The triple marginalization of disabled women in Bosnia

In Bosnia, disabilities caused by wartime injuries are more respected than the so-called “civilian” ones. Since most of war veterans are men, disabled women face discrimination by default.

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Source: Istinomjer
The triple marginalization of disabled women in Bosnia - NewsMavens
Women on wheelchairs. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

What has been done in Bosnia and Herzegovina to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities? Not much. The social protection of these people is generally substandard while the gap between their opportunities and living standards, and those of able-bodied people is still vast. 

However, there is one aspect that stands out -- the undertaken obligation to provide equal rights to all people with disabilities, based on their actual needs. Sadly, the lukewarm, bureaucratic tone of the replies we received from the authorities left us unconvinced whether it will be implemented any time soon.

You are probably wondering -- what's the problem with the current system?

If you are a disabled person in Bosnia, your rights and privileges are not determined primarily by how severe your condition is. They mostly depend on one question-- Have you become disabled in combat as a result of the 1992-1995 war?

If yes, then you're legally entitled to more than your civilian counterparts -- higher monthly compensations, priority status in some administrative procedures. You can receive benefits unavailable to civilians with disabilities even if your condition is less severe.

This practice has long been recognized as discriminatory towards people with "civilian disabilities". The state has formally agreed to change it, most notably through ratifying the UN Convention in 2010. However, no action has been undertaken ever since to tackle the unfairness of the system.

To make things worse, the state has absolutely no saying in the matter. Social protection is legislated and executed on the levels of entities and cantons. This means that making everyone truly equal would require good will and coordinated effort of all 12 parliaments and governments.

It’s hard to imagine this working out given their standard mode of operation. Particularly in matters concerning the veterans of three former armies, which were all at war with one another two decades ago.  

Again, you might be wondering -- how is this a women's issue?

Since the majority of the war veterans are men, in comparison with them almost all disabled women have fewer rights. Consequently, if you're a disabled woman in Bosnia, by default, you face triple discrimination -- on the account of your gender, disability and the fact that most likely you’re not a war veteran.

Suffice to say, things are even worse if you are also a Roma, an LGBT person, if you live in poverty or outside of urban areas.

Your situation will also depend on the administrative unit in which you are your located, because they determine independently the scope and the amount of financial aid and other benefits you’re entitled to. Thus social aid is largely dependent on local budgets.

The attempts of the authorities to improve the lives of disabled people don’t benefit women in the same way as men, especially the war veterans. For example, the efforts to stimulate the employment of disabled people produced drastically different results for women and men. Only a fraction of the people who managed to find jobs through the new legal framework were female.

Yet, the government has never properly acknowledged the gender implications of the status quo.

Whenever the topic of women’s rights emerges it’s always about “women in general” -- and even that conversation is a rarity. Similarly, the discussions on the unfair categorization of the disabled are usually conducted in a genderless tone, which keeps women invisible.

The two conversations hardly ever collide in the public discourse. There is basically no space in the mainstream discussion where the current situation of disabled people is recognized as a gender issue.

Some exceptions can be found in the statements of organizations dealing with the rights of women and/or people with disabilities. Unfortunately, they are largely overlooked by the decision makers and rarely impact policies in a significant way. The reports are there, the numbers are clear, the problems are identified -- but they’re not discussed, let alone addressed.

Details from the story:

  • The latest census demonstrates that at least 294,058 out of the 3,531,159 residents of BiH (8,3% of the population) are diagnosed with some form of a disability.
  • Women make for 50.9% of the population and 54.7% of all disabled people.
  • BiH has ratified the UN Convention and adopted the EU standards, which require  the rights of the disabled to be determined on the basis of their individual condition, not the cause of disability. However, this has never been implemented.
  • The rights of people with disabilities are determined differently in Bosnia's two entities and, within one of them (the Federation of BiH), in each of the ten cantons.
  • Both entities have adopted strategies to improve the rights of disabled people, as required by the Convention, but neither has implemented them.
  • In the Federation of BiH, 248 people with disabilities have started to work in 2015. Only 26,6% (66 out of 248) of them were women. 
  • In Republika Srpska, 547 disabled people were employed in the period from 2013 to 2016. An astounding 6,2% (34 out of 547) were women.
  • This, as the advocate groups explain, is due to the fact that "employers always give advantage to the war veterans".
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