Nejla Asimovic ’16 is returning to the country of her birth this summer to study the history and ongoing effects of sexual violence in the context of war. Asimovic, a native of Sarajevo, the largest city in the Balkan nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is undertaking a research project titled Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls: A Weapon of War? under the advisement of Assistant Professor of Government Gbemende Johnson.
Asimovic, a world politics major with a double minor in Hispanic studies and mathematics, is one of four Hamilton students this summer whose research is funded through the Kirkland Endowment’s Summer Associates program, which assigns stipends of $4000 to “support students who wish to do research or creative work that fits under the mandate of the Endowment, ‘to support the needs and interests of women at Hamilton.’”
During her summer in Bosnia and Herzegovina Asimovic plans to connect with human rights NGOs focused on helping victims of sexual violence during the 1992-95 Bosnian War. In Asimovic’s own words, her research will explore “how sexual violence against women and girls is used as a military tactic in the pursuit of group objectives, and examine the culture of impunity that exists around these crimes.”
This is not Asimovic’s first experience addressing issues of sexual assault, however. As a participant in Hamilton’s program in Washington D.C. last fall, Asimovic undertook an internship at the Enough Project, an organization dedicated to the eradication of genocide and other crimes against humanity, with a particular focus on the African continent.
According to Asimovic, sexual violence has historically been used as a military tactic aimed at the demoralization of occupied populations, the psychological and physical intimidation of resistance efforts, the destruction of bonds of community, and the damaging of the reproductive capacities of women. Large-scale sexual violence was rampant during the Bosnian War, during which Bosnia and Herzegovina was invaded and occupied by fellow former members of the Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia and Serbia, after declaring independence from the communist state.
Having grown up in Sarajevo, Asimovic has had significant exposure to victims of sexual violence from the Bosnian War; exposure that she says sparked her interest in exploring the topic academically. “I have always find it appalling that rape and other forms of sexual violence are often considered legitimate byproducts of war and ‘a lesser crime’, while victims are affected for life,” she said, adding that Bosnian survivors of sexual assault played a crucial role in the struggle for the UN’s recognition of rape as a war crime.
Addressing the issue of wartime rape, however, comes with many challenges, said Asimovic, including the tendency toward a lack of documentary or forensic evidence, limited domestic investigations, limited support services and “the huge challenge of how to shift the stigma of shame from victims to those who commit these horrendous acts.” Through her research, Asimovic hopes to develop groundwork for how the international community, as well as individual actors, can overcome these daunting challenges.
This opportunity to study a topic of personal academic and emotional interest for Asimovic comes on the heels of an important anniversary. “This year is the 20th anniversary of Bosnian genocide, a genocide committed through a strategy of mass murder and systematic rape,” she noted, concluding that “As Bosnia is preparing a ceremony to honor the victims, I am so grateful that I am spending my summer in Sarajevo and researching what is, in my opinion, an extremely important topic.