Signs of seeds sprouting, despite snow in Sarajevo

A late winter delivered snow in Sarajevo, drifting lazily to settle on the timbered roofs of the bazaar district and to camouflage many of the still bullet-pocked walls of the flat complexes around the city.  The weather did not prevent a lively grouping of women activists from gathering to discuss and debate what their contribution might be in progressing social change. There were aspiring political representatives and young academics, as well as women who are working desperately to address both the still evident legacies of division alongside hopes for a feminist future. Twenty years may seem a long time to some to overcome the hurt of conflict, but on the timeline of peacebuilding it is just a memory away.

It is clear that community philanthropy has an important role to play in both the continuing empowerment of women, but also in supporting community-based initiatives to promote conflict transformation and reconciliation. Dynamic activist, Dubrabka Kovačević, explained her motivation for initiating the Foundation for Women’s Empowerment(Fondacija za osnaživanje žena), which was established in 2014: “It is constantly the same story” she pointed out. “Large NGO’s may be funded, but smaller organizations lose out.” Dubrabka herself, who lived through the war in the 1990’s, has been active in the donor sector for over 20 years. She recalls how international donors flooded into Sarajevo towards the end of the war, but effectively designed programmes that were “cut and paste from other conflict zones.” There was little, or no, consultation with local people and it was necessary to speak English in order to be considered a possible participant in the reconstruction effort.

Another observation that chimes with the experience of so many communities emerging from conflict and natural disasters is that the aid programmes focused on relatively short-term “projects”, defined by the external funding mechanisms in place. There was little sensitivity to either local conditions or long-term needs, let alone any attention paid to community empowerment. Dubrabka sighs – while employed by an international NGO herself, she describes many hours of voluntary effort in using her financial skills to try to raise funding for crucial community-based activities. As an economist herself, she is very aware of the gap in capacity between professionally staffed NGOs and smaller community and women’s groups.


Foundation for Women’s Empowerment

With an office in Sarajevo, the fledgling Foundation for Women’s Empowerment is now registered and has mobilized a support group of volunteer activists. The Oak Foundation has provided seed money for both grantmaking and the running costs of the foundation itself, which has allowed it to employ a staff member. A number of specific funds are now operating under the auspices of the foundation – with the empowerment of women and women’s rights being a primary focus. An Urgent Response Fund provides small grants ($500 USD) to meet the needs of women in crisis. Over the past few months these grants have been used to help women who are victims of domestic violence, as well as a woman that has been trafficked for sex. A Solidarity Fund works through local organizations to offer grants of up to $5000 to support work on areas of women’s empowerment; whilst an Organizational Support Fund is working intensively to build the capacity of a selected number of women’s organizations that have an annual income of under $20,000 per annum. The foundation has also identified a niche contribution that allows community-based women’s initiatives to avail of municipal funding. This funding source requires a group investment of 20% in order to lever the 80% of the funding available. Many women’s groups have found themselves excluded on this basis, but the Foundation for Women’s Empowerment can now make the required matching monies available.

Alongside the support received from the Oak Foundation, Dubravka recognises the importance of local donations to the foundation from within Bosnia itself. However, she reminds us that Bosnia is not a wealthy country. Nevertheless, she values the $5 individual donations, and speaks in glowing terms of the $50,000 donated by a Roma NGO. She, and her fellow board members, are looking to extend this fund development as well as seek financial support from external philanthropic foundations. Dubravka emphasizes the importance of local decision-making through the new foundation, and welcomes the fact that there is now a group of women activists (and a couple of men) who form the Grant Committee of the foundation.


Funding for women and reconciliation

Across the city, the well-established and respected Mozaik Foundationcites Socrates – “The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new” – in its new 2015 – 2025 Strategy Paper. It pulls few punches in its analysis of the challenges facing Bosnian politics and society. With a track record in working with young people and promoting social entrepreneurship, Mozaik is now planning to partner withUSAID in offering a new funding programme. This programme, which will make available $200,000 USD to local initiatives that focus on women and reconciliation, is to be rolled out in 2015. It is hoped that this will not only make available very necessary resources, but also bring organizations together to share ideas and approaches.

Reconciliation is not an easy option in Bosnia where group and ethnic division seem to be the driving force for political settlement. Many of the women activists who came together to discuss challenges referred to the current situation where school buildings are fitted out with separate doors to cater for children of different ethnic/religious identities. Even teachers from different backgrounds enter their school through different doors. Vesna Bajšanski-Agić, Executive Director of Mozaik Foundation, argues that there is a need to put reconciliation centre stage, rather than relegating it to the sidelines. While not ignoring the difficulties, she hopes that the new grantmaking programme will harness the energy and insight of local women and women’s groups. Meanwhile, local USAID officials argue that it is time to address the causes of division, rather than the symptoms, and that citizen participation is essential to effectively undermine an inclusive democracy.

Avila Kilmurray

GFCF Director, Policy & Strategy

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