Stay Informed

Your go-to source for the latest trends impacting gender justice and women’s rights around the world

Vienna +20: Feminist Movement and Solidarity Building in Central and Eastern Europe

FRIDAY FILE – In the latest interview forming part of AWID’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, AWID speaks to radical feminist activist and an anti-war lesbian, Lepa Mladjenovic, about how the conference helped to advance feminist anti-war work and LGBT rights; and how it shaped and strengthened the women’s movement and solidarity building in Central and Eastern Europe/ Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS).

By Susan Tolmay

AWID: How far do you think we have come in the last 20 years in realizing universal human rights for women?  What are some of the success stories for you from the past two decades, particularly for women and LGBTI people in Serbia and CEE/CIS more broadly?

Lepa Mladjenovic (LM): The Vienna Conference was important for the anti-war feminists in the states of ex Yugoslavia. In 1993, we were founding the first organizations to deal with women raped in war and it was clear that the language of human rights was crucial for this work. By the end of 1993, there were three feminist organizations working with women raped in war and women victims of war and refugees - one in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Medica Zenica, one in Croatia, Center for Women War Victims, and the third in Belgrade, Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence. The feminist movement set up the theme of women raped in war internationally and locally so that it will never be forgotten.The theme of male violence against women was probably the most developed of the women’s movement outcomes. Every country in Eastern Europe now has women’s services, new laws, some rape crisis centers, training for institution officials, and the Women against Violence Europe (WAVE) feminist network convenes annual meetings.

It is important to underscore that over the past 20 years in our region the feminist movement has brought new organisations for women who organise around the multiple and intersected discrimination women face, for example, Romnjako Ilo for Roma lesbians in the small town Novi Becej and Out of Circle for women with disabilities in Belgrade. There are also new forms of networking that are crucial for women’s solidarity and strengthening the movement, through internet, e-mail lists, and in live, for example in Kosovo, which has approximately two million inhabitants, there is the Kosovo Women’s Network made up of 104 women’s organisations. There are many networks of all kinds, including lesbians and queer women, Roma, business-women, services against violence against women and many more.

AWID: Despite Vienna and the many other declarations, conventions and POAs, violations of women’s human rights continue, often with impunity. What are some of the new or increasing violations of women’s human rights across the globe?

LM: We have made great strides, but at the same time mainstreaming has been used against us. I was one of those who dreamed of ‘The Feminist State’. And I would say now that we are getting closer to, and at the same time moving further away from my dream. Neo-liberal capitalism has used mainstreaming to use women to strengthen profit policies. Mainstreaming has weakened the movement and small activist groups have more difficulty to survive now than 20 years ago.

My impression is that while the feminist movement has had great successes over the past 20 years, there have been some weaknesses. Wars in ex Yugoslavia and some of the ex USSR countries, as well as post-socialist poverty, have brought new forms of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of women that Eastern Europe did not know of 20 years ago. The strong women’s movement against violence against women has not in fact decreased violence, we have new forms, new brutalities, and coverage of violence in news is used to increase media industry profits. While feminist movements have had big successes in lobbying for laws on violence in families, sexual violence still remains a silent suffering shaping women’s lives, not recognized by society.

The lesbian movement has made lesbians more visible, but this also means more open hatred and discrimination. Because of the ultra nationalist movement of the post-socialist countries, in the last few years some lesbian activists have been threatened, for example in Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, with at least one of the lesbian leader’s going into exile in the West

AWID: What role have women’s movements played in advancing some of the issues you describe above?

LM: I believe that each period of the feminist movement is historic. The past 20 years of feminist activism have been historic in the so-called Eastern Europe for two major reasons. Firstly, because of the many women who have joined the movement, and secondly, because activists have started to mainstream feminist practical knowledge into laws, institutions and daily news, etc.

As a result of the Vienna Conference women’s movements changed the way they refer to women’s needs by using human rights language. For example, lobbying lesbian rights became easier when stressing the human rights dimension, rather than explaining our love lives through the notion of free choice in sexuality. The old leftist terms like ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ grew out of fashion, and the human rights language entered the political field, as the bottom line.

Lesbians, who started getting involved with the feminist movement in the eighties and nineties, founded feminist lesbian groups in a few places, but in most Eastern Europe and Euro-Asia countries lesbian leaders started their activism in the last decade together with gay men inside of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) human rights movement. What is great is that in all these countries there are new organisations of lesbians, gay, queer and trans people. What has often been missing, however, is a feminist perspective. Nevertheless, some lesbians are now turning to feminism. For example, in 2013 a Feminist Forum was organized by lesbian leaders of the KAOS GLBT organisation in Ankara, under the title Against Marginalization of Feminism, especially cherishing feminist initiatives among lesbians. The audience included lesbians from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Lebanon, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Tunisia and Turkey. Another initiative followed in Tirana, Albania where there was great discussion about the ways the feminist movement in Albania can support lesbians.

AWID: As the MDGs come to an end in 2015 and a new development agenda is negotiated, what do you see as some of the opportunities and threats for advancing women’s human rights?

LM: In my opinion the feminist movement is the most effective of all social movements. As for the future, in this region young feminists are now organizing in new subversive spaces for transformation, much more than 20 years ago. We have Rebel Social Workers organizing feminists for social justice in Slovenia; CLIT Budapest organizing radical queer women in Hungary. We see annual increases in the number of young women applying to small Women’s Study groups, Feminist Summer Schools, Feminist Festivals …from Kazakhstan to Poland. We have many feminists on social media, Facebook, Blogs, etc. The March of Women with Knives Against Sexual Violence in Cairo in February 2013, showed the incredible unstoppable force of feminist movements, with young and older women going out in to the streets, some of them covering faces and carrying big butchers knives in the air: Enough!