Shedding a light on female war crime perpetrators (in Bosnia)


The AHRCentre hosted an International Women’s Day seminar on 8 March 2016 with Dr Olivera Simic, entitled People who know her would never believe this. Senior Lecturer at the Griffith University Law School, Dr Simic engages in research on international law, gender and crime, and transitional justice and is the author of Surviving Peace, a memoir of life during the Bosnian War. She is currently writing her monograph, Silenced Victims of Wartime Sexual Violence (Routledge, 2017).

Dr Simic based the seminar on a research paper she has co-authored with Professor Alette Smeulers from Tilburg University in Netherlands. The core idea of the paper was to challenge the ‘traditional’ gender constructions and stereotypical assumptions that women in war tend to be viewed as ‘helpless victims’ and men as ‘aggressive perpetrators’. Providing examples of female war crime perpetrators, with a particular focus on the Bosnian war (1992-1995), she also highlighted how the experience of men as victims of war and women as perpetrators remains largely excluded from scholarly discourse. 

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has prosecuted 68 people for serious violations of international humanitarian law arising out of the Bosnian War. Out of those 68 people, 8 were female. Dr Simic analysed these 8 cases, discussing how most of the women had engaged in sexual violence during the war, the victims often being men. Only 1 out of the 8 women prosecuted had pleaded guilty and showed remorse for her actions.

Dr Simic questioned whether these women – as with many men who commit wartime atrocities – were simply “ordinary women responding to extraordinary circumstances’’? Some of the reasons she advanced for their conduct included the need to follow orders from their superiors, past traumatic experiences (such as victims of gang rape and abuse), and the need to support their fathers/husbands/sons as war criminals. Dr Simic noted that some of the women relied on mitigating factors such as being a single mother, being young when the crime was committed, and experiencing abuse themselves in the past. Their depiction in the media as “female monsters" highlighted their conduct as acting contrary to their assigned gender roles and despite the evidence that the 8 women prosecuted demonstrated violent conduct (including sexual abuse), Dr Simic concluded that Bosnian society continues to treat such women as ‘anomalies’. 


With thanks to Lucy Chen, AHRCentre intern, for writing this article. To find out more about our internships, please click here.