Survivors of Sexualised Violence and Children Born of War in Post-conflict Societies – the Case of Post-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina[1]


Sexualised violence in ethnicised armed conflict has received increasing scholarly attention. However, the ‘result’ is often turned a blind eye on: children born of war. These children, born due to war rape, live and die at the margins of the marginal. Mother and children face extreme stigmatisation, silencing and invisible-making. Their relationship is often infiltrated and characterised by the conflict and violence imposed upon them. Indeed, their existence and experiences demonstrate the continuity of violence in post-conflict societies. Building on my previous paper on the gendered logic of ethnonationalism and sexualised violence in ethnicised armed conflict, I extend my research now onto post-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina. In this paper, I examine the post-conflict reality of survivors of sexualised violence and forced pregnancy and their children born of war, following Esma and Sara’s storyline in Žbanić’s film Grbavica.


The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world,
but the most probable change
is to a more violent world.
Hannah Arendt (1970:80)

In the Bosnian film Grbavica, Esma tries to hide from everyone, including her daughter Sara, that Sara was born of war rape. However, Sara becomes increasingly sceptical, and the conflicts between them become increasingly tense. Their struggles are embedded in post-conflict Sarajevo[2], characterised by persistent unemployment, impoverishment and destruction that discriminates heavily against single mothers like Esma (Helms 2013:196).

Esma survived rape, forced impregnation and forced pregnancy in a detention centre during the Bosnian war. According to the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), 35,000 women became pregnant due to war rape. The majority of them are said to have had an abortion; however, those detained in rape camps were forced to carry their pregnancy to terms (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:24). In post-conflict societies, including BiH, “[t]he raped woman is expected to be silent” (Bergoffen 2013:115). Survivors[3]  have been shamed, stigmatised and marooned by the government and society. For the longest time, psychological support and concrete aid were only provided by international NGO’s (Helms 2013:3-4). Silence and stigmatisation extend to their children born of war.

The term children born of war describes “babies born due to rape and sexual exploitation during wartime” (DeLaet 2007:128). There is an extensive “lack of research and legal attention” (Carpenter 2007:2) on them. It is argued that historic inattention “has reinforced silence as response to sexual violence, and, in doing so, has perpetuated the invisibility of children born of war” (DeLaet 2007:144-145). Fittingly, in BiH, they are called nevidljiva djeca (Gaon-Grujić 2014) – invisible children.

In a previous paper, I dealt with the Bosnian war as a case study, illustrating how sexualised violence is used as a weapon of war and genocide in ethnicised armed conflicts. Further, I examined how it became ultimately recognised and discursively framed in international law. This paper aspires to continue the narrative thread on female survivors of sexualised violence, forced pregnancy and children born of war. Using the film Grbavica (2006) as a frame and point of orientation, this paper explores the situation and status of survivors of sexualised violence and their children born of war by following Esma and Sara’s storyline.

Firstly, I briefly recap and outline the gendered logic of ethnonationalism and violence regarding female bodies. This serves as an essential basis for understanding the shame and stigma surrounding survivors and nevidljiva djeca. I then proceed to the discursive framings of the latter’s existence and experiences. In conclusion, I present a more general and agency-focused outlook on children born of war.

          Survivors of sexualised violence in post-conflict BiH  

The female body is purposefully but arbitrarily constructed as “an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularises it” (de Beauvoir 1949: 7). By contrast, the man “is the Subject; he is the Absolute” (ibid.) human type. This hegemonic binary narrative disqualifies women from “being considered an autonomous being” (ibid.); and ultimately from being and becoming human (Alsop et al. 2002: 185). Patriarchy[4] must explicitly be understood as

men’s control over women’s bodies, in terms of their fertility and sexuality and in their exercise of control over them through violence, both domestic and sexual[ised]. (Alsop et al. 2002: 70)

The wartime rape and post-conflict response are based on a shared understanding of patriarchal ethnonationalism (Helms 2013:228) and ideas of identity, biology, paternity and genetics (Weitsman 2007:110). Such notions imagine the female body as men’s and nation’s territory that can be conquered and genetically ‘contaminated’ and must, therefore, be protected (Helms 2013: 88). It is passive, rapable and essentially loaded with “honour and shame” (Alsop et al. 2002: 184). Sexualised violence becomes the “women’s shame […] the family’s shame, the nation’s shame, the man’s shame” (Nagel 1998: 254).

