Women in the Balkans Between Family and Politics

TEXT: Fatmira Nikolli, Editing: Masha Scholl - 17. December 2018

Once a little girl studying music and dreaming of becoming a famous violinist, she now sits in the mayor’s office of Shkodër. “I have other dreams now, but I still dream,” says Voltana Ademi. Leading the biggest municipality in the north of Albania, and representing the opposition party, she has to deal with a lot of problems in a city where crime has spread fear. “One of my greatest dreams has been to serve the people.”

Ademi is one of the few Albanian female politicians in a “man’s world”. Here, the proportion of female Members of Parliament (MPs) reached 28% in 2017, up from 18% in 2013, or only 7% in 2008. The situation looks similar in other countries in the Western Balkans, where it was necessary to adopt gender quota laws to pave the road for women to enter politics. Merita Barileva, senior officer at the Decentralization and Municipal Support Project (DEMOS), cites the Law on General Elections and Law on Gender Equality implemented in Kosovo, which set a quota of “30% of women representing the electorate in the municipal assemblies and in the national assembly.”

When looking only at numbers, the situation in Serbia appears more promising. “The Prime Minister and the President of the Parliament are women, around 37% of MPs are women, which is more than in some well-developed democracies, and there are even four women among the 21 ministers, says Gorana Radovanovic from PERFORM, a project strengthening the role of social science in political reforms.

But the real story lies beneath the surface. “A woman must put in extra effort to prove that she is just as capable as her male party colleagues”, admits Radovanovic, who emphasizes that “the true power lies in the hands of the leaders of political parties and their closest associates - who are all men. It is they who decide on the distribution of power and access to resources.”

There are several reasons why it is harder for women to enter politics – something that men have been doing for centuries. We asked female politicians and experts from Albania, Kosovo and Serbia to identify these barriers – and the solutions.

Politics = a fighting arena?

Women are sometimes seen as too weak and fragile to become politicians, which are associated with ‘war’, ‘fight’ and ‘force’. Moreover, research suggests that as the proportion of women increases in a legislative body, men become “more verbally aggressive and controlling of the hearing.”

Barileva agrees that politics often has more to do with force than with qualifications or merits, which influences the choice of many women to stay out of the political arena.

Vlora Limani, director for health in the municipality of Lipjan (Kosovo), suggests that when it comes to politics, “a woman would think several times before speaking.” She believes that to succeed, women must take a more confrontational approach.

At the same time, the less confrontational and more collaborative approach to communication, more often favored by women, is increasingly viewed by political scientists as an asset rather than as a weakness. According to the Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, when women are able to participate in peace processes, the chances of reaching an agreement improve, and the peace is 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.

Women governing (beyond home)

When asked if she has time for herself and her family, Maja Sedlarevic, a politician in Novi Sad for more than twenty years, answers: “I can only ask, would you direct that same question to any man in politics? I believe you would not.”

According to “Gender Norms in the Western Balkans”, a report commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the biggest obstacle to improving gender equality is changing the attitudes of both women and men towards traditional gender roles.

“To engage in politics a woman needs time, connections, resources and an enabling environment,” explains Fiorela Shalsi from Leadership and Political Participation Program (UN Women, Albania). “But women have less time, because of their gender roles as caregivers. Fewer own businesses or have high incomes, so they have less funds to invest in the party or electoral campaigns.” Barileva from Kosovo explains that “families don’t really like to provide moral or financial support to the careers of their daughters or wives in politics.” Radovanovic admits that women in Serbia also lack the support of their families or partners in pursuing a political career, which makes balancing their private and professional lives challenging.

Family expectations also make it harder for women to participate in informal networking, leaving them at a distinct disadvantage. “The politics in Kosovo and maybe in the Balkans is made during the late hours at night, in coffee bars, providing men with more opportunities to find groups that help them stay in politics longer. Women do not work in this way and they lose, because there are only two ways: adapt or disappear,” says Vlora Limani.

Excluding women from politics so that they can take care of their families eventually harms the future of these families, and others, in the long-term. There is growing evidence that women improve political decision-making processes by championing causes that men are less likely to pay attention to such as parental leave, maternal health, childcare, and work/life balance.

