Economically independent women can escape the cycle of violence more easily
24 November 2023
The Tuzla association Vive Žene assists women who have survived wartime torture and domestic violence to enter the labour market.
During the summer, Semka Agić from Gračanica starts her day at five in the morning. This is when she first visits her small farm with sheep, fifty laying hens, and two ducks. In the morning, she brings them grass, checks if they need water at noon, cleans the chicken coop and barn, and makes a final visit in the evening.
Working on the farm is Semka's first job after more than 30 years, having worked in retail before the war. "Now I'm breaking even. Mainly, I earn enough from selling eggs to feed the chickens and sheep," says Agić.
In addition to income, the job is meaningful to her as it fills her time, and the challenging terrain she must navigate daily to reach her farm, located on a hill behind her house, keeps her constantly active.
"I climb up there, with my hat, glasses, lipstick. I set down the hay, sit, play music on my phone. I always have juice and some biscuits, and the chickens peck around me," shares Semka.
This 69-year-old retiree is one of ten women who started their small businesses as part of a project to economically empower women who have survived wartime torture and domestic violence. The complex project "Building Economic Resilience of Women Victims of Gender-Based Violence through Economic Empowerment and Improved Access to Income" involved market research, educating interested women, and ultimately starting businesses. It was implemented by the Tuzla association Vive Žene, in cooperation with UN Women BiH, and with financial support from the European Union.
Some of the skills the women in the project have mastered include writing a CV, preparing for an interview, business communication, job searching online, and presenting their skills. However, one of the most important aspects was the psychosocial support provided to empower them and help them see themselves as capable and ready for the job market. During the project, some women started their own businesses, while others found employment in the private sector.
"It takes time for women who have survived violence to see themselves in the story of having to get up, get ready, go to work for eight hours, and then return home. It's a huge change in their daily lives. That's why it's very important to strengthen them psychologically. A lot of support is needed for them to move beyond the victim role because offering them work while they're in that role won't be effective," explains Aida Mustačević Cipurković, a psychotherapist and project manager at Vive Žene.
Among the project's beneficiaries is 63-year-old Hana Mehidić from Živinice, the first woman to approach Vive Žene for domestic violence in 1999. Since then, Vive Žene has played a significant role in her empowerment.
"They help me a lot in everything. First psychologically, and in everything in life that I need, I turn to them. I feel stronger with them because I have no family to help me."
Vive Žene has been continuously working for 29 years to address the consequences of wartime trauma and prevent all forms of violence. Established in 1994 to provide shelter, care, and rehabilitation for women and children victims of war persecution, it now offers various programs such as family, psychological, social, and legal counseling and accommodation in a safe house, supporting women who have survived different forms of violence.
With perseverance and support from Vive Žene, Hana completed evening primary school to be eligible for employment through the employment bureau, which occasionally facilitated her work as a cleaner. As part of the economic empowerment project, she was given a 40-square-meter greenhouse to grow vegetables.
"They told me about the project for women who have suffered violence, for us who want to be independent, live off our work, not depend on anyone. I immediately accepted, joined the project, and started. It wasn't hard, I went for a year, and I enjoyed the seminars," says Hana.
Besides being able to sell vegetables and keep some for herself, the greenhouse is also an important form of therapy for her.
"The greenhouse means a lot to me. I'm so happy when I go there, it's like therapy. Believe me, it relaxes me. I talk to the plants as if they were living beings."
Economic independence strengthens self-esteem
Domestic violence affects women of all social strata and educational backgrounds. However, highly educated women often have control over their own money, which is an alleviating factor. Experience at Vive Žene shows that financially independent women can choose their life path differently and more easily escape the vicious cycle of violence, explains Aida Mustačević Cipurković.
The need for women to have a safer and more independent future after leaving a violent relationship, but also later the safe house, is one of the motivations for working on their economic empowerment.
"When women want to leave the safe house with the decision to continue their life, they often return to violent relationships because they don't have many choices. This is something that touched all of us, but we didn't have the power to make things different. In recent years, the time has come to see how we can look at this problem from a different angle and try to solve it. Fifteen years ago, we couldn't even dream of this," says Mustačević Cipurković.
The economic empowerment model involves much more than starting a business or finding a job for someone who has survived domestic violence. Damir Bećirović, an economics professor and consultant on the project, explains how he and his colleagues, through research and analysis, concluded that the transitional phase is crucial in the entire process.
"We need to support someone with an entrepreneurial talent or an idea, that's a phenomenal thing because they will contribute much more to themselves and society than through individual employment. But we must understand that it's much more important to invest in strengthening and rehabilitating these people, rather than bombarding someone in an acute state with pressure."
Bećirović, who mentors women in the project and visits them in the field to monitor the process, says he has witnessed a progression in the level of self-esteem many beneficiaries have gained.
Semka Agić dreams of expanding her business into tourism. She has an idea to set up several tents near her house for people to enjoy nature.
"Without phones, sit up there, watch the oaks, listen to the birds," she says with a smile.
Hana Mehirić would like to have more land and a larger greenhouse, as she is not afraid of additional work.
"I may be old, but I fight. There are times when I fall, can't go on. But I don't see it as impossible. I just say to myself: I must," concludes Hana.
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women