The Multiple Roles of Women in the Bosnian War: Victims, Ex-Combatants, Peace Builders, and Perpetrators – Dr Olivera Simic

War generally affects the entire population, male and female. Yet within the portrayal of war, men are usually portrayed as the aggressors and perpetrators, and women as the helpless victims. Most of the literature on women and warfare, or women and genocide, analyses the role of women from a victim-centred perspective. Although research shows that the majority of perpetrators are men, women too have been involved in the perpetration of war crimes (see Alette Smeulers, Mark Drumbl, and Nicole Hogg and Mark Drumbl in Genocide and Gender in the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Study (2015). The stories of women in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), who were victims of mass rape, set a precedent in legal history. The international attention surrounding the widespread and systematic reports of rape in Bosnia led to rape being prosecuted as a war crime before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), something which had never happened before.

Because of the large scale of sexual violence, and the extraordinary attention focused on this violence, both internationally and domestically, Bosnian women are stereotyped as rape victims. This preoccupation with the rape of women has reinforced the identification of “The Rape Victim” that frames (Bosnian) females as (uniquely) vulnerable and “rapable” (Dubravka Zarkov, “War Rapes in Bosnia: On Masculinity, Femininity and Power of the Rape Victim Identity”, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie (1997) 39 (2), 140-151).

Although women suffered from grave violations of human rights, in particular sexual abuse, this stereotypical portrayal is not adequate, and neglects the suffering and victimisation of men, as well as the active role played in the perpetration of violence by some women. It also neglects women’s roles as activists, peace builders and civil resistors, bystanders or supporters of their husbands and sons, or political elites in a war effort.

The most prominent players within an armed conflict are the political leaders of the warring parties and the members of the militarized units fighting the war. Biljana Plavšić was the first and only woman indicted by the ICTY – no lower-ranked women were indicted and prosecuted. As Plavšić is the only woman to have been prosecuted by the ICTY, compared to the 160 men, the percentage of female to male prosecutions is less than 1%. However, some low-ranking female perpetrators were indicted and prosecuted by the national courts in Bosnia. Many more are under investigation. So far, there have been five women prosecuted and according to some sources there has been between 30 and 40 ongoing investigations against female war criminals.

In our research we concluded that the context in which these women operated is no different from the context in which men operate. The only difference might be the expectations concerning the behaviour of men and women, which can be influenced and affected by prescribed gender roles. We have found no specific insights on this issue. It may be that because of gender perceptions, victims and bystanders may remember female war criminals better than the male aggressors.

The women we studied do not fit the mother, monster or whore stereotypes, as presented in a study by Laura Sjoberg and Coron E. Gentry. They propose that women today are continuously being idolised as pristine and pure objects incapable of mass murder and genocidal behaviour. Sjoberg and Gentry argue that convicted female perpetrators, instead of becoming representations of female capabilities in the perpetration of genocide, tend to be stripped of agency, with the severity of their actions reduced to pure coincidence, or the result of male manipulation or previous abuse. Alternatively, these women may be characterised as mentally disturbed or wicked, with a deviant sexual appetite. In short, female perpetrators are not portrayed as real women. Their crimes are indeed sometimes monstrous, but so are the crimes of their male counterparts, and this does not mean that they are monsters. The fact that most of the women studied were either raped or accused of sexual abuse is not surprising, as sexual violence was widespread in Bosnia during the war. It is now clear that both men and women were perpetrators, and that both men and women were victims.

The percentage of women prosecuted nationally might be slightly higher in Bosnia than at the ICTY, but only slightly, as within these courts too, most convicted perpetrators were men, and there are less than a dozen women who have been prosecuted so far. In our work on female perpetrators, we concluded that the contexts of the women who were prosecuted for the war crimes do not differ that much from the men. From the cases we discussed, it is hard to tell why and how these women became involved, or what really motivated them. However, it seems probable that just like the men prosecuted, the women were driven by ideology, greed or fear, and got caught up in the social dynamics of war in which they came to see certain groups of their fellow countrymen as the enemy.

This short essay is part of a scholarly paper co-authored with Prof Alette Smeulers from Tilburg Law School, Netherlands. The original title of the paper is ‘“People who know her would never believe this”: Female War Crime Perpetrators in Bosnia and Herzegovina’ in Solange Mouthaan and Olga Jurasz (eds),   Gendered experiences of armed conflict: international and transitional justice perspectives (forthcoming Intersentia, 2017).

Dr Olivera Simić is a Senior Lecturer with the Griffith Law School, Griffith University, Australia, Visiting Professor with UN University for Peace, Costa Rica, and Visiting Fellow with Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University, Belfast. Olivera has published numerous articles, book chapters and books and her latest edited collection, Transitional Justice and Reconciliation: Lessons from the Balkans (with Martina Fischer) was published by Routledge in 2015. In 2017, with a group of transitional justice experts, she published the first textbook in transitional justice, An Introduction to Transitional Justice, An Introduction to Transitional Justice (Routledge, 2017). Her latest monograph Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir was published by Spinifex in 2014. Olivera is currently finalising her monograph Silenced Victims of Wartime Sexual Violence (Routledge, 2017).

She can be contacted at: For full list of publication, please see here.