Other issues more likely to be promoted by women include education, health, pensions, gender equality, and the environment. “For over two decades I have been fighting for everything I believe. My friends, sometimes, joking, say that my topics are pure utopia - gender equality, the autonomy of Vojvodina and European integration,” says Maja Sedlarevic.

Training to be a politician

When trying to understand the role of women in politics, the same question inevitably comes up: what are the solutions?

One common solution is to adopt quota systems in parliaments, as all countries in the Western Balkans have done. However, quotas address the symptoms of the problem, but not the causes. According to this study, “Quotas prove to be effective in some cases, but do not have a uniform effect. Quotas have had limited influence beyond women representation in parliament and little influence in countering cultural norms and gender stereotypes, as is evident in the case Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

For example, according to Barileva, in Kosovo “male party members competing against women tell supporters that women candidates will automatically win their positions through quotas, so there is no need to ‘burn votes’ for them”. As a result, she says, many women lost elections and the electoral process was distorted, as it failed to accurately reflect the level of support for women candidates.

Another way that development organizations use to empower women is training, which often produces substantial results. The municipality of Durrës (Albania) is one such success story. Nadire Jani, head of Durres Hospital and member of the local council, says that there are more women than men in the council of the municipality. Jani was talking on the phone while taking care of her parents with Alzheimer’s: “We don’t want to be better than men. We want to achieve our goals, because sometimes we know better what society needs. We have managed to convince the Socialist or Democratic majority on several important decisions for the city”. Before joining the council, she was part of training sessions organized by the Decentralization and Local Development Program (DLDP) of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), implemented by Helvetas, to help women gain their confidence and win the trust of the citizens.

“DLDP is not a program on gender equality, but we understood that women were important for the communities and they weren’t represented,” says Valbona Karakaci, program manager of DLDP. “In the cities their voices were quiet, and in rural areas they were mute.” DLDP went into rural areas, finding women who were in local councils and had social causes but no voice. It helped them to raise their voice and find solutions for the community. “First, we spotted courageous women with great potential, who could build a public image by supporting initiatives that they believed in and gain the respect of the community. This helped them build alliances with the community and become noticed.” With their communities now behind them, these women started to bring about change. Some of them grew enough politically to run for mayor.

Training has also empowered women in Kosovo. According to Barileva, 350 women have recently won elections on local councils - 69 of these women were part of trainings by DEMOS, another SDC project implemented by Helvetas.

“I see politics as a painting with many colors”

Training alone may be a powerful tool for enabling women, but it is limited by the time frame and scope of the project or program that is funding it. That’s why in addition to training, DLDP supported women serving in local councils to help them establish the Network “Women in Politics”. The Network has since expanded from the Albanian regions of Shkodra and Lezha to Durres, Kukes and Diber. Some of these members have even been elected to the National Parliament, where they now serve as drivers of change at the national level.

Valbona Karakaci describes what differentiates the Network from other approaches, explaining that DLDP aims to “build a model that is self-sustainable and easily replicated. DLDP chose to establish the Network to mainstream gender not through projects, but through actors in the system.”

A similar approach works in Serbia, where Women’s Parliamentary Network has been active since 2013, gathering female MPs from all parliamentary political parties and trying to increase the political participation of women, improve their socio-economic position, and fight the violence against them. “This kind of joint effort is a good way of promoting visibility of women in politics and increasing their influence on policymaking,” says Radovanovic.

What makes these alliances so powerful is perhaps women’s stronger preference for collaboration over competition. “I never thought that my voice should be the dominant voice,” says Hafizi. “I think of politics as a painting, and in the middle, there are different colors. I wanted my color, not the main one, but one of them. If I were a man? Maybe I would see my role very differently.”

It looks like these colors are beginning to shine more brightly. Women's stories show enormous effort and achievement in a matter of only a few years. Albania has climbed from 105th place on the Political Empowerment rank in 2006 to 31st in 2017 according to WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report. Senida Mesi, Deputy Prime Minister of Albania is convinced that with efforts and solidarity, justice and integrity, much can change. “For me, joining politics means taking more responsibility to contribute to the development and progress of society and the economy in our country. I strongly believe in the role of women not only in politics, but in every field of life,” says Mesi. Or as Shalsi pointed out, “all Albanians today can name at least one woman in politics that they consider a positive role model. As long as this trend continues, more and better women role models will change how politics is made.”

This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Helvetas Mosaic.