Simple statements don’t do justice to the complicated reality of politics and daily life in Bosnia Herzegovina (BiH). The press release sounds like many others but there is so much more to say: “The Office of Public Affairs of the U.S. Embassy, as part of the Embassy’s ongoing efforts to promote equality and empowerment of women in BiH society, welcomes Ms. Stephenie Foster, an international expert on political participation and the role of women in policy advocacy, to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ms. Foster will lead a series of programs to help develop the leadership capacities of women in social and political life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, visiting Sarajevo, Mostar and Banja Luka from April 24 to 27.”
I love walking around all of these cities. I spent the most time in Sarajevo; the downtown area is a wonderful mix of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture, small alleys with interesting cafes, restaurants and stores as well as stunning mosques and churches. It’s a special place, and as I walked around last week, watching tourists, families and groups of friends eat, drink coffee and enjoy the good weather, it would be easy to ignore the country’s recent history. But, of course, you can’t do that.
Over the course of a week, I met with women (and a few men) from diverse sectors: parliamentarians, political party activists, NGO leaders, high school and university students and government officials. I talked about the importance of women being involved in public life. But, I also talked about how my own experiences and people I have met along the way have shaped my views of effective politics and politicians. I talked about my mother going door-to-door while running for school board in Half Moon Bay, California and my former boss, Senator Barbara Mikulski fighting a freeway that would have cut through her neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland. To me, these women both embodied the principle that effective politicians are community leaders who understand the importance of listening to voters and developing strategies to meet those needs. And, as I spoke about them, I saw many women in the audiences nodding their heads in agreement.
One of the most fun events I attended while in Sarajevo was a dinner to celebrate MentoRING 2012, an innovative program developed by my friend Aida Daguda, who I met on my last trip to BiH. Aida was part of the Fortune mentoring program here in the US (sponsored by Fortune, Vital Voices and the State Department). When she returned to BiH, she started working to develop a mentoring program. With two colleagues, and determination, she put out a call for applications, and in the end 114 pairs of mentors and mentees were connected. The dinner celebrated that, and it was so much fun to see the connections made not only between the mentors and mentees but with programs like the Fortune mentoring program here in the US.
Stephenie Foster is a Professorial Lecturer at the Women & Politics Institute at American University and an international advocate for women’s empowerment. She has participated in numerous international programs and projects sponsored by the United States State Department, the Vital Voices Global Partnership, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) and others, and is currently a member of the board of directors of Women Thrive Worldwide, Partners for Democratic Change and the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum.