Is Power-Sharing Bad for Women, Peace and Security? Insights from Post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina

by Dr Maria-Adriana Deiana, IICRR, tweets @DrDeiana

The signing of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR1325) in October 2000 drove the development of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS).  The agenda expresses international commitment to addressing the diverse impact of conflict on women and men, including women as co-architects of peace and security and, broadly, mainstreaming gender in all aspects of security and conflict management. Welcomed as a landmark moment for women’s and peace activism, implementation of WPS has seen numerous setbacks.

Feminist researchers have highlighted a specific tension between the aspiration for transformation and inclusion set out in UNSCR1325 and consociational peace settlements, the popular conflict resolution approach deployed in contexts such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Lebanon, and Burundi. This literature points out that by entrenching conservative ethnonationalist discourses, power-sharing peace settlements often also implicitly cement patriarchal values. By reifying the divisions they seek to overcome, these settlements essentially work to restrict the political space for introducing other interests and agendas, such as WPS.

In 2015, Dr. Allison McCulloch (Brandon University) and Dr. Siobhan Byrne (University of Alberta) gathered a number of researchers working in the topic, including myself, for a two-day workshop to kickstart a more systematic analysis of the gender silences and gaps in power-sharing settlements. Papers from the conference have recently been published in a special issue of Nationalism and Ethnic Politics.  The issue collects a variety of methodological and empirical approaches to this emerging research puzzle, including large-N and case studies, such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Lebanon and Cyprus.

Vijećnica, Sarajevo City Hall , photo by Maria-Adriana Deiana

My contribution to the Special Issue revisits the gendered implications of the Dayton Peace settlement that put an end to the Bosnian War. Signed in 1995, the agreement precedes UNSCR1325. Despite an impressive annex of human rights mechanisms, the final document of the agreement failed to specifically address the varied impact of conflict on men and women, to include specific measures to tackle the gendered dynamics underpinning war and ensure women’s participation as co-architects of the peace process.  Since then, policy developments have contributed to enhancing women’s human rights legislation, making women and gender concerns visible in the public and institutional sphere through the Gender Equality Law and a Gender Action Plan.

In 2010, Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of the first post-conflict countries to develop a National Action Plan (NAP) for the implementation of UNCSR1325 which was further revised and updated in 2013. In the paper, I am critical of the meaningful integration of the Women, Peace and Security agenda into the consociational structures and post-Dayton political agenda. Obstacles to the full implementation of WPS commitments have been experienced globally to a greater or lesser extent.[i]  In the context of BIH, I argue that these challenges are intensified by the unexpected “afterlives” of the settlement and the resulting entrenchment in political life of ethnonationalism and its attendant gender rhetoric.

While the peace settlement was successful in creating shared institutions and mitigating violence, it has also laid the foundation for political paralysis and restricted the political space to ethnonational disputes. Two decades after the ratification of the peace agreement, the consociational settlement has mutated into an apparatus that is dysfunctional, unresponsive and removed from everyday politics.   The group-right provisions established through the agreement have been conducive to prolonged political deadlock and slow decision-making. Furthermore, through predetermined group representation and protection mechanism, Dayton’s system has offered lucrative opportunities for ethnonationalist elites to remain in power without incentives to alter their rhetoric.  Not only has this allowed elites to dominate the political process for their own gains, but policy and decision-making have often neglected basic issues and citizens’ rights, such as education, health and employment. Similarly, this has come at the price of marginalising gender concerns in favour of dominant ethnic affiliation and nationalist politics as the all-encompassing dimension of citizenship, peace and security.

Gordana Andjelic Galic, “This is not my peace!”-public intervention, courtesy of Abart Mostar

In the paper, I argue that gendered ramifications reach beyond a rhetorical commitment to gender equality and infiltrate the social and discursive fabric of the post-war/post-Dayton order. The sedimentation of nationalist power as the unintended outcome of the settlement has implicitly led to the entrenchment of a patriarchal gender order and pressures for women to conform to traditional gender stereotypes.

Despite the system of gender quotas, the percentage of women in legislative and executive authorities at all levels remains low.  In the 2014 General Election, the percentage of women MPs reached 15.6% in the Republika Srpska ‘s National Assembly and 21.4% women MP in the House of Representatives.[ii] Interviews suggest that low levels of women’s political representation cannot be understood simply as a matter of imperfect or unsuccessful quota implementation. Rather, research participants point to the broader culture underpinning dominant parties and socio-political life which, in their view, creates a hostile environment to women’s political engagement.

Interviews and my observations point to the re-patriarchalization of social values and gender roles, initiated with the emergence of nationalist politics and sustained by the consociational settlement. Participants suggest that strong social pressure is in place to discredit women and feminists who dare to openly critique the correlations between the current status-quo, the nationalist grip on power and the gender inequalities underlying nationalist politics.

Dayton’s structural constraints also restrict the political terrain in which activists operate. Interviews with activists suggest that interventions at the grassroots level offer important spaces for feminist politics “from below”. However, their ability to subvert Dayton’s multi-layered dysfunctions is constrained even when feminist interventions are inscribed within larger and popular demands for change, such as those emerging in the protest and plenum movements in 2014.

Other feminist actors continue to pursue change through the BiH National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security. Implementation, however, often becomes a mere technical exercise.  To date, it has failed to significantly address broader gendered exclusions in security, transitional justice and peacebuilding. The resistance to fully acknowledge the status and rights of civilian victims of war to survivors of Conflict Related Sexual Violence is a case in point. The issue is intertwined with larger disputes over responsibility of war crimes and ethnonational narratives. The rhetorical commitment to address this legacy offers a sharp reminder that BiH elites are failing to take Women, Peace and Security   seriously.

While it is difficult to see past rhetorical commitment and structural constraints, I believe that new openings for transformative policies might emerge through sustained local/international feminist activism. Our task as feminist transnational allies is insisting that, despite a loss of interest in the mainstream international arena, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complex and incomplete peace remains central to the WPS research and activist community.

A copy of my article “Navigating Dayton’s Afterlives:  Women, Peace & Security in Bosnia-Herzegovina” is available here.

[i] Radhika Coomaraswamy, ‘Preventing Conflict Transforming Justice Securing Peace. A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325’, 2015,;

[ii]Arijana Aganović, Edita Miftari, and Marina Veličković, ‘1995-2015:  Women and Political Life in Post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina’, 2015, .

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