In post-conflict BiH, the nation’s claiming of the female body continues. The caricatured image of the raped Bošnjakinje[5] became a constructed symbol of collective, but primarily national innocence, moral righteousness, victimhood and suffering (Helms 2013:3, 26, 223) in opposition to illegitimate and barbarous Serbs (2013:26). However, this “political manipulation of collective victimhood […] [is] a betrayal of that very victimhood” (2013:229); because the actual survivors are barely visible (2013:88). The survival of the (masculinised) nation and re-gain of control over (feminised) territory remains the utmost priority.

It is crucial to understand that conflict and violence continue through post-conflict societies’ social, economic, and political sphere (Žarkov & Cockburn 2002: 10). BiH has reached negative peace but not positive peace[6]. While men largely experience a quick “change in levels of violence” (Pankhurst 2008:293), women, in particular, tend to suffer from continued and “new forms of violence” (ibid.) as well as marginalising, normative and symbolic actions (Djurić-Kuzmanović et al. 2008: 283).

Post-conflict societies observe a rise in gender-based domestic and sexualised violence[7] (Pankhurst 2008:293). When it comes to so-called ‘ordinary rape’, sympathy shift quickly from the idolised rape survivors to “the male perpetrators, assumed to be war veterans, the defenders who had sacrificed so much for the nation” (Helms 2013:220). Their struggles to perform the masculine role “as breadwinners and thus household authorities” (ibid.) and post-war “psychological effects” (Pankhurst 2008:307) publicly ‘excuse’ violence against wives and children. However, this attitude does not serve veterans’ health and social security. Instead, it de-legitimises women’s human rights claims and instrumentalises experiences of violence.

Such gendered, sexed and ethnonationalist aspects are shared and continued during both conflict and post-conflict time. They make sexualised violence and forced pregnancy powerful tools of war (2013:221). Moreover, they intend to visibly mark and continuously violate the survivors with ongoing and embodied humiliation in post-conflict societies (Carpenter 2007:1). Shame among survivors is sparked by the internalised “conservative notions of rape as ruination for women” (Helms 2013:221). This internalised notion translates into women’s “haunted” (de Beauvoir 1949: 5) sense of femininity, a self-perception “tinged with horror” (Alsop et al. 2002: 185) and helplessness (Helms 2013:238).

The opening and closing scenes in Grbavica show Esma in group therapy sessions facilitated and funded by an international NGO (Grbavica). Esma experiences a safe space, refuge and companionship there (2013:194, Grbavica). Moreover, she receives financial support after completion. At some point, a woman flips and demands ‘things we really need’: money and work. Most rape survivors live isolated at the margins of society (2013:220, Grbavica). So does Esma, whose immediate, material needs are housing, employment and Sara’s schooling that can hardly be managed with her “meagre and unsteady income” (2013:194, Grbavica). After all, Esma’s secret comes to light because she struggles to pay Sara’s school trip fee. Survivors then suffer within “larger narratives of loss and pain” (2013:195, Grbavica).

Only after prolonged and unprecedented activism, leveraged by Grbavica’s success and filmmaker Žbanić’s public support, a law came into force in 2006 (Helms 2013:197). It recognises survivors as “legitimate victims deserving of society’s help” (2013:196). However, the bureaucratic process (2013:238), trauma, shame, and fear of stigmatisation continues to prevent women from seeking justice, help or advice (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:36). Particularly for those survivors who are simultaneously mothers of nevidljiva djeca, “the act of speaking remained an ordeal, [a] part of the burden of their experience” (Helms 2013:195). Indeed, stigmatisation, silencing and invisible-making of the existence and experience of survivors and children born of war continues, extends and intensifies the efficacy of rape as a weapon of war.

