Is Bosnia the worst place in Europe to be a woman?

Is Bosnia the worst place in Europe to be a woman?

Despite huge strides made during socialism, the position of women in work and social life in Bosnia has taken a huge step back since independence. Why?

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By Tea Hadžiristić

When I read that the gender wage gap in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the worst in Europe, with women making only 54% of what men make, my first thought was that my grandmother would have been appalled.

She grew up in the era of Yugoslav socialism, in a time where women were flooding the labour market and universities for the first time. She saw unthinkable social progress compressed into a few short years after World War II – she joined the Anti-Fascist Women’s Front, volunteered in work actions, studied nursing, and took a job in another city, where she was given her own apartment and earned more than her ex-husband throughout their careers.

Given the strides made during socialism, it’s perhaps even more surprising that the post-war transition to a market economy has failed to significantly improve gender inequality. In Bosnia, the gender wage gap has actually regressed significantly during transition. Women now earn 6% less in relation to men than during the socialist era. Meanwhile, Slovenia, another post-Yugoslav state, has Europe’s smallest gender wage gap at just over 3%. Why has women’s equality suffered so much in in the Bosnian desert of post-socialism?

In a 2015 assessment of gendered wage disparities, a World Bank report advances the claim that “social values in BiH remain conservative with most men and women expressing traditional perceptions of gender roles.” The report claims that post-war laws and institutional measures aimed at gender equality “not yet been fully successful at creating different attitudes towards women and their traditional role in society,” pointing to patriarchal values and the remnants of the communist order as key obstacles to the development of women’s rights and prospects in general.

What studies like these appear to posit is the idea that women’s rights will blossom once traditionally regressive values have been left behind and the transition out of socialism completed. This would appear to hold water if one looks at the fact the Slovenia, a post-Yugoslav state which has entered the EU and effectively completed its transition to a market economy, has the lowest gender pay gap in Europe with women earning just over 3% less than men.

On second glance, though, there is vast evidence that the gender wage gap is not correlated with transition. Rather, post-communist countries have experienced widely varying effects on the gender wage gap since the end of communism. In many cases, almost no change was noticed. In richer parts of Yugoslavia, like Slovenia, which had higher employment rates and a well-developed service sector, the gender wage gap was always lower than in poorer republics like Bosnia or Kosovo.

This tells us two crucial things: the gender inequality we see in Bosnia today has the same structural roots as it did in the Yugoslav era, but it has only been negatively affected by the destruction of war and the neoliberal economic policies of the postwar period.

The economics of post-socialism

Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of Europe’s highest unemployment rates – 27.5% in 2014,[1] with youth unemployment at 58% in 2016,[2] and a sizeable grey economy (estimates range at about 30-50% of GDP). Much of this can be ascribed to the legacies of the plunder that began in the 1992-1995 war and the physical destruction of factories and infrastructure – something most other post-Yugoslav states did not experience.

Along with this, critics have pointed to rapid post-war privatization and deregulation as evidence of the predatory actions of local political elites whose pillage of state assets began during the war.[3] Bosnia is among the region’s most unequal states as a whole, with significant differences between the urban and rural populations.

Regional patterns of “general impoverishment, huge public and private indebtedness … widespread deindustrialization, social degradation, depopulation through diminished life expectancy and emigration, and general unemployment” [4] are all visible in BiH. According to the first postwar census (though its results were contested)[5] from 2013, the population has declined by 20 percent in the past 25 years,[6] the biggest drop in Bosnia for more than a century, and the largest decline in the region, with many assumed to have emigrated for better economic opportunities.

Generally, calculations of the gender wage gap take into account direct discrimination (being paid less for the same position), segregation in the labour market (and women’s overrepresentation in underpaid sectors such as service, public administration, health, and education), a lack of women in senior oversight positions, and the burden of unpaid care work (which is disproportionately placed on women). These factors have arguably been exacerbated in Bosnia due to the sputtering economy (which has encouraged a gendered division of labour [7]) and the failure of the postwar state to provide adequate services.

Women make up 45% of the unemployed population, but are 62% of the ‘inactive labour force,’[8] many of whom are housewives or unpaid family workers. Women are also 68% of those registered as employed in family business without a regular wage. Many women are not encouraged to join the labour market at all, and these women are not counted in the unemployment rate.

