On trial at the women’s court: gender violence, justice and citizenship

Adriana Zaharijević

Is alternative justice possible? If yes, how and for whom? If one begins with an assumption that formal legal systems do not side with victims and that, even if the trials prove to be fair, they do not necessarily bring justice to the victims, then one is bound to seek alternative justice. Alternative justice is needed for those who are deprived of power in political, civic and social terms. In other words, for citizens who are somehow below the category of citizen. It is from these premises that the Women’s Courts Movement began to develop. Seeing women as victims, as those who suffer the most during violent conflicts, who experience an uneven distribution of resources and wealth, or an unequal share of power in public and its repercussions in the private sphere, Women’s Courts seek to bring justice to those who are unheard or silenced. Thus this by now global movement aims at giving voice to those who are generally not treated as equal and therefore left without justice in their own respective states.         

The post-Yugoslav region presents itself as a case in point. During the Yugoslav Wars of Succession women were rarely involved in armed conflicts as soldiers, of both regular and paramilitary forces. There is a vivid disproportionality between men and women who were actively involved in the processes of instigating and perpetuating ethnic hostility and warmongering. Women barely ever, and if so only indirectly, profited from wartime wealth accumulation and its redistribution. On the other hand, women (and children as their likely dependants in such circumstances) were most prone to be affected by forced displacement, by poverty, by economic sanctions, and by a general climate which encouraged, or did not punish, aggression. Most importantly and most cruelly, female bodies served as a weapon of war. Either through sexual enslavement or through systematic rape, women were abused as tools for humiliation and degradation, which was meant to affect both them as individuals and as representatives of their ethnic groups. The assault on their bodies was seen as an effective way of ethnic cleansing, intimidation and fostering fear among local population. One only needs to remember that it was during this war that rape was for the first time in judicial history declared a ground for a war crimes verdict (see Kunarac et al. (IT-96-23 & 23/1) "Foča"). The war in Bosnia constituted rape as a crime against humanity. 

What does citizenship mean for women during wars? Is citizenship suspended, abated or somehow modified when the lives of citizens are in danger? What happens with those citizens who are taken by the tide of war passively, encumbered by circumstances or merely scraping through the day? And once the wars were over and new successor states emerged as a result of numerous dissolutions, brutal or less brutal, what does this now new citizenship mean for so many women who were deprived of many, and some of all, citizenship rights? Which court would hear about these grievances and crimes and be capable of holding trials and enforcing its verdicts? Is the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY), prosecuting violations of humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia, able to bring reparations and to compensate for enumerated losses? Are the local Offices for the War Crimes Prosecutors the bodies that will eventually bring justice to these groups of victims?

According to seven organizations which formed the Initiative for organizing the Women’s Court in the Former Yugoslavia, this in itself is not sufficient. As Kata Hodžić from the Majke enklave Srebrenica i Žepa (The Mothers of Srebrenica and Žepa enclaves) aptly said: “We here suffered from many things. It is well known that women during the wars had to carry a heavy load of degradation, losing their loved ones, and suffering from hunger, violence, or rape. And the same thing happens all around the world. There are also other forms of violations of human rights. Women have therefore organized public presentations throughout ex-Yugoslavia where we talk about that.” And this was just the first step.        

Women’s Courts: a very short history

Women’s Courts are seen as places where women testify to experiences of violence. Yet their testimonies are more than statements under oath: at these courts women are given the chance to name the crime, which is oftentimes not regarded as a crime at all. This act is therefore understood as something that enables women who do the naming to be empowered by this sheer act. By breaking the circle of silence, Women’s Courts give strength to women and offer them not only justice but truth[1]. This strong statement can be justified by the strictly symbolic position of Women’s Courts. And although they lack official legitimacy, it is this position that helps them in legitimating popular sovereignty and furthering the ideals of international law and ethics. By stressing the centrality of women’s experience, the healing effects of the testimonial process, and different conception of legal subjectivity, Women's Courts create alternative political spaces and are a cogent expression of resistance to violence.

Women’s Courts are radically feminist in nature because they underline that women are the most vulnerable subjects of the state, and that their personal experience of violence, rape, torture or discrimination is a political issue. The specific feminist methodology of Women’s Courts insists on an intersection between political and personal, which is given affective and aesthetic expression (women sing, weep, laugh and yell during the trials), representing thereby both their survival and resistance. Their testimonies, the space they occupy and the affectivity they are allowed to express, help to create different kinds of judicial system and juridical practices. Women’s Courts therefore aim at evolving new concepts of justice itself. 

The Women’s Courts Movement was initiated by the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council (AWHRC) in 1991. The first Court of Women was held in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1992. It gathered women from a range of Asian countries, focusing on violence against women at the level of the family and community, but also at the level of the state. The issue of violence against women was articulated not only as an assault on individuals, but also in terms of the general vulnerability of women as a group in the context of politically motivated and economic violence. Many similar courts were soon to follow. They targeted women from groups that are rarely heard, such as Indian Dalits (“untouchables”), former “comfort women” abducted in Korea and China to serve the Japanese military, Nepali poor women forced into prostitution, and indigenous women from the Pacific region. These women were given the chance to ask for changes to the laws, social politics, custom laws, economic structures and media policies. Women’s Courts are almost always organized around a particular topic. They include testimonies of women’s personal experiences and analyses by legal and media scholars and civil society activists. They may be accompanied with juries, and if they are conceived as tribunals, they might produce a symbolic verdict. They provide evidence for groups which seek redress through national and international legal institutions, and they serve as a vigorous call to attention of injustices being done to women. 

