Banja Luka is one of the largest cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is where we meet three extraordinary women who tirelessly promote the rights of women and fight against stereotypes in their work and communities.
They are leading the way for themselves, and for minorities, particularly the Roma.
“As a psychologist, for years I have encountered cases concerning Roma population, children and especially girls. I noted a different attitude and treatment concerning those ‘case files’, so to say. These are not ‘case files’. These are humans; these are children. During the years of my work I realized that there is a need to raise people’s awareness about it, to raise the awareness of professionals, and that all of us should invest more of ourselves and make an effort,” says Sanja Sumonja, Inspector in the Office for Organized Crime of the Interior Ministry of Republika Srpska.
For almost a decade the Network of Republika Srpska Policewomen has demonstrated how a group of women who fought for their place in work traditionally perceived as only for men, can succeed in promoting women’s equality and protect victims of domestic violence. The initiative which involves police officers, cadets, and students is part of the ‘Dialogue for the Future’ which UNDP Bosnia and Herzegovina implements with UNICEF and UNESCO, in partnership with the State Presidency.
Working with Roma communities
With an estimated population of about 50,000, Roma are the largest of 17 minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the most exposed to discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes.
“This project will surely achieve results through education, rising awareness and sensibilization of police officers when it comes to work involving the Roma. We are also expecting an increase of the general public’s awareness about the need for protection of Roma children from crimes such as human trafficking,” says Željka Mileusnić, Assistant Commander of the Anti-Terrorist Unit.
They have partnered with Snježana Mirković from the Roma Women Association “Romani Cej” and who works countrywide on the elimination of discrimination and improving the rights of all Roma people with workshops, lectures and public campaigns which aim to prevent discrimination, fight prejudice and increase understanding of Roma culture. Snježana is excited especially because of the unique approach this project takes.
“For the first time we ourselves will present the culture, history, and tradition of Roma to representatives of institutions, academics, and students, and our goal is to reduce the prejudices against my people. Most of us were accustomed to representatives of institutions telling us something and we listen to them, and now the roles are different.”
The women remain dedicated to their mission and accept that it can take a long time to change hearts and minds.
“The mere fact you are somehow different means it takes more time for people to accept you. It took me a lot of work and years to gain people’s respect. Today I feel and know for sure that I am accepted in society, that people appreciate me, look differently at me and respect me. I know that this is because of what I am doing, and my education, as well as because of the work me and my team do,” Snježana says.
The education of more than 80 policemen, cadets, and students on Roma culture, tradition and minority rights is just a first step that Roma Women Association and the RS Policewomen Network are taking to ensure no one is left behind and that all women, men and children are treated equally and respectfully.
True role models
Snježana, Željka and Sanja are true role models for girls and women in their communities. That is why we asked the three activists who and what has influenced their life choices and career paths.
“Bruce Lee was my childhood role model,” says Željka. “As a kid I was into martial arts and I kind of followed that path. Also, it’s Coco Chanel, a woman whose energy and work made great impact on the fashion industry, which used to be led by men, and who successfully challenged gender stereotypes.”
“The person who I admire is Jane Townsley, the President of International Association of Women Police, whom I met and learned a lot from about how to fight for your place, how to fight for your female colleagues, how to be an example to others,” says Sanja.
“Before the association was established, I travelled and went to seminars and saw women doing fantastic stuff in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And that’s when I wanted something like that to happen in my town Prnjavor. All my life I believed that we need to be the change that we want to see,” says Snježana.
Pavle Banjac is a Communications Specialist at UNDP Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Photo editing by Rico Cruz, Photography Intern at UNDP New York.