Though notoriously difficult to calculate, the 2016 Bosnian Labour Force Survey shows that women do 67.9% of the unpaid household work, including agricultural labour, which has become more important in the absence of industry. The gender wage gap (and the unemployment rate) would undoubtedly be much higher if ‘inactive’ and unpaid women who work in the home and in agriculture were factored into it.

Socialist patriarchy

Women’s rights in Yugoslavia made immense strides after WWII, including gaining total legal equality and the right to vote. Rapid industrialization and rebuilding propelled women into the public sphere and the labour force in record numbers. After the war, the Anti-Fascist Women’s Front found that women were mostly undereducated, almost 85-90% illiterate, over-exploited in domestic, agricultural, and industrial work, trapped in patriarchal family modes, and with a complete lack of feminist consciousness.

With the dual goal of creating new socialist subjects and economically independent women, the Women’s Front taught literacy courses and ran a swathe of activities to educate women about cultural and social issues. They also took on a significant amount of childcare and domestic labour in order to allow women to play a greater role in economic and political life. They ran maternity homes, ambulances, crèches, playgrounds, nurseries during harvest time, kindergartens, public restaurants and canteens, laundry-houses, and so on.[9]

The Women’s Front was abolished in 1953, with the idea that women’s rights were a subset of class rights, and that the emancipation of women was more or less ‘complete’ and could be dealt with via labour laws. The childcare system in Yugoslavia remained generous, but various informal strategies of managing the double burden remained widespread. It was common to have an older woman living in a household – a mother or mother-in-law – who took on significant tasks in terms of childcare and domestic labour.

Labour was central to the lives of women under socialism. In 1980, more women were employed in socialist Eastern Europe than in Western Europe.[10] Workplaces such as factories were the providers of housing, childcare, healthcare, food, and social services in general, as well as serving as a cultural hub and space of friendship and community. The gender pay gaps were low by international standards.[11]

However, gendered labour segregation was clear. Women clustered in areas of low-paid employment such as low-skilled white-collar work and service, and in economically disadvantaged industrial sectors like textiles [12] and an extremely low percentage of women held top managerial or political positions.[13]

Though traditional socialist thought held that compelling women to joining the labour force would give them greater power within their own relationships to insist on an equitable division of household labour,[14] the burden of unpaid work was never lifted from women. Socialism ultimately failed to significantly challenge the gendered power dynamics of the private sphere, and care and domestic labour remained the duty of women, governed by ‘norms of love and duty rather’ than by law.[15]

Surprisingly, though attitudes about gender equality were positively influenced by urbanization and the educational and occupational attainment of women, patriarchal attitudes in the private sphere remained strong, showing that “culturally embedded features of agency”[16] changed far slower than structure.

In particular, the disastrous consequences of the 1990s civil war retrenched traditional gender norms and led to a significant backsliding in women’s rights. Indeed, the ‘social values’ regarding gender that appear prevalent today would have seemed regressive prior to the war.[17]

They are in large part a result of the aggressive nationalism of the 1990s wars, which featured militarized masculinities, ‘witch hunts’ of prominent female intellectuals, anti-abortion policies, a retrenchment of gendered norms, and sexual violence on a mass scale. As Cynthia Enloe writes, the “patriarchal structures of privilege and control that characterize the wartime societies tend to live on in the post-war period.”[18]

Duties of care in a failing state

Feminist authors have argued that the internationally-brokered peace was not ‘gender-just’[19], and that the international economic interventions after the war have negatively affected women’s rights. Vanessa Pupavac claims that the erosion of the state, along with massive privatization (a result of international economic measures) has made women in particular more socially vulnerable. With decreased economic opportunities comes decreased economic independence for women – and the patrimonial networks of corruption and ‘favours’ has made women “more dependent on kinship ties.”[20]

The state’s historically strong social protection services are failing in a massive way. The country spends a comparatively high amount (4% of GDP) on its welfare system, but only 17% of that reaches the county’s poorest – which are on the rise as unemployment grows. More than 70% of that spending ‘leaks’ to people who are in relatively secure socioeconomic positions and war veterans.[21]

As a result, a very large percentage of the population lives in circumstances of dire poverty, relying on a set of informal coping mechanisms in the absence of adequate state support. Services for the disabled, elderly, or those living in rural areas are meager, while members of minority groups such as Roma and returnees are particularly at risk of deep poverty.[22]

The state’s inability to provide adequate and accessible services for long-term care, childcare, and elder care are equally troubling. In the absence of services, the brunt of these duties fall to women, who often sacrifice paid work in order to care for family members. Unpaid care work is considered to be a major contributor to the gender wage gap and of economic inequality between men and women, which feeds into continuing patterns of poverty that persist for women later in life.”[23]

Because of a lack of adequate maternal leave and childcare, women more often have interrupted work histories due to childbearing, childcare, and care of the elderly.[24] While mothers get some level of recognition from the state in the form of small monetary benefits, people who cannot work due to being long-term caregivers of ill or elderly family members receive no support or recognition. This inactivity in the labour force due to care duties reinforces poverty, which in turn contributes to gender inequality.

