In Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the ghosts of the past still haunt the city. Bullet holes riddled high-rise buildings; smashed up pavements and knocked-down palaces are an everyday reminder of past wounds.

On 9 July in a conference room in a hotel that once was a target of shelling, in a city besieged for 1,425 days by the Army of Republika Srpska sits a group of Bosnian and Syrian women activists. They are eagerly discussing peace activism. Invited by WILPF and The London School of Economics and Political Sciences Centre for Women, Peace and Security (LSE), they have come together for three days to learn from each other’s experience in dealing with conflict and feminist activism – and ultimately finding solutions for their paths forward. 

Present in the room are activists, academics and representatives of feminist and women’s rights groups and political movements from Syria, BiH, Kosovo, and Croatia as well as international experts in the law, political economy and political campaigning.

 

Changing contexts

The three-day convening is the latest of WILPF’s path-breaking ‘Feminist Solidarity Dialogues’ and it is the second time such a dialogue takes place between women activists from Syria and BiH.

The first took place in February 2014 and covered topics like peace negotiations, women’s participation in peace-making and peace-building, and gender-based violence and justice. 

While the first dialogue was a success, the contexts in both countries have changed considerably since then. 

Today, BiH has neither advanced in terms of dealing with war-time past nor has it improved access to social and economic rights – both essential for the recovery of a war-torn society and for the maintaining and strengthening of peace.

As for Syria, the conflict has dramatically worsened and the needs of Syrians have changed significantly; topics such as how can women co-ordinate to find the missing, the forcibly disappeared and detained loved-ones, how can they highlight the gendered impact of crimes and hold perpetrators to account, and how can they work to move towards both peace and greater equality have been added to the agenda.

 

Women’s missing access to political participation

Madeleine Rees, WILPF’s Secretary-General (photo credits: Sanja Vrzic)

While the Syrian activists in 2014 had a hope that they could have an influence on the peace agenda, it is clear today that despite great efforts, their access and influence remained limited. Women are too often excluded from the conversation and have been left out of political processes all around the world, and Syria is no exception.

As Madeleine Rees, WILPF’s Secretary-General, a lawyer and staunch feminist, stated at the beginning of the dialogue, the problem with peace in Bosnia and other former Yugoslavia countries is that it was done without women. “A better metaphor than a glass ceiling,” she said, “would be a membrane, we need to break the membrane.” Emphasising to the Syrian activists that women participation is imperative to achieving a genuine and sustainable peace.

 

The importance of unity

One of the big questions that emerged early on in the conversations was how to embrace differences as feminists and activists and find strength in unity.

Goran Bubalo a Bosnian activist talked from his experience of heading a network of 180 civil society organisations. He said that sometimes we as activists focus so much on our differences that we forget our shared struggle; we forget our mission and our message. His main advice to the Syrian activists was to put aside small differences and speak with a single unified voice for stronger impact.   

Sophie Walker, the founding leader of the Women’s Equality Party in the United Kingdom, emphasised the importance of organising. “We need to speak with one voice. We have to embrace each other’s differences to find common ground. This will mean learning to get comfortable with what sometimes feels uncomfortable. But we need a clear mission statement. Because the strength of our resistance is in our linked arms.” 

The need to unite was made all the more apparent after a clear-sighted intervention from Salma Kahaleh, Executive Director of Dawlaty. “We’re dealing with this idea that the problem is with ‘our men’. We see an expert white man, after an expert white man who are coming in to solve the problem of these ‘natives’ who are not including their women.” These so called experts in peace and reconstruction are all too often reluctant to push for women inclusion or challenge what they see as the prejudices of the communities they are attempting to help bring to peace. “It’s not just about fighting to be included at the table, it’s about the way the international community manages peace processes, which reinforces racialised and sectarian forces. So it’s about how we work together to find alternative models for peace processes,” Salma added.

Dima Moussa from the Syrian Women’s Political Movement emphasised that when women speak out, everything is political. She said: “Women are feminists by instinct and we need to help each other.” She also stressed the importance of the media and how Syrian activists should engage with it in a more effective way. 

 

The missing, the returnees and reparations 

In parallel workshops on ‘missing persons’ and ‘the return process’, the participants went into a conversation on the lessons to be learned from the Bosnian experience. 

During these workshops, the legal experts in the room provided input and shared knowledge on the international law and relevant mechanisms, while Bosnian activists told how similar mechanisms were utilised in their experience, whether they had been beneficial, and what should be avoided. 

Reparations were also discussed extensively in the context of transitional justice, to answer questions on who should benefit from it, who should fund it, and how it can and should be calculated, with examples from limited reparations that had been provided in BiH thus far and elsewhere.  

 

Feminist political economy

Jacqui True, Professor of International Relations and Director of Monash University’s Centre for Gender, Peace and Security, provided the opening discussion to a session on neoliberal approaches to peacebuilding, in which the participants discussed how feminist political economy can be used to advance our understanding of what needs to be done for a society in transition. 

Nela Porobic, WILPF’s Coordinator of ‘Women Organising for Change in Bosnia’ project, brought forward the Bosnian experience and analysis, and highlighted the impact of neoliberal approaches to peacebuilding on society and women’s rights in Bosnia today. The Syrian activists raised excellent questions on privatisation, neoliberalism, crony capitalism, and sanctions – issues that Syria is currently and will continue to be experiencing with the regime in power. 

 

Moving forward

 After  thorough discussion about the peace process, feminism and international law, the rebuilding of society, reconstruction and reparation, the Syrian participants walked out into streets that only twenty five years ago were raked by bullets and bombs. It was clear that the testimony of their Bosnian counterparts had offered both encouragement and chastening lessons about how to move forward, organise effectively, and keep solidarity at the heart of their everyday work.

An upcoming comprehensive report of the three day conference will be published during Autumn 2019. Watch this space for updates.