Children born of war – the invisible children

Genocidal rape inflicted “a generation of unwanted children” (Carpenter 2007:1) on a population that itself consists of victims of gross human rights violations (2007:3). They “serve as physical reminders of the divisive conflict that devastated their nation-states” (Weitsman 2007:121). Frequently labelled as “children of the ‘enemy’ or ‘Chetnik Babies’” (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:21), children born of war “face stigma, discrimination, and even infanticide” (Carpenter 2007:2).

The death of ‘babies of shame’ is publicly perceived as somewhat justified (Weitsman 2007:123), even though women’s reproductive rights are frequently contested and restricted in patriarchal, ethnonationalist societies, given the discursive claims on their wombs as the property of men and nation. McEvoy-Levy argues that “[w]omen kill their children in trauma, or to take back power […] or to appease patriarchs” (2007:159). Abortions can thus be an act of resistance or forced by outside pressure against the women (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:24). McEvoy-Levy states that “children born of wartime rape exist, and often die, on the margins of the already marginal” (2007:149). They face various harms, “including abandonment, abuse, stigmatisation, and discrimination” (DeLaet 2007:129). Consequently, they are more likely to “become child soldiers, child laborers, and exploited sexual slaves” (McEvoy-Levy 2007:150).

It is vital to comprehend that narratives framing children of war impact their future treatment (Weitsman 2007:122). Societal responses can, in a way, give credibility and reproduce the genocidal strategy (McEvoy-Levy 2007: 160) to create “’Chetnik babies’ who would kill Muslims” (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:23). There has never been a consensus on how to respond to these children. The attitudes of states, communities, families, religious authorities or the mothers do not necessarily reflect each other or are adapted by each other[8]. However, government policies can promote and solidify certain beliefs pervasively (Weitsman 2007:122). The children can end up “living with adopted families, in institutions, or with economically impoverished and traumatized single mothers” (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:37), like Sara with Esma. According to Daniel-Wrabetz, the women who kept their babies “were a tiny minority” (2007:24). Many of them paid the high price of rejection from their community and family (2007:28).

A “children-born-of-war lens reveals new dilemmas and asymmetrical conflicts over rights” (McEvoy-Levy 2007:150). Authors suggest classifying the children as “secondary rape victims”[9] (Silva quoted in Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:21). To make them distinctive “subjects of human rights law” (Carpenter 2007:2) and a “category of victim of wartime violence” (DeLaet 2007:145) could finally design appropriated justice and policy mechanisms (ibid.). It is vital to emphasise that this can create tension between women’s reproductive rights and the protection of children (McEvoy-Levy 2007:160). This issue is either avoided or talked about in the absence of survivors and ignorance of their situation.

In theory, The Convention on the Rights of the Child assumes that every child is entitled to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights and that the state is obligated in ensuring them (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:31). Children born of war, however, are not only “at risk of deprivations” (2007:25) but systemically fall “through the cracks” (2007:36), since mothers, communities and governments might refuse their existence (ibid.).

The nevidljiva djeca’s stigmatisation and social exclusion resemble an immaterialising force (Feldman 2018:295). Such “[p]olitical regimes of disappearance” (2018:294) edit the collective memory and national identity (2018:293). Paradoxically, repressing them into artificial absence requires much attention to their presence. They are othered according to the “spatial and visual logic of genocide” (2018:295). However, making “them visible is not sufficient to secure their rights. It may even be counterproductive” (McEvoy-Levy 2007:150) since both silence and invisibility can serve protectively.

But “language matters” (Weitsman 2007:122). Discourses make discrimination possible and have “profound effects on the lives of many” (ibid.). Being visibly invisible does not only mean to be followed by a “cloud of shame” (2007:121) but almost suffocating inside of it. The nevidljiva djeca are denied equal access and participation. They even lack a language to express themselves. Only by appropriating dominant discourses they can make sense of and express their experience. For instance, metaphorical language is used as a discursive strategy (Erjavec & Volčič 2010:526).