Paradoxes in education and women’s work

There is evident polarization between Bosnian women that tracks closely with urban/rural divides in terms of income inequality. On the one hand, a much larger percentage of women are illiterate (5%) or have only completely primary school. While men and women have equal rates of university and postgraduate degrees, twice as many women have only a primary school education or less.

However, more women currently attend university than men, and their rates of enrollment are growing faster than their male counterparts. Women with higher rates of education also have higher labor force participation rates. This suggests that returns on education are high, but also that rural women are being left behind in a large way. Women continue to outnumber men in the study of education, arts and humanities, social sciences, law, and medicine, while traditionally ‘masculine’ areas of study like engineering and hard sciences remain dominated by men.

Crucially, however, women are kept out of the upper echelons of education. Though more women than men obtain undergraduate and master’s degrees, men outnumber women when it comes to PhDs. For female academics who do move on to higher tiers of academia, they typically face what’s called the ‘baby penalty’, where having children significantly impacts their career advancement.

Indeed, women outnumber men as teachers in pre-school, primary, and secondary schools, but are outnumbered by men when it comes to teaching positions in higher education and universities. Despite the fact that more women than men graduate from university, women in academia are more likely to get jobs as research associates and other kinds of technical and support staff – rather than as professors.

A step back

Bosnia’s long transition into a market economy, overseen by the international community, has not only failed to achieve gender equality, but has failed to protect the gains made in women’s rights during socialism. While recognizing the fact that patriarchal structures remained strong during socialism, the changes ushered in during this era were of startling scale and impact.

One of the reasons why the post-war order has done little to advance women’s rights has been the fact that it has not confronted the fact that “social values” surrounding gender equality had regressed significantly due to the intensely patriarchal modes of nationalism and war that characterized Yugoslavia’s break-up.

Another is that the primary structurally embedded drivers of the gender wage gap – unpaid care/domestic labour, labour segregation, and the patriarchal norms that naturalize them – have been furthered exacerbated by the economic devastation caused by rapid post-war privatization and crony capitalism that characterizes Bosnia’s economy. On the whole, transition has left the wages of women relative to men in ex-Yugoslavia largely unchanged,[25] while rampant poverty has only had negative effects on women’s lives and livelihoods in particular.

Regional patterns of development have continued to play a large role. In the socialist era, wealthier republics like Slovenia and Croatia had higher employment rates and so by default had a higher rate of women in the labour force, as well as better-paid sectors and better job opportunities for women.[26] These patterns remain evident – in undeveloped post-Yugoslav regions, unemployment is high and so is the gender wage gap. The inequalities between Yugoslav republics widened significantly in the 1980s,[27] and it seems that they’ve continued to grow.

In Vera Stein Erlich’s seminal anthropological study of patriarchy in 1930s Yugoslavia, she demonstrated that higher levels of ‘traditional’ patriarchal relations and the oppression of women was correlated to the legacies of empire and to the scale and pace of economic and social change – not, as some would have it, essential cultural or religious norms.

Other futures

In the 1950s, socialist feminisms were considered progressive [28] because they were slightly ahead of the curve in terms of question of women’s emancipation, suffrage, equal pay, maternity and childcare, reproductive rights, abortion, and family law (especially divorce). Women’s activists arguably used communism as an ideological tool to make previously unimaginable legal and social gains. Not only have many of these gains been lost (particularly surrounding childcare and reproductive rights), but gender equality (at least theoretically) is no longer encoded in the country’s reigning ideology.

If the Second World War and its immediate aftermath could “wrench women from their patriarchal anchors”[29] in so quick a time by catapulting women into the economic and political spheres of the country, one wonders why the postwar era has failed to be similarly transformative. The fact that Bosnia has experienced such radical feminist shifts in its history ought to confront the idea that the problem is solely one of ‘tradition’.

Rather, the degenerated state of the gender order has been naturalized as ‘traditional’ – a problem of Bosnian culture – by both its own citizens and the international community. Any postwar order that wants to significantly strive toward gender equality must begin by picking up where socialist feminism left off – and by working towards a more just economic model as a whole.

Tea Hadžiristić is a writer and researcher living between Toronto and Sarajevo. She holds a MSc in International Relations Theory from the LSE.

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here. The views contained within this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.


  1. Mirna Jusić and Amar Numanović, “Flexible Labour in Inflexible Environment: Reforms of Labour Market Institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Comparative Perspective,” Analitika Center for Social Research (Sarajevo: 2015).
  2. Ages 15-24. Dino, Jahić, “Nations in Transit 2016: Bosnia and Herzegovina,”Freedom House (2016).
  3. Srecko Horvat and Igor Stiks, Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism: Radical Politics After Yugoslavia (London: Verso Books, 2015), p.2.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See: Samir Huseinovic, “Politiziranje popisa stanovništva u BiH,” Deutsche Welle (4 April 2016), Charles Recknagel, “Bosnia Erupts In Feuding Over New Census Data,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (30 June 2016)
  6. Agency of Statistics for Bosnia and Herzegovina, “Census of Population, Households, and Dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2013: Final Results” (Sarajevo: June 2016).
  7. Pupavac, Vanessa. “Empowering Women? an Assessment of International Gender Policies in Bosnia.” International Peacekeeping 12.3 (2005): 391-405.
  8. 2016 labour force survey
  9. Bonfiglioli, Chiara. Revolutionary Networks: Women’s Political and Social Activism in Cold War Italy and Yugoslavia (1945-1957) (Doctoral dissertation). Utrecht University, 2012.
  10. Gillian Pascall and Nick Manning, “Gender and social policy: comparing welfare states in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union,” Journal of European Social Policy Vol 10 (3): 240–266
  11. Ibid.
  12. George W. Putnam , “Occupational Sex Segregation and Economic Inequality under Socialism: Earnings Attainment and Earnings Decomposition in Yugoslavia,” The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 59-75.
  14. Massey, Garth, Hahn, Karen, and Dusko  Sekulic. “Women, Men, and the ‘Second Shift’ in Socialist Yugoslavia.’ Gender and Society 9:3, June 1995, pp 359-379.
  15. Miller, Ruth A. “Rights, Reproduction, Sexuality, and Citizenship in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.32:2 (Winter 2007): pp. 347-373.
  16. Massey, Garth, Hahn, Karen, and Dusko  Sekulic. “Women, Men, and the ‘Second Shift’ in Socialist Yugoslavia.’ Gender and Society 9:3, June 1995, salma zahidpp 359-379.
  17. Some older women speak of ‘trans-generational deterioration’ in women’s rights and patriarchal norms. See Cockburn, Cynthia. “Against the Odds: Sustaining Feminist Momentum in Post-War Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Women’s Studies International Forum 37.Complete (2013): 26-35.
  18. The morning after: Sexual politics at the end of the Cold War, 1993 , University of California Press , Enloe Cynthia
  19. A gender-just peace? Exploring the post-Dayton peace process in Bosnia. Peace and Change, v.37 (2) , p.286, 2012, Björkdahl Annika
  20. Pupavac, Vanessa. “Empowering Women? an Assessment of International Gender Policies in Bosnia.” International Peacekeeping 12.3 (2005): 391-405
  22. Ibid.
  23.; also see OECD, Unpaid Care Work: The missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labor outcomes, 2014; Fondazione G. Brodolini, “Background note: Gender equality in caring responsibilities over the lifecycle,” (paper presented at Equality Between Women and Men Conference, European Commission of Justice, Brussels, September 19-20, 2011).
  25. Matija Vodopivec, “Equal Pay for Equal Work?,” Eastern European Economics,Sep/Oct2014, Vol. 52 Issue 5, p87-110.
  26. H.  Flakierski, “Economic Reform and Income Distribution in Yugoslavia,” Comparative Economic Studies,  Spring1989, Vol. 31 Issue.
  27. Iraj Hashi, ‘The Disintegration of Yugoslavia’, Capital and Class, no. 48, 1992,, p. 63.
  28. Bonfiglioli, op cit.
  29. Barbara Jancar-Webster, Women & Revolution in Yugoslavia: 1941-1945(Denver, CO: Arden Press Inc), 1990.

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