Hope after Being Heard

For far too many survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, access to care, support and services has been difficult. Based on feedback and suggestions from civil society organizations, IOM Bosnia and Herzegovina sought to tackle the problem by bringing together survivors and their political representatives.

The conference room in Sarajevo fell silent as Ena* and other survivors took seats next to national politicians. As introductions were made, Ena recalls her shoulders growing heavy with memories of the sexual violence that she and countless others in Bosnia and Herzegovina had survived during the 1992-95armed conflict.

One by one, survivors shared stories of what they endured and the suffering they have lived with ever since. When it was Ena’s turn to speak, the man sitting next to her, a fellow survivor, put his hand on her back to steady her. She looked around the room and knew she was taking a stand for the brighter future they all deserved.

The stories told that day appeared to shock and shame some in the audience who were not anticipating such powerful testimonies, the IOM project coordinator recalls. An education official who was in attendance spoke of his own family's suffering during the conflict. He said he felt an instant connection with the survivors and pledged to help them gain reparations.

For most of the politicians, the conference was the first time they heard directly from survivors about their wartime experiences and their difficulties in attaining justice and care. For the survivors, most had been too wary of stigmas surrounding sexual assault to fully share their stories.

IOM Bosnia and Herzegovina learned of this absence in communication between survivors and their elected officials via questionnaires by civil society partners at a workshop. Plans for a conference ensued and IOM staff coached the survivors in advance so they would be comfortable speaking about their experiences.

According to the IOM mission, efforts to secure reparations for sexual assault survivors are progressing faster now based on the survivors' feedback and legislative efforts by officials present at the conference. “After all these years, we’re finally seeing progress on this issue,” says the IOM project coordinator. "If you understand, you’re more likely to care and do something."