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War, Gender and Economics: Women at the Sharp End of Neo-liberal Reforms in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

8 Jan 2018

  • Author(s): Nela Porobić Isaković

War, Gender and Economics: Women at the Sharp End of Neo-liberal Reforms in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina
In 2014, political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) adopted a socio-economic Reform Agenda, in a context of social unrest as well as preparations to pave the way to EU accession. But do the suggested reforms, which were endorsed by the European Union (EU) and the international financial institutions (IFIs), go in the right direction to support the creation of a sustainable peace in a country still trying to deal with the legacies of the war, which officially ended in 1995? The signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, while ending the war, failed to create social cohesion, satisfy the need for justice (both in relation to war crimes and social justice), and ensure meaningful and influential participation of BiH citizens in the different processes of transformation from war to peace, and from one economic system to another. This think piece argues that the Reform Agenda, based on neoliberal solutions such as austerity measures and stabilization policies, and lacking a rigorous feminist conflict and gender analysis, will fail to create a firm foundation on which a sustainable and just transition from conflict to peace can be made.

Nela Porobić Isaković is Project Coordinator (BiH) for the Women Organizing for Change project at WILPF (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom).

Who bears the brunt of neo-liberal reforms?

The Reform Agenda, which was adopted by the Council of Ministers and all levels of government in BiH, is now part of Bosnia’s EU accession path. It is supported by the IFIs, who have demanded rigorous austerity measures that the Bosnian local government(s) have happily accepted and enthusiastically started to implement. In a classic neoliberal way, the Agenda links the growth of Bosnia’s economy with market-oriented reforms in labour legislation, with public administration and employment policy, as well as improvements of the business climate (including restructuring public enterprises), social welfare (including pensions), the health sector and rule of law. The priorities were set based on discussions with the IFIs and the EU before the Agenda was adopted, and the document has become the basis for the negotiation of individual programmes for financial and technical assistance with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU. And indeed, the subsequent Bosnian lending agreements in support of the Agenda came with huge financial commitments for the Bosnian government, and severe austerity conditionalities.

The burden of the proposed austerity measures will be carried by Bosnian society, and without any conflict and gender analysis informing these measures, it can be expected that women will be affected more than any other group. For example, health care reforms have meant abolishing different segments of the public health care sector. Some of these health services have been moved into the private domain. The services that remain within the public health care system are by now, due to financial cuts, of such poor quality that people are forced to seek medical attention in the private sector. This has limited access to quality health care to those who can afford it. Deterioration of the health care system, along with unaffordable prices in the private sector, increases women’s unpaid domestic and care work, as they are the ones who are stepping in to take care of the sick and elderly, picking up the slack left by reduced state services.

Austerity and post-conflict states

While the austerity measures proposed for Bosnia are not unheard of, but rather follow a well-established path implemented across the world, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s recent war puts the country in a particularly precarious position. The Bosnian peace process remains weak because of the continuous impoverishment of the people, the entrenched and intersecting gender and class inequalities, and the overall feeling of injustices in society. Structural inequalities in a post-conflict country such as Bosnia and Herzegovina are not just politically consequential but have consequences for the stability of the peace itself. Unequal and uneven development can ignite reactions and frustrations that can be difficult to handle and easily manipulated. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, an ethno-national political elite upholds its power by, among other things, manipulating these frustrations and steering inter-communal hatred. In such a situation, gendered inequalities make women even more vulnerable to violence and to being targeted as markers of ethnic identity.

Who decides what reforms are needed and at whose expense?

There is a broad societal consensus that the current situation in BiH requires wider political, economic and social reforms. At the same time, there is no consensus on how those changes are to be delivered. Social unrest that happened in 2014 is proof of that. What was demanded during the protests was not what was later provided by the Reform Agenda, neither in terms of the substance nor the process. The demands that were voiced during the protests concerned both political and economic reforms, seen by the citizens as equally important and mutually reinforcing. The demands included social justice, revision of privatization, an end to impunity of politicians and war (transition) lords, accountability of governments, and an end to corruption. It was a call for a social dialogue from the citizens of Bosnia that was effectively ignored by policy makers who opted for a top-down initiative that resulted in the Reform Agenda.

What are the alternatives?

Only through ensuring compliance with human rights, including social and economic rights, can a country coming out of a violent conflict create a firm foundation upon which a sustainable and just transition from conflict to peace can be made. While the primary obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights falls on the state, when resources are severely constrained—as they inevitable will be in a post-conflict country—international assistance and cooperation becomes a must. The international financial institutions (IFI), along with individual donor countries, can in such a situation play a decisive role by linking human rights obligations, in particular economic and social rights, with the design of the post-conflict recovery and reconstruction processes, as these are vital for securing a sustainable peace.

However, as it stands now, the impoverished, disenfranchised and disempowered citizens of BiH are faced with a neoliberal Reform Agenda which is detrimental to the realization of their human rights, in particular social and economic rights. Rather than reducing the public sector, it would be more equitable to strengthen investments in human capacities and needs, which is not only beneficial for economic growth, but also for poverty reduction and gender equality. Complementary to that, the country must deal with the consequences of the past war through comprehensive, gender-sensitive reparations programmes as part of the overall economic recovery programme, thus laying the ground for the creation of a socially just and equal society. From a feminist political economy point of view, ‘rebalancing’ the economy should not be about reducing government spending and aggregate demand, but about striving towards a just, productive and sustainable economy—an economy for peace.

This think piece is based on A feminist perspective on post-conflict reconstruction and recovery – the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a report published in July 2017 by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), analysing the political and economic processes leading up to the adoption of the Reform Agenda and assessing the likely outcomes of the reforms on gender equality and social justice in the country.

Photo by Adam Jones (Creative Commons)


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.