Young women find voices – and inner leadership – in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Date : 12 August 2012

Focusing on volunteerism, leadership, women's rights and democracy, the trainings were often interactive, employing role playing or outreach.Photo Credit: Institute for Youth Development (KULT)

Conversations have taken a livelier turn at dinner tables across Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), according to one young Bosnian woman.

“We live in patriarchal community in BiH, and during family meals there are often discussions about what men and women should do - about women's obligations at home, says project coordinator Nejra Kadic, 23, with a wide smile. “Although myself and my friends might once have made small comments, now there are good arguments! We can really try to convince others why women should work, for example, and not only be domestic.

It was in 2009 that a call from the Institute for Youth Development (KULT) first went out to the country's municipalities. Channeled through local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for youth, and supported by UN Women's Fund for Gender Equality, it promised young women the chance to learn leadership skills, build self-confidence and better understand Bosnia and Herzegovina's human and women's rights machinery.

The programme aimed to challenge prevalent gender stereotypes in the country, particularly those that reduce the aspirations of girls in rural communities, where traditions are firmest and patriarchal systems remain strong. KULT staff had noted that a gender dimension was missing among most youth strategies, with girls often left out of programmes to develop skills or self-esteem.

Running until late last year, the initiative involved 180 young women aged 15 to 30 in eight weekend-long workshops, across twelve municipalities. Covering volunteerism and leadership to women's rights and democracy, the trainings were interactive and employed music, videos and role playing.

They put girls in touch with local NGOs and professional women role models. “It taught us about the work of gender centres in BiH, for example, and what women's NGOs in the country were doing and trying to achieve, explains Kadic, who works with KULT, which led the workshops with fellow NGO, the BH Experts Association. “We learned how to speak in front of the public, how to work with media and write press releases; how to organize campaigns.

For some, the programme involved a trip to Sarajevo, the country's capital, to network with young women across the country; others traveled to Koln in Germany, to see and report back on the way that its youth centres and women's centres operated, and how they worked with young people and homeless youth. Others took a ‘training for trainers' course that allowed them to take what they had learned to empower other women in their neighbourhoods.

For many, the impact has been profound. Girls have not only reported improvements in their confidence and self-perception, but have acted on these changes through their career paths, and growing involvement in their communities. In Ilidža municipality, 24-year-old Lejla Salkanovic credits the programme with her decision to seek work in the NGO sector. She helped her employer secure a contract with the Institute for Youth Development.

In Sarajevo, Ena Sokol, 28, managed to win a scholarship for post-graduate medical studies in the Netherlands, largely, she believes, because of her social activism and support from programme staff. Many of the other young women are on front-line rosters for NGOs in their neighbourhoods, and are frequently called on for support and leadership roles.

For Kadic too, the change has been discernible. Describing her recent mission to change campus culture, and have her university lecturers use gender-sensitive language in her classes (each more than 60 per cent women), she recounts a diplomatic path to success. “At the start, like with many of our male friends, the professors smiled, as if to say ‘Ah, these silly feminists!' she remembers. “But in the end, by being friendly and with patience, we convinced them to take it seriously.

“These are small steps, but they are ones that I think will last.

The Fund for Gender Equality works to empower women and girls around the world through subsidies and high impact multi-year grants up to a million dollars, delivered directly to women's organizations and government agencies committed to gender equality.