guest blog written by Professor Janine Natalya Clark
I spent a year in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in 2014-2015, doing research with men and women who had suffered sexual violence during the Bosnian war. When some of the female interviewees (but interestingly none of the male interviewees) talked about the verbal abuse that they had faced from their husbands and/or neighbours, and when they spoke about feeling stigmatized within their communities, I saw an opportunity to potentially change this and to make a difference. My ideas gradually began to take shape and I had a very clear sense of what I wanted to achieve. Through a series of interactive talks delivered in high schools across BiH, I wanted to engage young people in discussions about conflict-related sexual violence, why it happens, how it impacts on victims/survivors and what can be done to prevent it. The ultimate goal was to develop a new school subject that would contribute to building a more socially-supportive environment for those who have suffered sexual abuses – not only during the war but also in peacetime.
In other words, I wanted to achieve impact – and specifically social and attitudinal impact through the medium of education. I therefore decided to apply for an IAA grant. That was back in 2015. In November of that year, I received the news that my application had been unsuccessful and I remember feeling incredibly disappointed. In my application, I had proposed to work closely with a local NGO in BiH. One of the reasons that my application was rejected the first time around was because the reviewers felt that I needed to delegate more responsibility to the NGO, so that progress could happen without the need for me to be physically present in BiH. I was given extremely useful feedback and was encouraged to re-submit the application. The second time around, it was successful and I started the grant in October 2016.
The first stage of the project went according to plan. Interactive talks were delivered (mainly by the NGO) in 21 different high schools across BiH (namely in the Federation, Republika Srpska and Brčko District). I designed a pre- and post-talk questionnaire, as a way of assessing the impact of the talks, and in total more than 800 male and female students (aged 17 and 18) completed the two questionnaires. Not only was the feedback very positive, but analysis of the data showed that the talks had achieved some attitudinal impact. Specifically, there was less endorsement of certain common rapes myths after the talks than there was before. The second stage of the project, in contrast, has been far more challenging. My research assistant and I designed a Training Manual on Sex and Relationship Education, to be used in BiH. Covering 12 topics in total, the Manual contains lesson plans and various class activities. It was developed on the basis that each year group would have three Sex and Relationship Education classes per academic year. BiH is generally a conservative society and sex remains a ‘taboo topic’. Through the classes, I wanted to create safe spaces in high schools where young people could talk about sex and relationships – positive and negative.
Some officials and teachers have expressed opposition, arguing that the subject matter is too sensitive, that religious leaders will object, that there is too much sex in the Manual. Such criticisms fundamentally overlook what the project is trying to do. It is not simply about sex. It has an educational and preventative value, for example by empowering young people to recognize abusive relationships and how to respond to them. Above all, the project is about helping to build a more open, tolerant and reflexive society – from the bottom up – where stigma has no place. So far, one of the 10 Cantons in the BiH Federation, namely Posavina Canton, has adopted the Sex and Relationship Education classes and the feedback from the schools has been positive. Nevertheless, there is still a very long road ahead.
The IAA grant enabled me to complete the first part of the journey. With hindsight, however, I would do certain things differently. In particular, I would be more realistic about how long things take. My grant was for 20 months. In a country where everything is highly politicized and where there is a crushing sense that very little is changing, the expectation that I would achieve great things in such a short period was idealistic and naïve. Yet, what remains unfounded is my belief in the project and its significance – and every small step forward reinforces this.