Feminist Leaders Profiles - Croatia

News author: Zofia Lapniewska
2007-03-21 15:38:54 / News read 3021 reading
Sanja Sarnavka has served as President of the Women’s Human Rights Group B.a.B.e. for the last five years and has been a coordinator for the Open Society Institute’s Women and Media project for the last eight years. She is also a lecturer at the Center for Women Studies with a course on the media. Prior to her full-time commitment to nongovernmental organizations, she has worked as a teacher, journalist, translator, and editor, as well as served as director of two schools. From 2003 to 2004 she was a member of the Croatian Parliament’s Committee for Human Rights and Rights of Minorities.

Zofia Lapniewska: With the Comparative Literature and Yugoslav Languages and Literatures background you had worked as a teacher, journalist, translator, and editor, as well as you served as director of two schools. Where your full-time commitment to nongovernmental organizations came from?

Sanja Sarnavka: It was not an easy decision to leave „decent” and „secure” job, and become full time activist and feminist. Especially, when you find as mandatory to live financially self sustainable life, and additionally have two children to support. However, at the end it had been much more difficult to work for a salary, and all your spare time devote to the issues you find important and worth engaging in. Political situation in addition pushed me into that direction.

In 1995 I was fired from the post of editor in chief at the Cultural and Information Center due to disobedience, and two years before that I had been fined while working as a teacher at the secondary school for offending the Minister (a lady, by the way). Upon learning that governmental posts are really not tailored for persons like me, I jumped bravely into the jaws of private sector. However, working there was not exciting too, as the owner has had always the final word.

At the end, although gradually, it became obvious that B.a.B.e. is my “destiny”, and I finally decided to commit all my time and energy to its mission and goals. Apart from being reluctant to leaving respectable and well paid job, and exchanging it for uncertainty of work for a civil society organization, I had many doubts and hesitations while comparing theory and praxis of the civil scene (women’s organizations included). Accountability, solidarity, non violent communication, respect and recognition of diversity sounded very often were obligatory for others, but not the people who were excitedly preaching them.

Today again, I have many reservations, but now know that it was a good decision – nowhere else I would have such a freedom to explore limits of creativity, courage, curiosity (my own, of course). Many scars, but also many rewarding moments make me not happy, but definitely experienced and quite smart person that succeeded in fulfilling many personal objectives.

Z.L.: B.a.B.e. has celebrated 10th years anniversary in 2004. How much has you and organization changed during all those years?

S.S.: I joined B.a.B.e. in the year 1996, and did not even know organization existed before. They approached me at the Cultural and Information Center, and I organized and facilitated several open discussions – Beijing, abortion, women in politics. Then, after being fired, I had been invited to join the project Women and Media.

Organization, as many others before it and those that will exist in the future, had its ups and downs, its exciting and horrifying moments. And this story continues – not in a linear way. We might become strong in one day, and then tumble the next. Although only one of the founders is still working with B.a.B.e., organization’s goals and mission has not changed. Sometimes one goal had to be prioritized, then again another, but basically all activities planned and executed followed several statements developed once upon a time, almost at the very beginning.

B.a.B.e Be. defined themselves as a feminist strategic, advocacy and lobbying organization, established for affirmation and implementation of women's human rights. We believe that gender democracy is an essential part of any democracy, and that a state, which denies equal rights to women and minority groups, can not call itself democratic. We believe that the advancement of women is impossible unless and until their equal rights are fully protected.

Our priorities are:
- the right to be free of violence, both at home and in the public sphere;
- the right to reproductive choice and reproductive health, including the decision of when to start a family, with whom and how to raise children;
- the right to equal and full participation in all aspects of society, especially in leadership roles and important decision-making bodies;
- we also support the civil scene in Croatia and cooperate with peace, human rights and ecological groups in Croatia.

I just feel like telling how and why, albeit many obstacles, B.a.B.e. is my pride and joy. Four months ago, when we were quite uncertain how to survive, a woman sent me a letter offering to donate her house to the organization, and expressing her wish to transform it jointly to a shelter for battered women. Those four pages of a farmer woman who trusted us, and wanted to support our efforts, helped us not surrender and find even joy in our work.

Z.L.: Balkans from your perspective. How is Croatia on the background of other Balkan countries?

As any other region in the world, Balkan has wonderful and gruesome aspects. I hate labels and reject simplifications - every single person has many identities, not to talk about nations and areas. In recent foreign documents Croatia has been put into Western Balkans, before that it had been South Eastern Europe, etc. We are also called, as many other former socialist/communist countries, country in transition.

Funny – like the rest of the world is stable, fixed, and all poor ex communists try to reach the finish line, furiously running from the start. Of course, majority of Croats (hetero or LGBTIQ) think we are older than Europe, and deserve to be respected as unique.

The reality is that we are a post war country, with poor economic growth, with 47% of people who completed (fully or partially) primary school, with governments that are desperately trying to make us serious EU candidates. The truth is also that capitalism (with big letters) is our present and future destiny (with seductive bank loans and appealing commodities). Coca Cola, McDonalds, Benetton, Hugo Boss, RTL co exist “peacefully” with the smell of ćevapčići, turbo folk music, unemployed people, Roma settlements. How to define it – let me not decide.

Conflicts leave deep scars – officially on warriors only. Sometimes you think that only men defended our homeland, only them have now PTSP, only them deserved medals and streets named after male heroes. Women who fought too, who were raped, who had to survive and raise children remain quite invisible and silent.

Interview carried: September 2005
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