In Erjavec and Volčič’s research, some girls born of war describe themselves in socially dominant war vocabulary as “shooting targets” (2010:531). They feel like passive objects that receive abuse and hate by their “neighbourhood, family, and their mothers” (2010:533). The latter “take out their own anger and sense of victimization upon their daughters” (ibid.), like Esma, sometimes does. Sara also gets bullied by her classmates. For nevidljiva djeca, daily life becomes a fight for survival (2010:534).

Other girls compare themselves to “cancer” (Erjavec & Volčič 2010:534) due to their impure, sick and abnormal Serbian blood. They feel like guilty accomplices in the destruction of their ethnic group (2010:534-535). For many, suicide becomes “the only solution for this unbearable situation” (2010:535).

In stark contrast, other girls consider themselves not only “positive and active agents” (Erjavec & Volčič 2010:536) but “fighter[s]” (ibid.). Accordingly, their ‘mixed blood’ and ethnicities predestine them to be peacekeepers who might bridge “the gap between the divided ethnic communities” (ibid.). By telling their daughters the truth and empowering them, the mothers became their daughters’ heroines and idols (2010:537). For adolescents like Sara and these girls who struggle for self-understanding in a militarised society, the war, according to the same ethnic and gendered logics (2010:533), “will not be over until their own victimization comes to an end” (2010:540).

Almost all children born of war suffer from stigmatisation. Their lives present an extreme example of how violence and conflict, and their legitimising narratives, continue in post-conflict societies. Girls born of war like Sara are subjected and subjugated to the same gendered and ethnonationalist ideas as their mothers were. The gendered and ethnicised “otherness mediates the girl’s experience of her body and thereby her sense of self” (Alsop et al. 2002: 184). Girls, therefore, must liberate themselves from both patriarchal and ethnonationalist understandings of womanhood (2002:70). However, making sense of oneself by using the tools and terminology provided by the hegemonic discourse can be powerful in turning the tables and revealing it in the first place. It can, however, also compromise the perspectives of overcoming the status quo and create sustainable change.

Children born of war are “seemingly agency-less person[s]” (McEvoy-Levy 2007:150). They are hidden, “denied, and at least temporarily voiceless” (ibid.). Notwithstanding, many children were “silently integrated” (2007:167). So far, it was mainly others that “claim for power on their behalf” (2007:160). This is why organisations formed by themselves, like the Forgotten Children of War Association[10], are crucial to formulate and spread their voice. By countering the hegemonic discourse, they appear from the imposed erasure (Feldman 2018: 294). As by some of the girls outlined above, they attempt to resist ethnonationalist narratives by defining their own identity (Helms 2013:242). Consequently, it is crucial to understand their position of agency and their potential as agents.

For McEvoy-Levy, these “children are carriers of memory and creators of culture” (2007:151) and can potentially foster micro-cultures of peace (2007:162). Their agency can “shape new definitions of community, citizenship and belonging” (2007:163) and form “alternative societies” (2007:167). With their mixed ethnicities, they incorporate the “power of transformative hybridity” (ibid.) and present “complex participants in their own histories and in post-conflict reconstruction” (ibid.). In an ambitious vision, children born of war asking for their fathers could stimulate cathartic storytelling and healing in communities. Importantly, their visibility demands history books, curriculums and administrations to adapt to the truth of their existence. Consequently, they stimulate post-conflict dealing with the past and disrupt moments of amnesia in collective memory and politics (ibid.). While this empowering narrative reflects existing activism’s goals, children born of war should not be instrumentalised as projection sites again, no matter politics or vision of society.

Sara’s birth was intended to be an ending, a humiliation and a “cultural disintegration” (McEvoy-Levy 2007:164). Grbavica does not reveal how Sara deals with her revealed identity. Assumingly, the silence and shame forced upon Esma and passed onto Sara created the pain and tension that divided them. However, the film’s end suggests the opportunity for reconciliation as mother and daughter embrace each other emotionally.


