Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

What should we do on the next International Women’s Day?

“True peace is not merely the absence of war,
it is presence of justice.” Jane Addams

Today, a friend’s Facebook profile featured an image of a thirty-nine year old woman, Margareta Matijevic, holding four university diplomas with garbage containers in the background.  The image immediately caught my attention, as I did not understand what garbage bins have to do university diplomas.  It turns out the image is part of a news article titled “I have four degrees, and I live by digging through the garbage” published by the Croatian newspaper Vecernji list who shared the story a day before the International Women’s Day.

Margareta PicMargareta holds two bachelor degrees, and masters and doctorate degrees in history.  After working for twelve years at the Croatian Institute for History, she lost her job because her contract was not extended.  By getting only temporary contracts for years, Margareta was in a vulnerable position, always frightened for her job.  In the end, her fears came true and she lost her job because she did not have the necessary family and friend “connections”.

Margareta is a Bosnian refugee, who left Banja Luka, a town in the northern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the war in 1993.  Since then she has been living in Zagreb, where she studied and was also honored as the best student by the university rector.  Today, Margareta is surviving by rummaging through garbage and reselling things she finds.

More than 2 million people were refugees and internally displaced during and after the war in Bosnia, a country with 4.4 million citizens in the 90s.  One wonders how their stories turned out and where are they today, as many never returned to their homes.

Margareta’s story inspired me to write this article as it illustrates the intricate and strong relationship between social justice, gender, and conflict – issues I found to be at the heart of any struggle for peace.  It showcases that although the Balkan countries have been peaceful for some time, the peace did not bring better lives for many.  On the contrary, most countries have been stuck in the never-ending political status quo, maintained by the ethno-nationalist elites that largely benefit from instigating hatred, territorial, and mental divides, while they keep the economic resources in control and divide the profit amongst themselves.  Economies in the Balkans were liberalized and privatized right after the war.  At that time people with money were war profiteers and criminals.  These processes left regular workers and civil victims of war in vulnerable position, easily to be used and exploited for political purposes.

International interventions have had only limited impact.  Despite numerous post-war recovery initiatives that have been implemented in Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by various transitional justice mechanisms, one quarter of the labor active population is unemployed, while another quarter is working informally, i.e. unregistered, without any social protection and oftentimes earning a salary bellow the minimum wage.  Youth and women are particularly affected by these problems, as more than 50% of women are unemployed.

poverty is sexist picAn unfortunate example is that of the survivors of sexual violence crimes.  While international organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union implement million worth projects whose sole target groups are survivors of the wartime sexual violence; most of these women live on the poverty margin.  It is estimated that between 20.000 to 50.000 women have been systematically raped and tortured in the conflict in Bosnia.  Today, they live in rural or urban poor communities struggling to feed and school their children, since most of them are unemployed.

How come the post conflict initiatives did not result in better lives for many?  How come we see the same problems across the developing world?  The answer is quite simple: because policies, development, and conflict transformation actions disregard social justice.

Social justice refers to justice in terms of distribution of wealth, privileges, rights and opportunities within a society.  Demand for social justice is based on the view that everyone deserves equal political, economic and social rights and opportunities.  It is important to note that the demand for social justice is not sorely moral, but has been supported by numerous academic and policy research.  In its report from 2013, Oxfam finds that, “inequality corrupts politics, hinders economic growth and stifles social mobility.  It fuels crime and even violent conflict.”  In the preamble of the UN International Labour Organization, it is stated, “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.”

This International Women’s Day has passed in light of some cute carnation flowers posted on Facebook profile pages accompanied by few sad stories.  It seems that clicking did not bring much, because today, March 9th seems as any other day: we continue to live in a world where structural violence is the mainstream.

Instead of clicking on the occasion of the next International Women’s Day, we should leave our offices and homes and go out on the streets and demand equal rights and opportunities.  A glimpse from history might portray what kind of future we could enjoy in that case.  In 1975, 90% of women in Iceland went on strike for equal rights and shut down the entire country.  The year after, Iceland’s Parliament, now consisting of half women, passed a law guaranteeing women equal pay and paid maternity leave.  Four years later, Iceland elected the first female President in the world.  And today, Iceland has the highest gender equality in the world.  Iceland is also the most peaceful country out of 162 nations.

Justice and peace are not separate phenomena, they are highly interdependent.  Our development and peacebuilding efforts need to incorporate principles of fairness and equal access.  Only then, women will not be left behind; only then we will not read stories such as Margareta’s.

Elma Demir, Bosnia Herzegovina
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2015 Session


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