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Women for Women in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Brita Fernandez Schmidt, executive director of Women for Women in the UK, joined the 2013 Peace March in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The following is an extract from her blog, where she highlights the work Women for Women are doing in Bosnia. 

Brita Fernandez Schmidt, executive director of Women for Women in the UK, joined the 2013 Peace March in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The following is an extract from her blog, where she highlights the work Women for Women are doing in Bosnia. 

brita-schmidt-at-global-summit-to-end-sexual-violenceI am in Sarajevo, Bosnia, visiting the Women for Women International Programme with a group of our supporters, including Nicky Kinnaird, the founder and owner of Space NK. We arrived on Friday 5th July and were greeted by the Women for Women team in Sarajevo.

Because we will be joining the Peace March to Srebrenica to commemorate the genocide there 18 years ago, the team in Bosnia thought it would be useful for us to watch a short documentary about what happened in Srebrenica. It reminded me of just how awful the few days in July 1995 were in Srebrenica, and how the worst genocide since the Second World War unfolded during those days. And how families were torn apart, believing that if they split up, they would be safe – only to find that they never saw each other again – and many are still searching for their relatives – and every year a few hundred bodies are identified and can finally be put to rest – giving their families the opportunity to grieve and get closure.

The scale of the violence is still as incomprehensible to me as it was in 2009 when I first visited Srebrenica. And I want to use the Peace March in a few days to see if I can learn more about how this beautiful country is coming to terms with its violent past. But for the next two days, we will be learning more about Women for Women International’s work in Bosnia.

So yesterday, we left early to visit the Women for Women International office to meet the team there and learn a little bit more about the current situation in Bosnia and the work of Women for Women International here. Before the war the population was 4.6 million and now it is estimated to be around 3.8 million – with a vast number of Bosnians who fled during the war still living abroad. Around 100,000 people were killed during the war and it is estimated that between 20,000-50,000 women were raped – to know exactly how many women is impossible, because even after all these years there is silence surrounding the issue and many women will not speak about it. Women for Women International’s country director in Bosnia, Seida Saric, says that she believes it is closer to the 50,000 because of having worked with women for the past 15 years and listening to them, she knows that the majority of the women have experienced it.

A recent report now identifies Bosnia as one of the poorest countries in the whole of Europe, overtaking Kosovo and Albania – and you can see it and you can hear it from everyone. The unemployment rate for women is 30% – there is no substantial foreign investment and no industry. So anything to provide job and/or income generating opportunities is much needed.

Women for Women International first started operating in Bosnia 20 years ago and has since then directly helped 34,000 women with its 1 year long programme of life skills and business skills. We currently have over 500 women enrolled and we are lucky to attend a business training session with a group of 25 women in Poculica Centre. The trainer is fantastic and it is noticeable how passionate she is and committed to communicating with the women and helping them to think through the different steps for setting up a business. At the end of the session, Nicky Kinnaird gets up and shares with the women her experience of setting up Space NK 20 years ago. It is fascinating to see how relevant her experience and her messages are for the women in the group.

Nicky talks about how important it is to believe in yourself, to find good friends and colleagues with complementary skills and to take risks – and of course to know that there will be things that won’t work out – but to not be demotivated and try something else. Many of the women are keen to ask questions and want to know how many employees Nicky has. They are impressed when she says 600 in the UK and US together, but Nicky talks about how she did not set out to create a global business, but that as her success grew so did her vision. Her honesty about how difficult it can be but also how rewarding it is when you have managed to get through difficulties, is so appropriate for the context.

In the current situation of the country, Women for Women International is now thinking about how it can respond to the situation and continue to support women effectively. One of the ways in which the team in Bosnia have done this is by supporting associations of women who have graduated from the Women for Women International programme, and so we set out to visit an association that has just received a dryer for medicinal herbs, funded by USAID.

A group of 15 women are growing different herbs – from Balm, Basil, Calendula, to Mint, Hisop and Catnip. With the dryer, they have been able to increase their production significantly and with a market partner secured, their income is guaranteed. They follow strict European standards of cultivation, which means everything they grow is 100% organic.

After a beautiful lunch provided by the Association, we continue our journey to visit another association in Zavidovici. This is an association that was set up in 2011 by a group of women who had graduated from the Women for Women International programme. The President of the association, Amina, tells us that she had wanted to ensure that women can continue to work together and support each other. She also tells us that together as a group they consulted over the name for the group and they unanimously agreed to call the association ‘Zeinab’ in honour of Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International. She spoke about how inspired they are by Zainab’s vision and how naming their association was just a small way of thanking her for what she did when she set up Women for Women International 20 years ago in Bosnia.

The association produces jam, grows vegetables, knits and makes jewellery. It is incredibly moving to hear the different women talk about their lives and how passionate they are about supporting each other and helping each other to reach their potential. Amina is very clear – her goal is to strengthen women!

After a long day yesterday it is great to get a moment to write down my thoughts about what we saw and I feel that there are possibilities and that the work Seida and her team are doing in Bosnia is the starting point of a new focus on entrepreneurship. I can see how some women who graduate from our programme will become entrepreneurs with the right support and others will be there to work for them – but the fantastic pilot work supporting associations, identifying markets such as the medicinal herbs are promising and need further development and investment. So I know what I will focus on when I get back to London!

But for now, I am going to get ready as we are about to leave to Tuzla, a three-hour drive from Sarajevo, where we will spend the night and then leave early tomorrow morning to go to Nezuk, where we will be starting the March for Peace.