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Africa, Ugandan Women Feeding the Community Appearing from nowhere after hearing I was in the area conducting gender group work for the returnees and internally displaced peoples, I approached the women for a photo. As the sole providers of their families, the women were shocked I wanted a picture of them and that I saw them. More often than not, these women are invisible but always visible when violence erupts. Appearing from nowhere after hearing I was in the area conducting gender group work for the returnees and internally displaced peoples, I approached the women for a photo. As the sole providers of their families, the women were shocked I wanted a picture of them and that I saw them. More often than not, these women are invisible but always visible when violence erupts. Appearing from nowhere after hearing I was in the area conducting gender group work for the returnees and internally displaced peoples, I approached the women for a photo. As the sole providers of their families, the women were shocked I wanted a picture of them and that I saw them. More often than not, these women are invisible but always visible when violence erupts.

The Question of Sustainability

Categorized in these topics: Women in Collaboration

Ten years after the war, Bosnia is bleak for women – and women’s NGOs

BOSNIA and HERZERGOVINA--On their way to Sarajevo to meet with the Helsinki Committee, about 20 Bosniak women, all belonging to Sumejja Kolo, a Novi Travnik-based women’s NGO that provides war-trauma therapy, sat in a bus where some smoked cigarettes, others regaled the group by singing a cappella Bosnian ballads about foreign lovers (but none compare to a Bosnian man), and all made the most of the time with their “sisters.”

Once the group arrived at the Helsinki office, however, the music stopped and their energy sobered. They listened as Zivica Abadzic, the general secretary of the Helsinki Committee, spoke of the reality of today’s women in today’s Bosnia: in a country that stopped fighting a war 10 years ago this year, an estimated 55 percent of women are the victims of some kind of domestic violence; 45 percent of the 565,000 unemployed Bosnians are women; 23 percent of women, between the ages of 14-25 are illiterate (poor, and particularly rural, families tend to send boys to school and keep girls at home); and most are traumatized from the war, including everyone who sat around the table on this day.

The percentages, she said, are estimates. But she made no estimates when she said “feminism is dead,” referring to the lack of solidarity among the country’s women to change the reality of such harsh statistics. And judging from the room’s silence, it was an incontrovertible and accurate point.

The country doesn’t have a feminist movement, she said, it has “a female scene,” comprising of a few academics and women’s NGOs, like the Sumejja Kolo, which, through its efforts, work toward gender awareness and equality.

Ten years after the war, Bosnia is a transition country and, like most transition countries that are developing into a market economy, the “social position of women almost always deteriorates, while discrimination against women generally increases,” states an NGO shadow report presented to the U.N. CEDAW committee last year. “That is exactly what is happening to women in BiH today.”

With such statistical strikes against them, women across the country, like those from Sumejja Kolo, are finding themselves at an impasse between improving women’s society by means of maintaining women’s NGOs and securing funding to sustain such organizations.

In the late 90s, “this was a hot and sexy conflict zone,” which attracted foreign aid, said Valery Perry, a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Perry, who has lived and worked in Bosnia since 1999, said those foreign donors are pulling out and moving their money to Iraq and other conflict areas.

A USAID report labeled the Bosnian NGO sector as a “significant factor in the development of a modern society searching for its own identity and trying to respond successfully to all the challenges it is faced with.”

But for women’s NGOs, which work on issues like domestic violence, war trauma, unemployment and societal and political gender equality, its identity is vitiated by scarce awareness and even scarcer funds.

Danica Anderson, a U.S.-based forensic psychotherapist who works with and trains the Sumejja Kolo in Bosnia, said she is “often stunned at how quickly men understand the system of funding, jobs and networking. The women who are surviving and, most likely, the major caregiver of the whole extended family – the cook, the housekeeper, etc. – on top of running a NGO, often are too late to participate or be recipients of funding.”

Even though the number of women’s NGOs has increased since 1999, its overall percentage of NGOs has decreased, according to estimated numbers kept by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). Whereas women’s NGOs made up 16 percent of the country’s NGO makeup in 1999, women’s groups account for 4 percent today.

“And yet, it is years after the war that women who are surviving finally have enough breath and breadth, along with dealing with trauma, to ask for funding,” Anderson said.

The fighting doesn’t stop

Though there are no official statistics kept by the government, ICVA estimates there are about 60 women’s NGOs in Bosnia-Herzegovina. One of those organizations is Medica Zenica, a group that is widely known throughout the country for its war trauma therapy and its domestic violence counseling and outreach, namely its two safe houses for battered women and children.

From Medica staff to World Bank reports, experts fire off a grapeshot of sequential factors that are causes of the domestic violence in Bosnia: war trauma, unemployment, poverty and alcoholism.

Senada, who asked that her real name not be used, left her husband, who fought in the war, and immediately went to Medica in November. Within the first three days, she had taken one of her children from school and was returning later in the week to take the other two.

“After the war, he couldn’t stand children,” she said. “He was nervous and angry and he couldn’t stand kids.”

She left the 18-year-old marriage after he threatened to kill them all.

From 1993 to 2003, Medica provided accommodation to 654 women and 330 children. In 2002, 116 women and children found shelter through Medica — in 2003 that number dropped to 39. Its third safe house was closed.

The decrease was, and will continue to be, a result of slashed funding, which forces Medica to turn people away.