Children born of war become “increasingly visible as victims of violent conflict” (DeLaet 2007:145). McEvoy-Levy underline that

[t]heir survival or death, their displacement or reintegration in societies undergoing transition, their marginalisation or inclusion […] and their economic and social fates (2007:151)

tell about the post-conflict society’s understanding of conflict, peace and identity. Their experience also gives crucial insights into how childhood intersects with war (ibid.) and peace. The way that religious authorities, local communities and international scholars construct the needs and rights of children born of war differently in relation to their mothers proves the controversies around the issue (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:31). Some children of war are integrated and embraced; some embody hope, others the horrors of the past (McEvoy-Levy 2007:150). Nevertheless, those mechanisms remain to be explored while taking historical and cultural practices into account (Weitsman 2007:123).

Daniel-Wrabetz emphasises the difficulty of addressing the stigma without “sensationalizing or marking the children” (2007:37) as well as not using the sensitivity of this issue as “an excuse for turning a blind eye” (ibid.). The question is whether the “collective desire to forget and obscure” (McEvoy-Levy 2007: 168) will remain or a new, constructive, transformative, and gender-sensitive dialogue will evolve (ibid.). Generally, it is essential to increase the affected communities’ capacity to accept ownership of the issue (Daniel-Wrabetz 2007:38). Yet, films like Grbavica are valuable to make sure that their pain is known to a greater audience and not forgotten by their local communities (Helms 2013:195).

The spectator can empathise with Sara, who deserves to know who her father is.  Equally, they can empathise with Esma, who deserves to protect her and her daughter’s life and safety. As presented in this paper, silence can be imposed, oppressive and enable new violence because silence and invisibility “preordains […] marginality” (McEvoy-Levy 2007:168). By contrast, silence can also be empowering, “strategic” (2007:166) and productive in creating a safe space (2007:167). By speaking or staying quiet, survivors “exert some control over the uses and abuses of their bodies” (McEvoy-Levy 2007: 167). Many legitimate reasons and fears motivate mothers of children of war to hide their experiences (McEvoy-Levy 2007:166). Women like Esma have a right to create their own reality and protect their children (2007:167). In attempting to deal sovereignly with their stories’, Esma and Sara perform the agency to “reclaim dignity and a sense of self” (Helms 2013:240). Despite a collective responsibility to accommodate women like Esma and children like Sara, it is crucial to not violate these women and children’s self-determination again in the process.

Above all, the experiences of survivors of sexualised violence and children born of war prove that militarised masculinity and ethnonationalism are not abstract concepts. They are experienced in everyday life and profoundly affect the individual (Žarkov & Cockburn 2002:14). These concepts, just like sexualised violence in war and post-conflict violence, are gendered. Žarkov and Cockburn argue that “women’s empowerment and the transformation of gender culture can in themselves be work for peace” (2002: 17). However, “for men to be willing to listen to women they must first respect them” (Rees 2002: 66). Gendered power relations require a gendered critique (Helms 2013:220) and gendered strategies. Gendered and interdisciplinary analyses of dynamics spheres like violence, law, media and cultural practices as done in these twin-papers are assumed to be vital for comprehension and response.

Isolating the violence in conflict diminishes the “significance of structural violence” (Žarkov & Cockburn 2002:10). It obscures “the prevalence of male sexualised violence against women and children, in both war and peace” (ibid.). The ‘post-war moment’ can and must be used as an opportunity (2002:11) to analyse how violence in conflict continues to impact all groups of people, particularly children and is exercised by many agents, including mothers. Female bodies and mothers are loaded with politicised, moralised and oppressive narratives that are going beyond the dynamics of victimising and demonising mothers of children born of war remains a continuous task.

In the end, children like Sara are the ones who have to build sustainable peace as conflict prevention in their communities. Yesterday’s children are today’s adult agents, and today’s children are tomorrow’s adult agents. To conclude with Arendt, the fact that we are born as an embodiment and symbol of a new arrival enables and empowers us to start something new over again (1967: 36-37). Children born of war continue to be demonised and turned a blind eye on instead of being seen as what they are: a new beginning.


