Sunday, 5 June 2011

WFWI's work in Bosnia

Seida Saric
I've just returned from a meeting in London with fellow trekkers and staff from Women for Women International UK. I'm pleased to say I managed to get a return train ticket for £20 thanks to a Harrogate Advertiser offer! I do like a bargain!

The main reason for getting together was to meet and hear from Seida Saric, the Country Director for WFWI in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She has been in the UK to speak at a number of meetings and conferences, including 'Banking on Women', a conference involving leading researchers, financial institutions and NGOs aimed at promoting gender equality and improving women's economic participation. She was able to fit in some time with our small group and it was a great opportunity to hear first-hand about the situation in Bosnia and how WFWI works there.  

Lately the news has been full of the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army commander, and his leading role in the conflict between Christian Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks that saw thousands of men die as a result of ethnic cleansing. Although it's 16 years since the end of the end of the conflict, Seida explained that the lives of many people in Bosnia, including the wives, mothers and sisters of Mladic’s alleged victims have been irrevocably altered by the events of April 1992 to December 1995. She said that the level of poverty in Bosnia now is actually worse than immediately after the war and that Bosnia is the poorest country in Europe.

In Bosnia, as in other countries that have experienced conflict and where men are traditionally the breadwinners, widows in particular have faced terrible hardship. But one of the worst things during the conflict was the daily mass rapes endured by women imprisoned in rape camps. Seida, herself a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo, remembers fearing the rape camps more than death. "Death was one thing - if it's death, it's death and maybe that's your destiny" she said, "but we were hearing that there were rape camps and we were more afraid of ending up there".

Bosnia is the first country where rape was offcially recognised as a strategy of war. Thanks to the courage of the women who spoke out about the horror they endured, for the first time ever rape was prosecuted as a war crime.

The training programmes Seida runs are open to women from different communities and different ethnic groups, including Christian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, and this is unfortunately very rare. The programme includes rights awareness classes, help with literacy and numeracy, job skills training, business training and the women get access to microcredit loans. There is also emotional support. For many it's the first opportunity they've had to talk about their traumatic experiences in a safe environment.

The WFWI programmes in Bosnia have enabled almost 30,000 women to start up and successfully run their own small businesses - growing and selling vegatables, raising livestock, and using their knitting and embroidery skills in partnership with fashion designer Kate Spade, who's based in New York.

The women are also offered skills training in the following areas:
  • Dairy production
  • Beekeeping
  • Berry cultivation
  • Medicinal herb collection
  • Elderly and child care.
Although there has been tremendous progress more needs to be done to help women sustain their businesses. Seida explained that the rules and regulations for small business in Bosnia are the same as for larger businesses and the crippling costs associated with these can force many small businesses to fold. So although many women have improved their circumstances the lack of an environment in which their businesses can flourish and grow means they cannot really feel safe and secure about the future.

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