Interview: “Our society doesn’t talk about sexual violence. We need to break the strong taboos associated with sexual violence.”


Radmila Žigić, Director of Foundation Lara from Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been working since 1998 to provide safety to women and girls exposed to different types of violence. Photo: Personal archive.
Radmila Žigić, Director of Foundation Lara from Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been working since 1998 to provide safety to women and girls exposed to different types of violence. Photo: Personal archive.

Radmila Žigić, Director of Foundation Lara from Bijeljina in north-east Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a well-known women’s rights activist. Since 1998, she has lead the organization, which provides safety to women and girls exposed to different types of violence, including safe house accommodation, legal aid, and psycho-social support. Lara’s SOS phone rings 700 times a year, they receive around 100 online reports, and around 500 women visit their office. With the support of UN Women, Foundation Lara has intensified its advocacy efforts to change the criminal laws dealing with sexual violence with one critically important goal – to define rape as a sexual act without consent.

One of the areas Foundation Lara works in is the legislative framework concerning sexual violence. How well are laws concerning and defining sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina harmonized with the Istanbul Convention?

If we look at criminal offences and proceedings, the harmonization of the local criminal justice framework with the Istanbul Convention is underway. All of our criminal laws have special provisions concerning acts against sexual integrity, i.e. sexual freedom and moral, and most of the acts of violence that fall within the scope of the Convention are already integrated in our criminal laws. However, the Istanbul Convention deals with gender-based violence from the aspect of protection and support, prevention and (public) policies, and this is where we see space to intervene. No legislation is available for everything that comes next concerning supporting and helping the survivors and various systems that need to react in these cases. Also, the laws don’t recognize gender-based violence as a special societal phenomenon.

Which legal provisions are currently most problematic and which changes are most urgent for women and girls to receive adequate legal protection?

It is not simple to determine priorities, but we decided that the starting point of advocacy for legal changes should be the harmonization of the definition of the criminal act of rape with the Istanbul Convention. This would mean that the existing definition would be broadened to include not only acts of sexual violence conducted with the use of force or previous threat, but also sexual acts without consent and the willingness of the victim. We believe this amendment would lead to a change in awareness among the legal and judicial community and the criminal justice sector, and that it is the breaking point to change behaviours. This is important because our society doesn’t talk about sexual violence. That is why we are focusing on what we think is important: to, for starters, break the strong taboos associated with sexual violence. Survivors are stigmatized, and criminal justice protection for them often represents a process with additional trauma. They often feel like what they experience during the trials is harder than the act of rape itself.

When it comes to rape, statistics in Bosnia and Herzegovina show that the survivors rarely contact the police. Why is that?

We are currently analysing 80 verdicts for the criminal acts of rape, and we see that there are not many “classic” acts of rape: when an adult woman reports an adult man as the perpetrator. Usually, these are criminal acts against a defenceless person, children, or women who are older than 60 or 70. These are women past their sexual prime, who couldn’t possibly be labelled as the ones that provoked the rape, and they don’t have the feeling of fear and shame from the trial. There is a very small number of women aged 18 to 50 who report rape, unless the consequences of the act required medical assistance. Women either fear the perpetrators or are simply not ready to go through everything that awaits them during the trial. Unfortunately, in our system, when a rape survivor who reports the crime leaves the police precinct, she is alone, she is not protected, and she doesn’t have any rights.

You work a lot with decision-makers with the goal to expedite legal changes. How ready are they to accept your suggestions and take concrete actions to make them true?

Communication with decision-makers on parliament and ministry levels is good. Most of them understand that there is a harmonization process, they understand the need to enhance the legislative framework, they mostly even understand the problem we are discussing here. The true barrier is the behaviour and reaction of those who will implement the laws. Essentially, the judicial and legal community and those close to it, including the police, are resisting the changes because they believe that, for example, change in the definition of rape will lead to it being difficult to prove. Unfortunately, their influence on lawmakers is often crucial.

How important is it for civil society organizations working on women’s rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina to mutually lobby for legislative changes, and is that currently happening?

Most of the organizations focused on women’s rights see these changes as an integral part of their engagement. We already have an established cooperation within the Safe Network, consisting of seven organizations that head safe houses. Everyone knows very well what sexual violence is because we help the survivors. At the beginning of 2021, we created a series of infographics and invited our colleagues from various organizations to support the campaign to enhance the response to sexual violence, and everyone supported it. This autumn, when we embark on the intense phase of the campaign, I believe that this cooperation will be even better.