Women’s Courts became more of a movement through El Taller International, an international NGO based in Tunis, with more than 500 partner organizations in the world, particularly in the global South. Headed by Corinne Kumar, Secretary General of El Taller and a founding member of AWHRC, El Taller helped organize a number of Women’s Courts in different regions of the world – Arab world, the Mediterranean, Africa, Central and South America. The first Women’s Court in North America was held in 2012, having poverty on its agenda. Violence against women is therefore seen through specific lenses, depending on the region. It however tends to rely on the definition of violence which would be as wide and comprehensive as possible, including economic violence (caused by poverty, globalization and development), the violence of cultures (customs and religion), caste/class and racism, and violence engendered by war.   

Central to this story were two courts, one organized in 1999 in Casablanca, Morocco, and the other two years later in Cape Town, South Africa. The Mediterranean Forum on Violence against Women brought together women from Lebanon, Palestine, Algeria, Kosovo and Yugoslavia, where testimonies of women who went through situations of armed conflict were heard. Divided into sections on militarization of bodies and spirits; ethnicity, territory and land; violence against women and resistance and restitution, the Forum ended with a plea for a new concept of justice based on truth and reconciliation. As it is written in the El Taller document, “it was felt that the revision of history is impossible without the resistance of these women to violence, claiming a restitution of the right to truth”. The Cape Town court, World Court of Women against War, for Peace held in 2001, was pivotal in many respects. There were almost 4000 women and men present, 40 testimonies were heard, and participants came from 62 countries. South-African Thandi Modise and Memnuna Zviždić from Bosnia and Herzegovina, welcomed them as representatives of the International Coordination Committee. Here two topics gained special attention – how to understand the roots of wars and conflict; and what might alternative justice be with regard to the new visions of peace.

Women’s Court for Post-Yugoslav States

One of the women present in Cape Town was Žarana Papić, a prominent figure in the Yugoslav and Serbian feminist movement. The last decade of her life was almost entirely devoted to struggle against the nationalism and militarism of the Serbian state. Already a member of Women in Black, a persistent voice of conscience for more than twenty years, she came back from Cape Town with a firm vision to organize a Women’s Court for the Former Yugoslavia. Her early death in 2002 prevented her from seeing the fruition of this idea. But seven organizations from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia revived this idea again at the end of 2010, and began organizing activities around “Women’s Court – a feminist approach to justice”.

Women in Black remained the core coordinators of this multilayered process. According to their reports (2011, 2012), around 200 civil society organizations from more than 100 cities across Former Yugoslavia gave their active support to the formation of Women’s Court, with more than 2600 participants being included in this process. Over 250 activists directly participated in the creation and realization of activities around the organization of Women’s Court. Those consisted of eleven regional seminars, ten training sessions for public presentations and 54 realized public presentations (in 47 cities in the region), screening of documentaries (17 prepared for this specific purpose) and distributing brochures, readers, leaflets (in Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian and Serbian).         

Activists from different parts of Former Yugoslavia who were involved in the organization of the Women’s Court were unanimous about two things. One was that feminist activists were rare in their condemnation of war from its beginning in 1991, and were the most resolute in their disobedience to ethnic homogenization and militarism which did not cease to grow when the wars were over. Then, they were persistent in their actions against denial, relativisation or exoneration of crimes. Feminist activists insist on the continuity of injustice and violence after the war. In this light, it was easily agreed that the time frame for the Women’s Court should span the last two decades.

According to fieldwork reports, the most common and the most frequent types of violence which have to be heard at the Women’s Court for the Former Yugoslavia are ethnic-based violence (societal repression or rejection based on ethnicity, tightly knit with mixed origins; and institutional violence which is often combined with different levels of economic violence); military violence (forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, trafficking, sexual violence; military brothels where women were systematically and en masse raped and tortured; but also violence against women who supported conscientious objectors and deserters); gender-based violence stimulated by an overall aggression, promoted and normalised in the public sphere, and economic violence towards women, as a common signifier of a war and transition aftermath in almost all Post-Yugoslav states. In terms of citizenship, especially important is the violence of the state and its overall neglect of the effects of wars and transition.   

Why is it important to have Women’s Court for this region? And, finally, what would be its results? Although there are many impediments standing in the way of establishing a “Women’s Court – a feminist approach to justice” in a post-conflict region still marked by divisions, opposing narratives and mutual accusations, its realization has become imperative for numerous individuals and groups. For them and their supporters, the Court is expected to demonstrate that there is a continuity of violence against women, produced by war and perpetuated more or less visibly during peace time. Their explicit aim is to make it recognized. It would also serve as a tool for strengthening the facts and for symbolic and institutional lobbying, which would not only bring recognition but will help in shedding light on the contexts which brought about violence in the first place. A Women’s Court for Post-Yugoslav states therefore represents an attempt to bring justice to those citizens, due to the gendered nature of injustice affecting them, who are almost never subjects of justice, to weave women’s experiences in the tissue of public memories and political communities, to enforce the regional and international network of support and solidarity, and to challenge the hidden matrices which hinder women from becoming, being and acting as full-scale citizens.    


Kovačević, Ljupka, Marija Perković and Staša Zajović (eds.) (2011), Ženski sud – feministički pristup pravdi, Beograd: Žene u crnom. 

Women’s Court – a Feminist Approach to Justice, Report on implemented activities January 2011 – Decembar 2011, Ženski sud za bivšu Jugoslaviju.

Women’s Court – Feminist Approach to Justice, A collective report of public presentations February – October 2012.

[1] Kovačević, Ljupka, Marija Perković and Staša Zajović (eds.) (2011), Ženski sud – feministički pristup pravdi, Beograd: Žene u crnom, p. 12. 


Photo 1. Srebrenica 11.7.2010, courtesy of photographer Biljana Rakočević.

Photo 2. Women in Black Belgrade Vigil 2009, courtesy of photographer Biljana Rakočević.