Single-parent families in Bosnia and Herzegovina

November 29 is the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. On March 8, 1999, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This declaration strengthens the UN documents on human rights and emphasizes that there is no peace and security in the world without respect for human rights. The right of individuals, groups and associations to spread knowledge about human rights, to advocate for the protection and realization of human rights and freedoms at the national and international level, has been recognized. 

On this occasion (International Women Human Rights Defenders Day), Selma Hadžihalilović, in a conversation with Ajna Jusić, gave her review of the general situation of single-parent families in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Selma Hadžihalilović is a feminist activist with over 20 years of work experience on improving the quality of life of women and girls in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the past two decades, she has worked on issues of conscientious objection to compulsory military service, prevention of human trafficking in BiH, women’s political participation, and violence against women and girls. Co-founder of a large number of women’s organizations in BiH, as well as the Women’s Network of BiH, and various international networks such as Women Waging Peace. She participates in the preparation of Alternative Reports for the CEDAW Convention – especially in the sections concerning socially marginalized women – women living in rural areas, single mothers and elderly women. Selma advocates for the establishment of a single alimony fund at the level of the entire BiH, the adoption of ZERO tolerance for violence and discrimination against women and girls, and actively works to promote the women’s perspective on current socio-political issues. A polyglot, she enjoys meeting and learning from the experiences of women from different parts of the world. She is the winner of the 2016 Snow Clyde Social Justice Award – Center for Social Justice, University of Oklahoma (USA). Why does she do all of this and how she fights for women’s rights is described below.

The world of activism and feminism is waging very intense struggles day by day for the rights of single mothers and mothers. Selma is also on the front line in that fight, stating “Unfortunately, most of us only start dealing with certain topics when we experience some form of violence or discrimination, and so do I. I do not think that until I tasted the bitterness of certain experiences myself that I had no understanding for those experiences. The fact is that in our society childbirth is taboo, motherhood is disproportionately glorified, and single mothers are completely marginalized and become one of the invisible vulnerable categories of our society. Also, until you feel the proportions of certain discriminatory practices and forms of violence on your skin – you will never be able to truly understand those who are currently going through or have gone through a similar experience. There are no educational/informative materials about the other side of the story. Commercials depicting real-life characters like single-parent communities are rare. In schools, they teach children that a family is a mother, father and two children, and that everything else is a “faulty” family. Our legislation is not harmonized with modern social trends, but has remained somewhere frozen in time. It is very rare to talk about negative experiences, it is important not to “disturb anything” and not to resist unwritten rules of conduct. In a patriarchal society like ours, you don’t have people who can advise you on how to deal with certain situations of violence closely related to childbirth, how to deal with a situation when your longtime partner doesn’t want to support you in your decision to have a child, how to deal with situations in which in discriminatory social practices people at the municipality office in which you live advise you to “take it as it is” because all others are in the same situation as well.”

As an activist, I do not accept that kind of advice and imposed silence, as an adopted form of social norm and behavior in response to gender-based domestic and social violence. As a woman, activist, citizen with the right to vote, as a daughter, sister and mother – I cannot and will not accept,” says Selma. We also believe that the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina should not remain silent on the problems single mothers are facing every day.

To better understand the core of the problems faced by single mothers, Selma provides the following relevant information: “Our legislation knows the term single mother only in the context when the father is unknown or when he has passed away. If the father of a child/children is alive and the marital/non-marital union is ended, this society does not recognize single-parent communities because it assumes that the other parent is still actively involved in the upbringing, education, and care of the child/children. Do you know that you will go to jail and get an additional fine if you do not pay the fine for parking in the wrong place, but if you avoid abiding a court decision on child support for years, no one will do anything? Did you know that mothers are the ones who, in 99% of cases, take full responsibility for the upbringing of children because the other party has more important matters to deal with? Mothers are also punished by the attitude of the system towards them because, for God’s sake, they initiated divorce lawsuits – because they did not want to suffer, because they wanted to think for themselves. Additionally, society punishes single mothers when one of the conditions for single mothers to get more points when enrolling their child in kindergarten if they provide a death certificate for their spouse/partner. And there is no death certificate – because the person in question is very much alive, but he does not pay child support, so the mother cannot pay for a private kindergarten. I know single mothers who were removed from the list of users of soup kitchen services because they did not have death certificates from their ex-husbands. The fact that they are alive and not paying for support – that is the problem of that mother and her hungry children. The state ignores the fact that a certain category of children live in constant stress and are exposed to poverty because of its conservative view that a woman is blamed for divorce.”

