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SarajevoSarajevo at Night. Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Julian Nitzsche

By Munirah Eskander, Safeworld Correspondent

The woman was tied to four stakes in the ground, ‘in a lying position but suspended.’ While they were raping her, the soldiers said ‘that Yugoslavia was theirs... that they fought for it in World War II’… the national politics are fused with sex… the men laugh and chide each other for ‘not satisfying her’, for not being able to ‘force a smile out of her’ because she is not showing ‘signs of love’. They beat her and ask if it is good for her.”
Catherine MacKinnon, Turning Rape into Pornography

Rape is a casualty of war in most cases, but the systematization of rape in the Bosnian war from 1992-1995 created fertile grounds for prostitution and sex trafficking in the postwar state. Sex trafficking of Bosnian women had not been as prevalent, but because of the war’s mass genocidal rapes, many of these women were ostracized by their families due to traditional views of the concept of honor. Since “damaged” women had nowhere to go and there was a paucity of jobs, this facilitated their involvement in corrupt industries.

Their psychological and physical vulnerability during this time was utilized to entrap them. Bosnia developed a reputation for prostitution, and because it did not have a centralized, regulated government, the issue of prostitution has been exacerbated with time.

Capitalism and patriarchy merged to create a “prostitution institution”, buttressed by a lucrative sex trafficking industry. Development projects in Bosnia, instead of being used to rebuild and bolster the economy, tacitly promoted the institutionalization and normalization of sex work.

The pool of “suppliers” of the sex industry includes powerful international players such as leaders, judges and bankers, which can help explain the failure of development projects, and the institutionalization of prostitution via sex trafficking.

Methods of Procurement

Trafficking sex slaves into Bosnia was made possible by the porosity and laxity of border security, with a marked absence of ethical law officials. These officials used their diplomatic immunity to carry out criminal activities and unabashedly demand more trafficked women. Trafficked victims would be given a plane ticket and some cash, but no plan for new employment prospects. An ineffective, patronizing, immune, gender-blind, bureaucratic order was a big part of the problem.

As prostitution is illegal in Bosnia and sex trafficking is not recognized by their laws, institutionalizing the former facilitates the latter. If the women are caught, they are marked as prostitutes – thus the onus is on the women themselves, rather than on the pimps who procured them.

Misogynistic officials refused to see such women as victims of sex trafficking. There is a very clear distinction between prostitution, which is generally understood as sex work by choice, and sex trafficking which is again, mostly assumed to be the provision of sexual services while under conditions of coercion, abuse, and trauma.

Development officials merged the two categories, conflating prostitution with sex trafficking, seen by some as nothing less than modern day slavery.

Corruption and Media

Old ethnic hatreds were inflamed by the then Serbian president Milosevic, who had been one of the leaders of the Communist Party. He incited the people through mass media propaganda that dominated TV and the movies. The media capitalized on Milosevic’s claims and pit the Serbs against the Bosnians because of highly exaggerated ethnic differences.

Historically, Bosnians had supposedly appropriated the lands of the Serbs and the Croats. In Serbia, men actually started beating their wives out of frustration, believing Milosevic when he cast the Bosnians as occupants on their land that symbolically represented their honor.

The police did not interfere, taking their cue from patriarchal privilege by condoning violence against women, seeing it as merely a minor, domestic issue among spouses.

Prior to the war, Yugoslavia had received foreign aid in the form of an IMF and World Bank loan. A widely known criticism of moneylenders is that they only give money under certain conditions of economic and political reform, which usually do not end up benefiting the receiving country but rather, the institution itself.

After the war ended, the Dayton Peace Accords set an uneven foundation for rebuilding the country. The ethnic tensions continued, and this had an effect on postwar social and economic relations among the people. Politically influenced foreign aid was funneled through NGOs after the war.

Characteristically, the success or failure of NGO projects hinged on political elite support, not on the progress made in the implementation of such projects.

Of all the human rights violations and civil wars happening in the world, there was an unprecedented level of donor interest in Bosnia that was highly suspect. As foreign aid poured in, more NGOs sought out Bosnia for their work. With more money, it was far easier for corrupt officials to find loopholes to use to their advantage.

Many projects did not bear fruit.

Exorbitant amounts of money that were donated to NGOs in Bosnia also attracted workers who were neither interested in the actual process of development, nor in getting the proper training for their work. Others, lacking expertise in development or economics, decided to go there to make money for a few years and then leave.

Many NGO workers were not properly trained on how to psychologically approach or understand victims of sex trafficking or prostitution. They were also not equipped to handle their own emotional responses to such cases. It’s clear there would be vast differences between handling victims of sex trafficking in a developed country and a war-torn one. Their lack of training impeded the effectiveness of the development projects, and researchers were also traumatized.

Fluidity of movement through and across international borders is essential to the sex trafficking business. Capitalism does not moralize how profits are generated, further exacerbating the problem.


The productivity and development of the country is its human capital.

Women should not be exploited neither through nationalist discourse on soldier production for wars, nor exploited again for income generation by selling their bodies to rebuild the country’s economy. Capitalism and patriarchy can reinforce exploitation – capitalism can exploit the weak, and patriarchy exploits women. Their merging is the doubled exploitation of weaker women, as the case of Bosnia evidenced.

The lethality of the tripartite combination of war, patriarchy, and capitalism is evidently far more destructive a force than each on its own. Patriarchy was explicitly pulled in to the mix of war with rape camps, and capitalist interests were served by the furthering of women’s sexual exploitation.

If policymakers implement new, gender-positive projects, development can be a more constructive force. NGOs have been shown to have many problems of coordination and organization, hidden agendas and unethical behavior. The real basis of economic development is social development. When people are treated better, they become more productive as human beings and economically valuable.

Changing something in their lives for the better should come from within, and not be forced by nationalistic, capitalist-driven and patriarchal agendas.


  • Turning Rape into Pornography
  • Bolkovac, K., & Lynn, C. (2011) The Whistleblower: Sex trafficking, military contractors, and one woman’s fight for justice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; p. 100.  
  • Dewey, S. (2008). Hollow bodies: Institutional responses to sex trafficking in Armenia, Bosnia and India. Parsippany, NJ: Kumarian Press; pg. 20.
  • Kara, S. (2009). Sex trafficking: Inside the business of modern slavery. New York: Columbia University Press; p.5.
  • Shirazi, F. (2010). Muslim women in war and crisis: representation and reality. Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 216.
  • Woodward, S. (1995). Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and dissolution after the Cold War. Brookings Institution Press. p. 324.
  • Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 14(2), 145-166. doi: 10.1023/A:1023913310362. p. 153.


About the Author

Munirah-EskanderMunirah Eskander is a Saudi feminist who is interested in gender, sexuality, Islamic studies and human rights. Her dream is to continue her education and find ways to bridge these disciplines and make a difference in women’s status in the Middle East.    

She double majored in International Relations and Chemical Engineering, with a double minor in Women's Studies and Engineering Management. She works as a sub-editor in an English newspaper and currently lives in the UAE.