep an eye on this website to get access to the report as soon as it is published.