We are not, were not and will not be consequences of the war

We do not want to be presented and treated as products of hate and conflicts

We are not mistakes of war or a group that lack human status


Do not keep the potential of conflict within us

We do not want to be the seeds in new conflicts

We do not want to be part of a group or part of the concept of unneeded individuals

(Muhic 2018, Forgotten Children of War Association at the UN)


Works cited:

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Arendt, Hannah On Violence. New York: Harvest, 1970.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex . London: Vintage Classics, 1949.

Berckmoes, Lidewyde H. and Veroni Eichelsheim, Theoneste Rutayisire, Annemiek Richters and Barbora Hola. “How Legacies of Genocide Are Transmitted in the Family Environment: A Qualitative Study of Two Generations in Rwanda.“ Societies 7/24 2017: 1-18.

Carpenter, R. Charli. “Gender, Ethnicity, and Children’s Human Rights. Theorizing Babies Born of Wartime Rape and Sexual Exploitation.“ In: R. Charli Carpenter. Born of War. Protecting Children of Sexual Violence Survivors in Conflict Zones. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2007. pp. 1-20.

Daniel-Wrabetz, Joana. “Children Born of War Rape in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.“ In: R. Charli Carpenter. Born of War. Protecting Children of Sexual Violence Survivors in Conflict Zones. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2007. pp 21-39.

DeLaet, Debra. “Theorizing Justice for Children Born of War.“ In: R. Charli Carpenter. Protecting Children of Sexual Violence Survivors in Conflict Zones. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2007. pp 128-148.

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[1] This paper was first submitted as part of the requirement for the postgraduate course Sex, Gender, and Violence at the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. While it constitutes Part One, Part Two, also taking on the Bosnian case, explores the gendered and ethno-nationalist logic and narratives of sexualised violence in ethnicised armed conflicts.

[2] The Bosnian war ended in August 1995 after the NATO bombings on Serbia. In December 1995, the so-called ‘Dayton-agreement’, a peace agreement, was signed and later integrated into the constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Žarkov & Cockburn 2002:15).

[3] The term ‘survivors’ emphasises a victim-identity that is not defined by victimhood. It is crucial to “decouple victimhood from passivity” (Helms 2013:240) to combine innocence and agency.

[4] Patriarchy can be understood as a “regime that exaggerates gender difference and inequality, and dictates a complementary world for men and women” (Žarkov & Cockburn 2002:13) both during war and peace. While male violence is an integral part of patriarchy, patriarchy’s existence does not sufficiently explain the excessive male violence against predominantly women (Pankhurst 2008:300).

[5] The term Bosnian (bosanski) can define the geographical origin as someone from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) but also “connote affiliation to a multi-ethnic [non-nationalist] polity” (Helms 2013:35). Bosniak/ Bošnjak (female Bošnakinja/e sg/pl) has, since 1993, replaced ‘Muslim/Muslim Slav’. It is an “ethnic rather than religious label” (ibid.), despite religion being the “primary marker of difference” (ibid.). On the same token, frequently, Catholic Bosnians are referred to as Croats and Orthodox Bosnians as Serbs.

[6] According to Johan Galtung, ‘negative peace’ means the absence of violence and ‘positive peace’ “the removal of structural and cultural violence” (Mani 2002:12).

[7] Unfortunately, this essay cannot embrace the critical issue of human trafficking and forced prostitution of women and girls in post-conflict BiH, as impressively dealt with in the 2010 biographical drama The Whistleblower. Rees stresses the “striking continuity” (2002:65) of “the imprisonment of women, their brutalization and sexual enslavement” (ibid.) between during and post-war years.

[8] On religious responses, see Daniel-Wrabetz:2007 and Spahić-Šiljak:2013.

[9] On transgenerational trauma in post-conflict/ -genocide societies, see Roth et al:2014 and Berckmoes et al:2017.

[10]  See also: