The hurdles of rural women in BiH

Volunteers make a Comparative analysis with US and the Netherlands

From 16th to 19th October 2012, Association Vesta hosted two enthusiastic volunteers Colleen Cilwick (USA) and Kim Lensen (Netherlands), who approached us from the United World College from Mostar, BiH. During their stay with Vesta, Colleen and Kim had a chance to learn more about and participate in activities realized within the framework of the project ‘Rural women for socio-economic strengthening and equal participation in the local development plans’, that is being implemented with support of the USG Special fund for women empowerment projects, of the US Embassy Sarajevo, BiH.

The project is one in the series of program interventions by the Association Vesta aimed at strengthening the role of civil society in promotion of the human rights and democratic reforms in BiH, in the segment of gender equality and empowerment of women in society. Recognizing that women in rural communities are traditionally one of the most neglected and marginalized social groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the project aims particularly at enhancing democratic participation of rural women and recognition of their role, needs and potential in the overall community/ rural development.

The project is centered around and following on its key activity - the research conducted through interviews and workshops with a total of 450 women from 37 local communities in 17 municipalities of the Federation of BiH, in which their own perceptions, opinions, aspirations were heard and collated. The research results can be found on and

During their stay at Vesta, Colleen and Kim analyzed the research results against the backgrounds of the situation in this issue/field in their respective countries.

Below are some of their key observations, in a form of a very interesting comparative analyses.

In view of marking October 15th, the International day of Rural Women, to which they both of our volunteers gave valuable contribution in promotional activities, Colleen said: ‘I had never thought about the role rural women play in societies all around the world, and the Tuzla NGO, Vesta, helped me to learn about how important rural women are, yet how difficult life for them can be compared to rural men and urban society. Internationally, rural women take part in at least 60% of agricultural production, but own just 10-20% of the land and only earn 1% of the profit; they are rarely represented in local politics; and generally have limited access to healthcare and secondary education.’

Colleen tried to compare problems and programs in her country, the United States, to those in Bosnia and Herzegovina and has found that ‘In the US, there are many programs in place to aid rural women, but still, women continue to earn less in wages for their work than men, unless they own their own farms. Since 1978, the overall number of farms has decreased, but the number of farms owned by women has increased. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has educational programs around the country that help women start small businesses and prepare against natural disasters. They work with local organizations such as universities to implement these programs community by community. For example, the university near my town, Utah State University, has a big agricultural department and they have special outreach programs for rural women. The NGO Vesta is suggesting similar educational programs for rural women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They will support agricultural education and grant and loan incentives to increase output. Also, they will support the development of small businesses such as tourist, cuisine, and handicraft businesses. I think these are important steps, because the women interviewed said that they would be willing to be more involved in business if there were more resources available’.

When it comes to women’s involvement in local politics, Colleen observes that the situation is similar to that in Bosnia and Herzegovina—low. She explains that ‘nationally we only have 17% of female Congress members, and the ratio only barely increases as you move down the line to community representation. Many rural women interviewed said that it never occurred to them to run for politics or that they were discouraged by male party members. For me, this is a really sad thing, and I think that if the status of rural women is to improve, then there must be increased involvement of rural women in their own communities, whether it be through local politics, discussion groups, or co-oops. Vesta recognizes the importance of women’s representation and has suggested that more women get actively involved with their local communities. They encourage women to form associations, to cooperate more with local authorities about development plans, and to work with outside organizations like NGOs’.

In the aspect of healthcare, Colleen says that rural women in the United States are still in a bad position, primarily because ‘the level of poverty in rural areas is much higher than it is in urban areas. Women can’t afford health insurance and so they rely on Medicare and Medicaid. They can’t travel easily to the doctors or to the hospitals and many don’t receive basic dental, medical, and mental health care. Obstetricians are few and far between in rural areas because recruitment is low and also teenage pregnancies are much more common in rural areas. All these problems are born out of poverty, and programs by the Rural Assistance Center and AmeriCorps are aimed to fight rural poverty. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than 60% of rural women interviewed rated their access to healthcare and education as ‘not satisfactory’ or ‘bad.’ This statistic really shocked me, and I hope that the ideas for improving rural poverty through education and business development will help to improve the rural women’s healthcare. Also, they must actively work with the government to improve accessibility’.

Colleen concluded by reflecting on her stay in Tuzla, saying ‘I’m really grateful to Vesta that I had the opportunity to learn so much about the role of rural women. From what I understand, most difficulties grow out of poverty, traditional gender discrimination, and apathy. It’s good to hear that these problems are being addressed both in my country and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I truly hope that through education and business development, rural poverty will be reduced. I believe that more widespread and more active community participation will help women to better represent themselves. I have faith that the status of rural women in Bosnia and Herzegovina and all over the world will improve with greater support of these programs’.

Similarly to Colleen, Kim was able to make a comparison between the situation of rural women in BiH and my home country, the Netherlands and found that overall, the differences were very significant and showed how important it is to improve the situation in BiH.

Kim observed that ‘When one takes a look at the Human Development Report from 2011, one can compare the Netherlands and BiH; the Human Development Report takes into account all topics that influence the quality of life in a country. Examples of such are: inequality of income and life expectancy, gender inequality, poverty, education, environmental sustainability, perceptions about well-being and the environment, healthcare and economy. In this index the great gap between the two countries is visible; where the Netherlands is nr. 3, Bosnia and Herzegovina is only nr. 74’.

Kim used the official statics website of the Netherlands and the results of the Vesta research, to take a closer look at the status of women in the Netherlands and rural women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She explained that ‘considering the Netherlands does not really know a concept such as rural women (simply because it’s too small, and the living conditions of women living on the “country side” do not differ from the ones of women living in the cities) this cannot be used in the comparison, and therefore the status of women in general was used.

Kim says that, in the Netherlands there is no indisposition for women regarding healthcare; it is even the fact that women in general use healthcare facilities more often than men. She further elaborates that ‘it was found that women and men equally evaluate their health as very good, and slightly less than very good, and moreover that men and women on the country side and small towns value their health to be better in comparison to the results found for men and women in the big cities and towns’.

It is similar situation in the sector of education says Kim where ‘once again, there is no indisposition for women: it is obligatory for every individual to at least go to school till their 16th, and continue with some form of higher education till their 18th. There are also more women attending university than men. This shows significant difference with the Vesta research; where more than half of the rural women valued their access to healthcare and education as “not satisfactory” or “bad” and where only 7.78 % of the women have a university degree’.

When it comes to women in politics Kim finds that ‘compared to the view of men on politics shows a slight difference in the Netherlands; usually, women are slightly less satisfied with the political system and they feel that politicians don’t represent the public opinion well enough (the difference between men and women is only between 1- and 2 per cent though). It is found that women have all opportunities to involve themselves in- and become part of the political system, however, women in general value themselves to be less suitable for politics and are less interested in politics – which might be considered a problem, but thus doesn’t seem to be a problem in the system. This is the opposite of the situation for rural women in BiH; the believe they are not well represented in politics and would join politics if they had the opportunity’.

In conclusion, Kim recapitulates that from all the analyzed ‘it can be seen that the status of women is better in the Netherlands and that there is much less gender-inequality. However, this is not the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it was found that the rural women in BiH are unsatisfied with this situation. Vesta’s research showed the eagerness of most of these women to change the situation. This should be seen as an important message; the status of rural women in BiH has to change. The situation of healthcare, education, politics and all other issues should change for these women. All kinds of feminist programs in the Netherlands have improved the situation for women in the past decades, and such programs should be developed in BiH as well. Initiatives should be developed by communities and organizations to improve the situation for rural women, this, once more, shows the importance of Vesta’s research and why action should be taken’.

20th October 2012