DIAZ BarbaraSome rape victims more ‘ideal’ than others? Hierarchies of wartime sexual violence
by Bárbara Orozco DÍAZ for Northern Ireland Foundation
18 May 2016

“Hierarchies of Wartime Sexual Violence” was a seminar organised by the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI) at Ulster University, within the scope of Gender Activities.

The guest speaker was Dr Olivera Simic, a feminist, human rights activist and academic at  Griffith Law School, Australia.

Dr Simic explained that in the context of the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) War, where it is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped during the 1990s, the statistical data and the legal discourse contributed to the formation of a predominant narrative of wartime rape, which, for BiH, exists almost exclusively in relation to Bosnian women.

She questioned the ethnic hierarchy of wartime rape during the past 20 years in that context, seeking to answer “why and how it became a space to not talk about Serb women’s experiences of rape, and what are the consequences of that silence and exclusion in their lives”.

The global attention to the war and the movements of feminist activists achieved the recognition of rape as a war crime (torture), a crime against humanity, and a crime of genocide, before international criminal courts. The establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in May 1993 marked a “historic opportunity” for prosecuting crimes of sexual violence that had long been ignored and silenced.  

However, after the recognition of rape as a war crime, all discourses from feminist scholars to activists were focused on determining the type of rape that should be prosecuted in international war crimes courts, Dr Simic told the audience

To understand those discourses, Dr Simic explained a definition of an “ideal victim” (used by feminists for explaining peacetime sexual violence):

“Victimhood has become an important tool for building a new nation-state, and rape ethnic identity leads to the creation of the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ victim subject.”

In other words, Bosnian women’s experiences of rape were an “authentic” representation of collective national trauma and suffering, whilst Serb women have been perceived as a part of the “perpetrator’s nation”.

Dr Simic described the support from international organisations to women survivors of wartime rape in Federation of BiH as entirely missing in Republika Srpska, where international donors and aid agencies have not developed programmes to help them recover from trauma and regain their lives.

About 20 years after the war, women victims of war still lack adequate medical, social and psychological support and continue to wait for justice, recognition, Dr Simic argued.

She added that i is the lack of knowledge about the scope of wartime rape and sexual abuse of Serb women (“who is the victim and who is the perpetrator?”), as well as the limited resources available on this topic (various archives, court files and cases), which presents significant obstacles to reconciliation in BiH:

“The Bosnian Serb women need to tell their stories, and authorities of Republika Srpska as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina must officially acknowledge all forms of sexual torture committed during the war against all women”.

Dr Olivera Simic’s presentation was based on a book in progress, Silenced Victims of Wartime Sexual Violence (Routledge, 2017) and a major new textbook in transitional justice with a group of experts from around the world (Routledge, 2017).

Suggested reading:

Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2014.

“Breathing Sense into Women’s Lives Shattered by War: DAH Theatre Belgrade” (2010) 14 Law Text Culture, 117-133.

“’One pair of Shoes, One Life’”: Steps towards Accountability for Genocide in Srebrenica” (2011) 5(3) International Journal of Transitional Justice, 477-491 (with Kathleen Daly).

Transitional Justice and Reconciliation: Lessons from the Balkans. Edited by Martina Fischer and Olivera Simic, Routledge, 2016.

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