Gender and collective memory

Members of the Forum on Joint Memorialization of Missing Persons hold silhouettes of missing persons Photo: Velija Hasanbegovic, Radio Sarajevo

Bojana Djokanovic examines evolving patterns of memorialization and looks at the role of women and civil society in commemorating the dead and missing from modern conflicts.


The Oxford online dictionary defines memorialization, in its verb form, as a means to “preserve the memory of; commemorate.” [1]In general, memorials are used for the remembrance and commemoration of past events or of persons who have died or disappeared. Judy Barsalou and Victoria Baxter, in The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice, describe memorialization as a process that satisfies the desire to honor those who suffered or died during conflict and as a means to examine the past and address contemporary issues. It can either promote social recovery after violent conflict ends or crystallize a sense of victimization, injustice, discrimination, and the desire for revenge[2].

Memorialization is construed as a process of preserving the collective memory of war, violent conflict, atrocities or disasters. The question of how we remember is complex and, as Čusto asserts, reflects notions of social and political correctness in society at a given time.[3] In a research project on Silences, Visibility and Agency: Ethnicity, Class and Gender in Public Memorialization, Elizabeth Jelin posits that “[i]n post conflict societies, histories of exclusion, racism and nationalist violence often create divisions so deep that finding a way to agree on the atrocities of the past seems near-impossible”.[4] “Occupying public space, memorials, with their symbolism and monumentality…illustrate the socially acceptable memory of a society.”[5]

In former Yugoslavia the period after the Second World War saw the emergence and construction of memorials commemorating important events of the National Liberation Struggle (NOB) and important antifascist partisan fighters. Memorials included ossuaries, plaques, statues, sculptures and entire parks. Interestingly, memorials in this period also focused on prominent women fighters and the role they played during the war. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), ten women fighters were awarded the Order of the People’s Hero[6] during and after the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1945, the Communist Party recognized that by taking an active role in the NOB and other related duties, women could make a significant contribution to the antifascist struggle. In addition to joining the National Liberation Army (NOV), where it is estimated that around 100,000 women participated[7], they acted as guerrilla fighters, nurses, secretaries, translators, and educators. As specified in Women Documented, Women and Public Life in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 20th Century, the massive inclusion of women in the NOB “…gave rise to the development of different social values, including the idea of gender equality in all social segments. Soon-to-come social changes were not of purely declarative or formally legal nature, but seriously put in question traditional prejudices and stereotypes about women’s place and role in society. The new sociocultural context also enabled the creation of organizations such as the Anti-Fascist Women’s Front (AFŽ) …which played an important part in the overall emancipation of women.” [8]

A universal memorial to women fighters in the NOB is the “Žena-borac” (Woman Fighter) monument erected at the Memorial Park in Vraca, in Sarajevo, in 1981. The artist created the sculpture of a woman fighter as defiant and brave, her arms raised in a symbol of victory and resistance to fascism.[9] Today, most antifascist and NOB monuments and memorials have been destroyed or are in a state of ruin, with few official initiatives to repair or rebuild them, which may reflect the current societal stand towards the antifascist struggle and liberation.

Over time, the process of memorialization has evolved from memorializing monarchs and victories, to memorializing unnamed fallen soldiers, and then named male and female soldiers, to include the memorialization of civilian dead and missing. For example, the memorials to commemorate victims of the Holocaust commemorate civilian deaths and disappearances. As Nicolas Moll points out, “until the nineteenth century, memorialization tended to be focused on monarchs and military victories. Even in the nineteenth century the names of soldiers were not important. This changed with World War One, when individual names – including the names of the missing – became important.” [10] The memorialization of women and women fighters presents a further change.

Moll stresses the importance of memorialization in any public dialogue over missing persons, noting that the location, design and wording of memorials pose complex challenges to societies seeking to heal wounds arising from conflict and human rights violations,[11] and, significantly, he adds that, in addition to monuments, memorialization includes visits, seminars, conversations, testimonies, archives, books, art, film, poetry, the internet, and social media. [12]

ICMP’s Stocktaking Report on the search for the missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina found that 87 percent of the missing are male. This gender disparity has significant consequences in terms of memorialization as it means, among other things, that women have been a driving force in the process, along with civil society has played a substantial role in the process. For example, joint commemoration events to raise awareness of 30th August, the International Day of the Disappeared, are primarily driven by Family Associations, mainly led by women searching for their missing fathers, husbands, brothers, sons. This leading role taken by women and civil society represents a break from the State-initiated memorials that were the norm until the end of the 20th century.