“Everyone supports us verbally, but no one supports us financially,” said Mirha Pojskic, a specialist of trauma psychology for the shelter. “Our government doesn’t have money or awareness to finance this.”

With already 13 percent less funds than they had — their annual budget is KM 21,000 ($13,921)— they are anticipating a 50 percent decrease within the next few years.

“We also look for other funds, but it’s in vain,” Pojskic said, adding that the majority of their money comes from international donors.

Her words echo a USAID report: “the financial capacities of the NGO sector (in B-H) still depend on the international donor community. Many organizations survive on a voluntary basis with very limited amounts of money.”

And at times, such NGOs survive with not only limited amounts of money, but no money at all.

“When we didn’t have money [upon the founding of the organization in 1993] we worked without salaries,” said Pojskic, adding that they wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

It is this willingness to turn an NGO into something of a pro bono operation, said Helsinki’s Abadzic, that sends a lethal message to the government.

“Unfortunately, those NGOs will work until they get funded [by donors],” forgoing their own salaries, and temporarily making themselves unemployed, she said.

And the government takes advantage of this, she said. If politicians know that they don’t have to spend money on domestic violence and these women will pursue it — with or without pay — there is little motivation to intervene and help. So women’s issues, like domestic violence, are not to be found at the top of any domestic body's priority list.

But this holds true even within the NGO community. When Medica visited the Travnik region, where the Sumejja Kolo members live and operate, they were surprised to find how effectively women were being treated for war trauma. Because of the group’s efforts, Medica saw no reason to work in an area with existing, adequate support.

Sumejja Kolo is not an organization replete with academics and grant writers – rather, it is made up of middle-aged, working-class women who have an innate understanding of women and a learned understanding of war. The NGO cannot afford a meeting place for its organization, and none of the members earn an income; several, if not most, of the women have more than one job (and up to five jobs) in addition to traveling around the area and providing trauma therapy.

The meager funding that they do receive is from the grassroots efforts of Anderson, who has trained and supported these women since 1999.

In this dry climate of funding, Anderson practically panhandles for money for the Sumejja Kolo between her three trips each year to Novi Travnik.

“Everything I’ve done has been through word of mouth and women who give me $5, $10. And before we know it, we have $1,000, $3,000. It’s like pulling blood out of a stone,” she said.

When she arrived in Novi Travnik last November, she and Susanna Koric, Sumejja Kolo’s president, sat around Koric’s dining room table with money and envelopes placed strategically – one money pile for the bank and one letter pile for thank-you cards. Their concentration seemed as if they were playing a heated game of Risk; though world domination could not be had with these donations. It was everything Anderson said. $5, $10, $20 bills, and quarters in one case, tucked in white envelopes with accompanying photos of the college-student benefactors.

After they counted the money, they talked about possible national and extraneous grants. But no funding was secured or guaranteed.

“One time I would like to come back here and be on a vacation,” said Anderson, partly in jest. Such a scenario would mean that the group would be entirely sustainable.

Cash cow

In Martha Walsh’s USAID-sponsored evaluation titled “Aftermath: Women and Women’s Organizations in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina,” she dubbed the NGO process as “development Darwinism,” meaning that the “strongest NGOs will survive, while the weaker ones will either fade away or join other groups.”

She pointed out that because women’s organizations established international links “and developed supporters outside the donor community in Bosnia, they may be more likely to withstand the inevitable withdrawal of funds.”

Compared to other former Yugoslavia countries, Bosnian NGOs, in terms of sustainability, only rank above Montenegro and Kosovo. But even in Montenegro, the Ministry of Internal Affairs tapped women’s NGOs when it needed guidelines and training for police officers working on domestic abuse cases. In Croatia, women’s NGOs remain among the strongest networks, despite the overall weaknesses of the country’s sector.

But there are exceptions – Bosnian women who have used their international links to become sustainable.

Bosnian Handicrafts, a Tuzla-based NGO that was founded to provide war-trauma therapy, prepared itself from its inception in 1999. The group used international aid to secure a financial loan and catapult its organization into operation, but it had a goal of becoming completely sustainable – a goal that was achieved.

With six people working in their office, these women coordinate between 200 and 300 women from around the country, regardless of religious or political allegiance, and businesses and buyers from around the world. The female benefactors cast on their talent of knitting – socks, sweaters, vests, hats, gloves, bags; you name it – and cost off with earning money.

“If you give [the women] money they earned, they feel much better,” said Lejla Radoncic, member and CEO of Bosnian Handicrafts, during a phone interview. “They feel more self-confident, and they feel better about themselves.”

Though the group was founded to overcome war trauma through work therapy, now the main mission of the group is to overcome what many identify as the “No. 1 problem in Bosnia: high unemployment,” Radoncic said.

Most of the women only use the NGO for supplemental income or as part-time employment. And those knitters who are full-time – and there are few – earn around 300 KM ($204) a month.

Last year the organization had a turnover of 300,000 euros. A major fund-raiser for the group is during Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival, which is held every year in Utah, where the group’s products are sold. The first order in 2003 brought in $30,000, Radoncic said, and last year that amount increased to $160,000. In addition, the group works with two French businesses throughout the year.

As to the group’s success, Radoncic is modest. “We just used our knowledge and a bit of creativity.”

But this might be the winning combination for the country’s organizations.

When assessing the women’s NGO landscape, there “is quite a [strong] message: they spend a lot of money without results,” she said. “Without sustainability, they can’t make it.”


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