Single parenting, regardless of its causes, is accompanied by a number of challenges that some parents cope with more successfully than others, both because of individual capacities and because of the support of the environment. However, the relationship between society and the state towards single-parent families is not good. A number of prejudices have been created within society, so single mothers, in addition to systemic difficulties, also face prejudices. Selma states from her experience that “Society has many prejudices towards single parents. Most of these prejudices are the result of ignorance of both conservative and patriarchal views. I will never forget, some 15 years ago, a phenomenally educated and very capable woman told me that she would not come to a social event “because she was divorced”. To my comment to bring her children because children are also welcome, she explained to me that she is afraid of marginalization and ridicule because other people present will know she is divorced. I didn’t know that divorce was socially resented.”

Although, if we look at the attitude of the state towards mothers, we are aware that there are omissions in that sphere as well. It is the mothers who are often discriminated against at work. The fact that a woman who is planning to become a parent cannot get a job is really devastating. Selma talked about this problem as well: “These are all true statements. Young women are asked when they plan to start a family during a job interview. Women working in state institutions are relatively protected and can go on maternity leave in some way, confident that they will return to work and have adequate compensation during maternity leave, while women in the private sector depend on internal laws in some cantons. In some cantons, maternity leave benefits are not paid or are paid with a few months of delay and sometimes reduced. Not to mention that if you are not employed, then the situation is even worse (…).

Population policies are not created in a proactive way. A proper population policy is not giving money to mothers and young married couples. Population policy is punishing employers who fire pregnant women and mothers. Population policy is to ensure that both parents use maternity leave. Population policy is to reduce the VAT rate on children’s products. Population policy is to ensure a sufficient number of places in nurseries, kindergartens and extended stay and after school, free public transport tickets for children under 18, investing in libraries, culture and sports.”

Violence as a frequent form of behavior in Bosnia and Herzegovina did not spare single mothers either. Unfortunately, many of them still are victims of violence caused by their ex-partners. “Yes, there are cases and they have been recorded in organizations that provide direct support to women who have survived some form of violence. Digital violence is very present, but we have information on both verbal and physical violence. Economic violence is ubiquitous because the level of avoiding payment of child support in BiH is enormous. Don’t ask me for statistics because NO ONE has statistics. We do not have a single alimony fund. We have no political will. It is still more important that the car is parked improperly than that one child has nothing to eat, that he/she does not have the same opportunities as his/her peers, that he/she is cold,” is Selma’s opinion on violence against single mothers.

Activist struggles and women’s solidarity have no price nor are there donors to fund women’s support actions. However, it is precisely this kind of support that is crucial for single mothers who are left to fend for themselves. From these struggles, various researches are being created that can be used for advocacy purposes, and one of it was done by the activists of the CURE Foundation, where Selma is employed today. “During the last year and this year, we conducted a research which provided results that there are indeed single-parent communities in the area of ​​the Municipality of Centar Sarajevo and that single parents really exist. This research was funded by the Municipality of Centar Sarajevo through a small grant – because the Municipality recognized that they have a problem without legal solutions. That is really the first step, and we continue to advocate and lobby for additional research.”

Finally, we asked Selma what message she would like to send to people in BiH, what society needs to know about single mothers, and Selma said: “Our collective responsibility is that no woman is neglected. This society should be a society of equal rights and opportunities for all regardless of gender, marital status and any other form of social and/or economic status. I do not know how we still allow that, in 2020, we have hungry children, “invisible” social categories like single-parent communities, elderly women, young people in transition between home and independent living, and many others. We need take responsibility and start working for change NOW.”

The “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” campaign is implemented by the Forgotten Children of War Association, is supported by Otto per Mille – Waldensian Church in Italy.

Published on November 30, 2020