The Changing Role of Women: Stepping Into Leadership
Traditional Role of Women
Gender roles define society views of masculine and feminine qualities and what is acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for people based on their sex. Society and culture create gender roles which encompass a wide range of behaviors, determining how males and females should think, speak, dress, and interact within the context of society. These beliefs and attitudes persist in even the most progressive cultures, promulgated from one generation to the next.
Traditionally, gender roles place the burden of providing for the family on the shoulders of men, with women assigned the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker. As the provider, men have taken leadership roles at home as well as in business and politics, while religious and cultural expectations have kept women in a subservient position. Deeply embedded gender expectations have limited the opportunities for women to thrive outside of the home and grow into leadership roles.
The journey towards gender equality has been difficult in much of the world, but the women of Bosnia- Hercegovina face many unique challenges. Between 1992 and 1995 the region was the site of a brutal international armed conflict rooted in nationalist, religious, and cultural ideas. The Bosnian Conflict, like most wars, destroyed infrastructure, factories, families, and homes. The conflict gained world attention for the ensuing ethnic cleansing and genocide of an estimated 100,000 people as well as the intense sexualized violence against women and young girls. Large-scale, systematic rape became a hallmark of the conflict leaving nearly 60,000 rape victims, including women and girls who were tortured and repeatedly violated at locations that became known as "rape camps."
A Catalyst for Changing Roles
While other former Yugoslav states have taken steps to create gender equality, the challenges faced by women in Bosnia- Hercegovina have increased. The country currently has the highest gender wage gap in Europe with women making just 54% of what men earn. Cultural and religious traditions combined with high unemployment rates, estimated to be over 27%, have continued to encourage a gendered division of labor.
Nowhere is the disparity between the rights and opportunities afforded men and women more evident than Bosnia- Hercegovina, yet in the face of discrimination, disaster, and struggle many women have found their voice and stepped into leadership roles in the community and the business world. The rebuilding and peacekeeping efforts following the war opened a door for many women. With political and religious leaders seemingly uncertain of what steps to take, women leaders, unaware of theories about peace, feminism or gender equality, and unconcerned with recognition, did what they thought was right to ease the suffering of those around them and provide for their immediate needs.
Many women have found themselves in leadership positions of the peacekeeping and reconciliation process of the country. Women like Amra Pandzo, Sehija Dedovic, and Danka Zelic, who have been vital to the peacebuilding effort, began their work at the grassroots level, as a means of helping to ease the burden of their neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. While the organizations that these three women run are religiously based, they provide services based on need rather than religious or political beliefs.
For some of these women, the mission they have undertaken is more than a job. Their true leadership ability comes from the total commitment that they have to their organization and the people they serve. The ability to successfully lead, as demonstrated by these women, comes from a sincere commitment and belief in the work done.
While most would agree that the Bosnian government's response to the issue of gender equality is lacking, they have taken initiatives in some sectors, such as agriculture, designed to empower women. Accounting for over 45% of the unemployed population and 68% of those registered as employed by a family business without a regular wage, agriculture is an integral part of reducing the gender gap. The government initiative helps women seeking to overcome traditional gender roles, such as the 58-year-old homemaker from Samac who, with the assistance of an agricultural plan began to grow strawberries on the 500 meters of land she had, providing her with stability for her and her family.
Women have emerged as leaders not only in agriculture, the service, and peacebuilding fields, but they have also had success in the business world. Bosnian businesswomen like Erna Sosevic who had the desire to create something useful for the community, an outlet for her creativity that would also make her a role model for her children, have made significant steps towards equality. Her dream grew to reality when she became the owner and CEO of the online platform Bizbook B2B.
Sosevic's experience as a businesswoman demonstrates that while the patriarchal system is still prevalent in Bosnia- Hercegovina it can be overcome with perseverance and dedication. Sosevic relates that in addition to dealing with the obstacles usually associated with starting a business, she has also had to deal with a male-dominated business climate. A world where her authority, experience, and expertise are questioned merely because of her sex.
Sosevic believes that her company is "an investment in changing the perception that women are not fit to be business leaders in Bosnia- Hercegovina." The concept of women stepping into leadership roles may be foreign, but it is a feeling that many women are embracing, as data from the Institute of Statistics show that there are 39,627 entrepreneurs registered in the country and nearly half are women.
The "patriarchal structures of privilege and control are more ingrained and difficult to overcome in many parts of the world due to cultural and religious traditions. While opportunities for women in Bosnia- Hercegovina are increasing, the country has been slow to respond to issues of equality. It takes courage, commitment, and perseverance to lead and, for Bosnia- Hercegovina, the time has come to embrace the passionate, altruistic approach to leadership that women bring
Lent Hirsch, Michele. "Conflict Profile: Bosnia." Women's Media Center, 8 Feb. 2012.
Buljubasic, Haris. "Bosnian Women Show Business Is Not a 'Man's World'." Balkan Insight, 30 Aug. 2017.
Dag, Zarifa. "Women's Leadership in Bosnia and Herzegovina." Pike & Hurricane, 21 Jan. 2018.
History.com Staff. "Bosnian Genocide." History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009.