Women as Agents of Ethnic Reconciliation? Women’s NGOs and International Intervention in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina

Authored by: Elissa Helms

Categories: Statebuilding
Sub-Categories: Economic Recovery, Human Development, Mass Atrocities, Peacemaking, Post-Conflict Reconstruction, Transitional Justice
Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Region: Europe and Eurasia
Year: 2003
Citation: Helms, Elissa. "Women as Agents of Ethnic Reconciliation? Women's NGOs and International Intervention in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina." Women's Studies International Forum 26, no. 1 (2003): 15–33.

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This article examines how women are represented by women’s nongovernmental organization (NGO) activists and their foreign donors in postwar reconstruction initiatives in Bosnia–Herzegovina. I argue that dominant donor representations of women as peacemakers and natural agents of ethnic reconciliation present a paradox for the women they target. Women are charged with achieving the very political goals of ethnic reconciliation and refugee return, yet the essentialist constructions used to encourage women’s peacemaking roles effectively marginalize them from formal political power. When local women activists use similar “affirmative” gender essentialisms, they risk closing off women’s potential for influence in the formal (male) political sphere. However, I argue, given the moral and political climate of postwar Bosnia, in which politics is perceived as a corrupt, male sphere, this strategy allows women to gain moral authority and real, though indirect, power with which to achieve their often very political goals.