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Media Advocacy and the Arts Hold Promise for Women’s Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina - read down please

I THINK THAT some politicians use thei deas of feminism to rule - world pulse is a media that spreads quiqkly news accross the world - in BULGARIA too

FRIDAY FILE: Women’s rights activist Vedrana Frašto speaks with AWID about the importance of challenging conventional representations to women’s rights struggles in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

By Lejla Medanhodzic and Masum Momaya

As one of the countries emerging from the partition of former Yugoslavia in 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina is characterized by its ethnic, religious and geographic heterogeneity. Facing rising nationalism, rampant unemployment (27.2% in 2010)[1],widespread post-conflict depression and a legacy of mass rape and genocide,Bosnia and Herzegovina is struggling to leave behind a ravaged past and build a future that will benefit all citizens.

Vedrana Frašto, of the CURE Foundation, which seeks to celebrate the strength and power of women to be initiators of change in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Balkan region and around the world, spoke with AWID about the importance of challenging conventional representations of gender to women’s rights struggles and to restoration of peace and well-being more broadly.

In this context, where divisions run deep and political rhetoric has angered and incited many to distrust, alternate media representations and emerging arts are beginning to rekindle silenced conversations and providing an opening to transform both longstanding and recent biases.

AWID: First, can you tell us briefly, what is the general situation for women’s rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina now?

Vedrana Frašto (V.F.): Women’s rights are written into law here. We even have a law permitting abortion, which came about before the war, in the time of former Yugoslavia. Still, though many things are mentioned in the law about women's rights, much of this exists more on paper than in reality. For example, women are not paid equal wages for working the same jobs and hours as men. Women are employed in lower positions, and women are occupationally segregated in the retail and manufacturing sectors. Yes, there are some women doctors and women professors,but they are not in decision-making positions, such as being directors of hospitals or directors of university faculties. The higher we go up in professional hierarchies, the fewer women there are.

AWID: Are women represented in the political system?

V.F.: Yes, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 13% of women are in decision-making places in the political system. We have a law stating that 30% of candidates need to be women, but we are not yet close to achieving this percentage in terms of actual representation. We have never had a single female president, although we have had a few female ministers so far. Even at the local level, of the 146heads of municipalities, only 3 women. It’s horrible.

AWID: What are some of the campaigns being undertaken to increase women’s engagement with the political system?

V.F.: Women constitute 52% of all voters in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but they vote in very small percentages. CURE Foundation,together with a number of partner organizations, launched the project "101 reasons to vote for a woman"around the October 2010 elections. We deliberately designed the campaign to be fun and original and received a lot of media coverage for it.

The project had multiple components. We asked 101famous Bosnian-Herzegovinian figures that are not in politics why they would vote for women, and we received 101 responses which we then put into a brochure. Some of these celebrity answers were very stereotypical, but women were very interested in what they had to say and took their words to heart because they were well-known people.

On the brochure, we also included the slogan"Housewife, speak more and fight for your place" to counteract the patriarchal saying “Housewife speak less, so that your lunch doesn’t burn." We wanted to energize this group of women and convey that it is possible to change the political situation through active participation. We also produced and distributed scarves that said “Think Elections 2010,” aprons that said “Housewife, speak more and fight for your place” and sunglasses that said“let us see.”

We did 146 workshops in rural and urban areas,which educated the public about women’s rights and citizen activism. We also organized public events, festivities and generally took to the streets – not to promote any particular candidate or party – but to incite people to take responsibility for learning about the choices and make informed decisions. In the end, more than one-third of all women voted, which was significantly higher than before.

AWID: Is media an ally for women’s rights activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

V.F.: Generally, the media mostly calls only on men to participate in public discussions of important issues. Producers and editors of media programs, who are mostly men, claim that women speakers do not inspire confidence in the public. We have strong analysts and thinkers in the feminist movement, but they are not asked to share their ideas or participate in debates.

Moreover, media generally only report on marginalized groups, including women and Roma people, to be politically correct– and they often end up reinforcing stereotypes. Women are usually presented quite frequently in the media but either as victims, as powerless and worthy of pity or as models selling underwear, lingerie and their bodies more generally. Women are not portrayed as intelligent beings with important thoughts and contributions for society.

AWID:Does the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian language itself pose limitations for gender equality?

V.F.: In this language, agents in each sentence are given a gender, and the default is to use the masculine form of the word. For example, the words for professor and doctor are always written in the masculine while the words for salesperson and cleaning person are always written in the feminine. The media, textbooks and literature have long used these conventions as if they are fact. But our language is such that these occupations can be ascribed to either gender.

The Dayton Agreement was written using the masculine gender for all the agents, including the president and the population at large.

Additionally, our textbooks in Bosnia and Herzegovina are full of gender stereotypes where all the important figures listed are men. Similarly, when art and literature are taught and important figures are listed, women are often omitted or mentioned in passing in one sentence.

CURE recently published a dictionary of gender-correct terms to begin to address this.

AWID: In addition to speaking out about the gendered nature of language, how have women’s rights activists engaged with the arts as a way of shaping public understanding?

V.F.: For five years now, CURE Foundation has been organizing PitchWise,a female art festival in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Artists, feminists, activists and theorists –of all ages – from all over the Balkan region participate. Women have long come together across borders in the peace building and conflict resolution processes so its only fitting that this is the case in the art festival, too. The festival features concerts,exhibitions and literature and poetry readings. In this space, we’ve found that artistic expression helps transform the cultures of violence into cultures of peace.

This past year, we focused on young people and presented an exhibition of five young feminist artists, one of whom had never exhibited before. The purpose is to affirm and promote them as women artists seldom have resources and visibility for their work.

In March and April of 2011, we will begin gathering information to assess the influence of feminist artistic practices in Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian-Herzegovinian and Montenegrin cultures to inform further advocacy efforts.

AWID: In terms of women’s rights, what would you wish for the future in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

V.F.: There are a number of things I wish for. I would like to see more female politicians in decision-making places. Also, I hope that our education system can acknowledge the contributions of women to our history and our society. I would like to be part of establishing a movement of youth activists from throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina who are motivated to change society for the better. Finally,I hope that female artists will have space, resources and visibility for their work.

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