“The legal process is painfully slow,” UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstroem, said during a visit to Bosnia last week.
Wallstroem said that the “magnitude of the problem” was best exemplified by the significant gap between the number of sexual crimes committed during the Bosnian war and the number of cases prosecuted in the years following the conflict.
“We know that there might be as many as 50,000 to 60,000 cases of sexual violence and only 12 have been prosecuted so far,” she said.
While the war crimes chamber of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina prosecutes cases of sexual violence committed during the conflict, victims still face many obstacles when appearing as witnesses in trials.
The court does not have proper witness protection mechanisms and rape victims sometimes walk into the courtroom through the same door as their alleged tormentors or travel home from trials on the same bus.
In some cases, shame prevents the victims from speaking about what they suffered and many perpetrators thus remain free.
“Many of these women still meet perpetrators in their villages or when they go to the bank or the shop,” Wallstroem said.
“If women walk in shame while perpetrators walk free, this is a very heavy burden on women,” she added.
On the other hand, according to a recent study based on interviews with victims of sexual violence who testified in war crimes trials and with war crimes judges and prosecutors in Bosnia, – stereotypes about rape victims as “totally devastated women” or women rejected by “patriarchal Muslims society” are equally unhelpful.
The study prepared by Medica Mondiale, a German organisation dedicated to helping female victims of conflicts around the globe, found that such stereotypes are “also effective in court.”
This results in “patronizing protection policies or behavioral expectations shaped by gender stereotypes”.
The study, which included interviews with 14 international and local war crimes judges and prosecutors at the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, found that they all agreed that the Bosnian society was “a particularly traditional and patriarchal one and that Bosnian women were especially reserved”.
“These clichés clash heavily with the fact that Bosnian Muslim women were the ones to make the rapes public when hundreds of them spoke up,” the study concluded.
According to reports by Bosnian and international researchers, most victims of sexual abuse during the country’s war were Muslim Bosniaks.
Also, in contrast to the widespread belief that most victims of sexual violence are rejected by Bosnian society and their families, over half of the 50 witnesses interviewed for the study were “supported by their families, particularly their husbands and children, when testifying in court” and “only one woman had no one with her.”