The importance of memorialization processes and the right of citizens to these processes is covered by a number of International Conventions and human rights documents to which Bosnia and Herzegovina is a party. One of the most important of these is the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law (the UN Guiding Principles), which stipulates that all victims of gross violations of human rights are entitled to “adequate, effective and prompt reparation for harm suffered”, whereby reparation includes “restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition”. Satisfaction for victims of such breaches of international human rights norms should, inter alia, include “commemoration and tributes to the victims”. [13]

Clearly, Bosnia and Herzegovina is obliged to adhere to the international conventions and human rights documents it has signed. Article 20 of the BIH Law on Missing Persons, which ICMP helped to draft and which was adopted by the BIH Parliament in 2004 but has still not been fully implemented, stipulates the right to mark the place of burial and exhumation of missing persons, which is also a form of memorialization.

Along with assisting countries in the identification of missing persons, ICMP works extensively with missing persons family groups, which are mainly composed of women. This work focuses on empowerment: education on access to rights and lobbying effectively on missing persons issues. Since 2010, ICMP has initiated a number of conferences and created space for dialogue on collective memorialization processes related to the conflicts of the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina and neighboring countries. In addition to creating the Civil Society Organizations Forum, initiatives have included study tours, consultation processes on universal memorials, workshops on living memorials, and training courses on models of memorials. The primary focus of these initiatives has been on how to develop and adopt a universal memorialization process, one without ethnic or national divides.

At a regional conference on Promoting a Holistic Approach to Memorials and Remembrance, organized by ICMP and the UN Development Programme in cooperation with the Embassy of Switzerland and the BIH Ministry of Justice, in December 2010, speakers Louis Bickford and Gabriella Citroni suggested that “…memorials, in a larger degree, need to have a bearing on the process of citizen engagement, debate and remembrance, more than a bearing on the product of an unchangeable version of history.” [14] In this sense, in addition to maintaining the memory of past events and persons, memorials act as a link between the past, the present and the future, serving the living and generations to come through the message and memory they transmit. Memorialization is, therefore, a key element in transitional justice, dealing with collective memory and acting as a means of preventing the recurrence of atrocities.


[1] Available at: Accessed on:22nd April 2015

[2] Barsalou, Judy and Baxter, Victoria. The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice. 2007. Available at: Accessed on 22nd April 2015.

[3] Čusto, Amra. Kolektivna memorija grada – Vječna vatra i Spomen Park Vraca. Historijska traganja, 1, 2008, [ str. 101-123 ]. Available at Accessed on 22nd April 2015.

[4] Jelin, Elizabeth. Silences, Visibility and Agency: Ethnicity, Class and Gender in Public Memorialization. 2009. available at: Accessed on 21st April 2015.

[5] Čusto, Amra. Kolektivna memorija grada – Vječna vatra i Spomen Park Vraca. Historijska traganja, 1, 2008, [ str. 101-123 ]. Available at Accessed on 22nd April 2015.

[6] The Order of the People’s Hero was a Yugoslav gallantry medal, the second highest military award, and third overall Yugoslav decoration. It was awarded to individuals, military units, political and other organizations who distinguished themselves by extraordinary heroic deeds during war and in peacetime. The recipients were thereafter known as People’s Heroes of Yugoslavia or National Heroes of Yugoslavia. The vast majority were awarded to partisans for actions during the Second World War. Available at’s_Hero. Accessed on 22nd April 2015.

[7] Ždralović Amila. 43. Čaušević, Jasmina (ed). Women Documented, Women and Public Life in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 20th Century. Sarajevo, 2014. Available at Accessed on 22nd April 2015.

[8] Ibid: 41

[9] Mlinarević, Gorana. 2015. Kako spasiti tekovine antifašizma i jednakosti svih? Simbolička intervencija i inicijativa za obnovu ruke „Ženi borcu“ na Vracama. 60-68. In: Baština. 3. Muzej književnosti i pozorišne umjetnosti. Sarajevo, 2015.

[10] Dr. Nicolas Moll. Seminar: Memorialization a Key Element in Dialogue over Missing Persons. Sarajevo, November 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Available at Accessed on: 23rd April 2015.

[14] Damir Arsenijević, Jasmina Husanović, Sari Wastell. Javni jezik žalovanja:umjetnost, poezija i tranzicijska pravda u poslijeratnoj Bosni i Hercegovini. In Baština. 3. [123-137]. Muzej književnosti i pozorišne umjetnosti. Sarajevo, 2015.