“My aim is to transfer knowledge to students and to inspire them to think freely and critically,” says Irma Baralija, a Professor in Mostar and member of Naša Stranka’s leadership: a young, educated woman, politically active and willing to make change happen in her local community.
Educating students in political science is always difficult in societies where inclusive democracy is still in development. Politics is primarily viewed through a male prism, seen by the dominance of men in elected offices. “We are very ambitious and have set a lot of short- and long-term goals for our party,” Irma says. “At the moment our priority is to make sure that Mostar actually holds local elections in October. We are using all political means of pressure available, because without elections it is absurd to speak about democracy and democratic processes.”
Her hometown, Mostar, in the south of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), is a symbol for the country’s divisions. It has not had local elections since 2008. A lack of political will prevented elections in 2012 and now, four years later, the city’s government has only a ‘technical mandate’. In BiH as a whole, the prescribed 40% quota for women’s representation in the government has not yet been achieved. Barriers prevent women from participating on an equal basis with their male counterparts. This is the difficult reality in cities that are more homogenous than Mostar. Women like Irma Baralija who want to be politically active face a difficult task as a result.
Irma is one of a number of women who have decided to assume direct responsibility for delivering results. She sees “working on motivating and increasing the number of women in politics” as one of the goals of her own political engagement. “In that sense, every step forward is significant and certainly has an impact on how I engage in the political life in the future,” she says.
Alongside her job in an international school in Mostar and her engagement in local politics, Irma was also a speaker at an event WFD organised at the University of Mostar on what it means to be a woman politician in BiH today. Irma’s story is one of true commitment to working for positive change in BiH. She completed her doctorate in Spain, where she lived during that time, and had the opportunity to continue to teach there. Yet, realising the importance of contributing to the development of her own homeland, Irma returned and immediately got engaged in the community in various ways.
It’s not just Irma who is benefiting from WFD’s work. Our integrated programme, which works with both local representative bodies and political parties, is helping students through a series of university discussions which educate women on what it means to be a politician in BiH through personal experience. Interest from local women who want to make a difference is the motivating factor in making the idea of equality a reality. It sends a clear message that the goal of getting more women in politics should continue with a greater focus on the younger generation.
Stories like Irma’s should be an inspiration to women in BiH – especially at a time when young people are increasingly seeking prosperity abroad, instead of trying to make a change in their own country. WFD engagement with women politicians like Irma Baralija offers her an opportunity to showcase her experience and share it with a wider audience. This contributes first and foremost to changing the perception of students who attended the university discussion. But it also contributes to a broader group of students as well, through chats and reports afterwards. Active discussion with over a dozen female and male students who asked questions and made comments shows their interest in the topic is already there. Facilitating public discourse around this issue is very likely going to have an effect on their further engagement and interest for politics. This is especially true for the women in attendance, as the programme is trying to counter the negative trend of women leaving political activism following their university studies.
Students mostly asked about female representation within the political parties and how this is achieved – whether through direct bodies such as woman’s groups or informal associations of those who advocate for gender equality within the parties. Direct answers from women who have experienced this process provides valuable information on how to achieve gender equality while being an active member of a political party.
“The representation of women in politics is very low, especially at the local level where I am engaged and where it is most directly connected to the citizens of our communities,” Irma adds. “Despite much investment, the situation has not yet improved; this is particularly true in the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton. I believe that lectures, meetings and open discussions with young female students, like the one WFD organised at the University in Mostar, can motivate some of those students to get politically engaged in the future. The same should happen at Mostar’s Bosniak University on the other side of the river.”
Irma Baralija is adamant on one fact: Mostar, in order to function properly within BiH, does not need any more “ethnocracy”, which has been the main modus operandi of the local government. Instead, it needs more inclusive democracy – and WFD’s programme is helping her and others achieve just that.