With five weeks to go until local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Westminster Foundation for Democracy brought together political parties, civil society and the media to discuss the level of coverage of women candidates – and the relationship this has with the number of women in politics.
Excluding 50% of the population
Having lived through the media furore which followed her election as the first hijab-wearing mayor in Europe, Amra Babic of Visoko has direct experience of the impact headlines can have on women politicians. “The media can turn you into a star, and the next day they can throw you down to the mud,” she told WFD’s conference in Neum. Her message to women politicians seeking coverage, though, is one of determination. “Women have to be courageous. It is difficult and demanding, but there is no other way I’m afraid.”
The figures suggest women candidates in Bosnia and Herzegovina face a real challenge. Out of 3,276 articles on the 2014 elections, Anesa Omanovic from civil society group Infohouse told the conference, just 176 discussed women candidates. Of those 176, 40% of the articles referred to only one candidate (the current Republic of Srpska Prime Minister). The result was that in a country whose population is 52% female, women made up under 20% of the legislature.
The lack of coverage of women candidates just underlines the important role the media play in shaping political discourse. It’s noticeable even to diplomats like Edward Ferguson, the UK Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. “My newspapers are filled with page after page of men,” he told delegates. “That points to a problem; the media has a key role and responsibility for creating a space where women’s voices can be heard.”
WFD is committed to increasing the representation of marginalised groups through our parliamentary and political party programmes. In Bosnia and Herzegovina WFD has united the two in our new integrated programming concept, sharing the British democratic experience to encourage more women candidates in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “There is no justice or democracy without equality between men and women,” Professor Zarije Seizovic from the University of Sarajevo says. As a local male champion he firmly believes that “society develops faster if it includes more women.”
(Above: L-R: Amra Babic Mayor of Visoko and UK Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Edward Ferguson)
Party systems or unfair coverage?
In any democracy grappling with issues of representation there is a debate to be had about what constitutes the most important factor. Is it the role of political parties’ leadership? The number of articles published during campaigns that feature women candidates? If coverage is given, does style or substance matter? All these important issues were raised throughout the conference.
Damir Arnaut, BiH state parliamentarian and vice-president of one of the largest political parties in BiH, SBB, suggested: “The responsibility does not rest with media, but with the political system in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Marija Milic, a candidate for the PDP in the upcoming local elections and former journalist, agreed. “We could talk to leaders about women’s visibility,” she argued. “They should understand that women have good ideas and can discuss issues with men on an equal footing. Women are slightly shy and do not have the will to speak publicly, but that is wrong because there are so many things women could say.” Political parties play a key role in choosing which candidates are promoted within the media; she felt that parties could do more for their women candidates.
Jadranka Milicevic, representing the CURE foundation, also felt that political party support was vital for women candidates who are trying to gain media coverage. “Most women are not aware of the official positions of their political parties, let alone serious issues like maternity leave, the economy and other male dominated issues” she said, “which has a negative impact on their coverage.”
The dual discrimination women with disabilities face was raised in the final session by Nihada Hadzic, an SDA councillor in Bugojno, who shared her inspirational story . “The media are a driving force that shapes public opinion,” she said. “Reports on people with disabilities are biased, and describe them as disadvantaged, vulnerable people.” Like women, “people with disabilities are invisible, we do not see them in the press or on television. But disability is a part of every-day life and this should be reflected in the media.”
(Above: L-R: Anesa Omanovic from civil society group Infohouse, Marija Milic standing as a PDP candidate and Damir Arnaut, BiH state parliamentarian and Vice President SBB)
Next steps: A commitment for change
Over 40 participants, including directors of some of the main public and private media outlets in BiH, representatives of some of the most widely represented political parties, and activists, adopted the declaration drafted on the second day of the conference. This calls on the media, civil society, political parties and women themselves to make greater efforts to promote women in politics in the run-up to the local elections.
The declaration set out concrete measures which they can take, like ensuring women candidates are represented in party campaign events and paying particular attention to the way women candidates are presented. Building on the momentum generated by the conference, the group will keep fighting for gender equality and positive discrimination ahead of the general elections in 2018.
Already during the conference and the day after, the message of fair play elections for all and the need for greater equality and women’s representation was on the airwaves of Bosnian media. From television reports to web news sites and newspaper articles, a very diverse range of media outlets all reported on the conference itself and its topic.
Referring to the declaration and opportunities provided by the conference, participant and female candidate for Nasa Stranka Aida Koluder-Agic said: “It won’t mean anything concerning the law, but it’s a voice and it’s good for this voice to be heard before the elections.”
She added that it was a great opportunity to reach out to colleagues in civil society and the media. “Meeting directors of public media was a real opportunity,” she said. “For us, we are all pioneers in this and I think it is very helpful to be brought together.”
(Above: L-R: Nihada Hadzic, SDA councillor in Bugojno, Tvrtko Milovic director from KISS TV, Prof. Zarije Seizovic, and Nerina Cevra, WFD Country Representative. )
Nerina Cevra, WFD Country Representative, said: “I was encouraged by the positive response from the media present at the conference and the action that has taken place since the conference ended. They have taken on board their responsibility toward women candidates . Now it is up to all, including women who are already in office to tell women voters in BiH why they should vote for women on the lists on October 2.”
As those elections approach the importance of hearing the voices of all parts of society – including women – is becoming clearer and clearer. Mr Ferguson, who opened the conference, said the value women could bring to policymaking and delivery sprang from their different experience and perspectives. “We all need to understand that a healthy society is where all citizens, men and women, gay or straight, can play a role in shaping the future of their communities,” he said. “To compete and survive in a modern global economy a state needs to use all of its talent, not half of it.”