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Gender, Food Security and Post-War Bosnia

The National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina

November 20, 2011

by Natalia Martínez-Paz


The author with women from Forum Žena, who helped organize her field interviews.

Naida began crying half way through her story. She was explaining how she had been forced from her home at gunpoint, the transient life that followed, the unstable postwar existence and now the return home. Searching for stability after a decade of uncertainty, Naida had come back to her home, a mid-sized town in northern Bosnia that is now in the Serbian political entity Republika Srpska, with hopes of normalcy. Despite the immediate aid from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) running various social programs and the international presence seeking to establish peace and reconciliation, the stability she lost in 1992 eludes her and the many women like her: single heads of household supporting families in communities of which they were once part, but are only marginally so now.

I did not intend to get her life story. I was in Bosnia for an academic year on a Boren Fellowship to research food security and gender in returnee communities. I wanted (and still want) to learn what returnee women, who are often heads of household, experience when they return to their communities with regards to economic security and specifically food security. Instead Naida told me how this part of daily living had to be framed and understood within the context of her life experience.

The National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo which was destroyed during the war.

The National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo which was destroyed during the war.

Immediately following the war in 1995, aid and food flooded Bosnia. If you go to the tunnel museum in Sarajevo today, you will see the bags of wheat and rice that were sent by the Saudi, American and British governments. Caritas, the Red Crescent, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Mercy Corps and other NGOs set up shop distributing food aid throughout the country. Some sent this aid freely, while others stipulated religious and political conditions. International aid organizations have been focusing in the postwar years on recovery and providing immediate assistance, which includes not only providing food but rebuilding the shattered infrastructure. As time goes on, this aid is diminishing despite the fact that economic conditions have improved marginally and infrastructure still has not reached the prewar conditions.

The official unemployment level in Bosnia hovers around 23% (though unofficial estimates are as high as 44%), and women face greater employment barriers than men. State supported programs have withered and the NGOs that came to Bosnia in the mid 1990s to provide relief are closing or changing their focus to meet other needs. Despite its availability in stores and markets, vulnerable populations have difficulty accessing food. The most vulnerable of these populations are the elderly and disabled, internally displaced persons, returnee female heads of household, the unemployed, those dependent on remittances and the rural and urban poor.

The discourses on economic and food security issues in Bosnia today are apparent in two very different conversations I had with representatives of the United States Agency International for Development (USAID) and UNCHR. While explaining over coffee my research interests to the Political Director at USAID, she argued that food security could not be an issue in Bosnia, as food was widely available. On one hand, this argument seems true. Sarajevo now boasts three major American-style megamarts, small corner markets scattered throughout the city and several major farmers markets active the whole year. She explained that even her friends in neighboring cities who were limited financially always managed to have a generous amount of food when she visited. Another European Union Delegation representative laughed when I said that there was a food security issue in Bosnia. Like many, his response was “…but there is food in the shops!”

Later when I visited the UNHCR to discuss their work with food aid, the Operations Director told me in no uncertain terms that food security was becoming a central issue for Bosnians. For the first time since the war, requests for food aid had more than doubled in the previous two years. The minimal free funds available to them were currently directed at fulfilling these requests, but with limited and unreliable funds the organization is not able to ensure that needs are met. With inflation, food prices have increased 100% from 2006-2010, while wages remain stagnant. Bosnians working for UNHCR assured me if they did not give their parents financial support, their parents would barely have enough money to pay bills and to purchase food. I heard this story throughout my stay, even from my landlady, who without remittances would not be able to afford her modest lifestyle.

I received these two very different reactions to the phrase “food security” because this term is not often discussed and it is so closely associated with other issues like poverty, economic life and social vulnerabilities. What does food security mean? Raj Patel defines it as “the availability, access and utilization of food.” In addition to being heavily influenced by economic circumstances, this definition includes social and political conditions. In the immediate post-war period, food aid was a central part of relief efforts, but food aid is not the same as food security, just as having food in the markets and shops of cosmopolitan Sarajevo does not represent the experience of the other estimated 3.8 million people that make up the country. Access and availability are limited not only by what is on store shelves, but how people can legitimately obtain foodstuffs. In the Bosnian case, the economic restraints due to unemployment and inflation are directly tied to the social vulnerability returnee women face in their communities.

I did not ask Naida about the war as she sat crying on the couch, spilling her life into my voice recorder. That experience seemed so personal and delicate that I felt it would be a violation of her privacy, and I did not think I needed to ask for my research. Beginning her story as she did, Naida ensured that I understood her current condition within the social, economic and political transformation that had taken place, both to Bosnia, but more intimately, to her. Her constraints are shaped by the social vulnerabilities she faces by being a) a woman, b) a Muslim returnee in a Serb majority region, c) single and d) older. These characteristics limit her potential economic opportunities because of the lack of work, specifically the lack of work for women returnees. And, as is all too apparent now, these conditions limit her “availability, access and utilization of food.” As a woman who went from having a stable, secure home and career before the war to her current state in barely 20 years, Naida is sadly representative of a vulnerable group of women facing heartbreaking daily struggles all over Bosnia today.

Natalia Martinez-Paz (MA/MPA 2011) returned from her Boren Fellowship in Spring 2011 and began work at the Northwest AIDS Education and Training Center immediately after. She works with expanding clinician education on HIV/AIDS treatment to low income and vulnerable populations across the Northwest region and is planning to return to school for a Masters in Public Health.