This story was first published in Balkan Insight.
By Meredith Howe
When Shqipe Pantina, 42, a former civil society activist, decided to run for the Kosovo parliament as a member of the Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) opposition party, her family thought it was a joke.
She joined because, as an activist trying to bring about change in Kosovo, her options were limited if she remained outside the political sphere.
“I’d rather fight,” she said. She was elected to parliament in 2014.
Xhevahire Izmaku’s family wanted her to be a poet or a writer, not a politician. Her father hates politics and did not agree with her involvement, especially since she would be giving up her writing career. She is a now an MP with the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK.
Izmaku said she wanted to get into parliament because before the 1998-99 war between Serbia and independence-seeking ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, politics was seen as men’s territory. “It was not normal for women to lead,” she said.
So Izmaku, 45, decided to try to change that.
Pantina and Izmaku are not the only women in Kosovo’s parliament who are hoping for change in strongly patriarchal Kosovo, where society places strict restrictions on women.
Despite compromising more than 30 per cent of Kosovo’s MPs, female deputies sometimes face resistance from their male colleagues, causing them to push harder over the issues that women in Kosovo face.
Both Pantina and Izmaku became members of an informal group in the parliament called Grupi i Grave Deputete, the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus.
Formed in 2005, the group invites women from all political parties and minorities to join together across party lines to push for women’s rights. Formally they do not have any power within parliament, but they can put forward legislation, lobby for women’s issues and improved gender rights and discuss future action.
Women in Kosovo face numerous challenges and the caucus has plenty of problems to deal with.
According to 2014 research by non-governmental Kosovo Women’s Network, some 63.5 per cent of women said they experienced sexual harassment, compared to 24.3 per cent of men. Over 40 per cent of female respondents claimed they had been victims of domestic violence.
In addition, woman and girls often suffer rape and violence at the hands of their partners and are subjected to domestic violence for having sex outside marriage.
Women’s health is another big issue in Kosovo. The action that the caucus is best known for was arranging for a mobile mammography unit to be taken around the country to help women detect if they have breast cancer. A study of breast cancer prevalence in Kosovo conducted between 1999 and 2004 found it to be the most common cancer in the country, and warned that its prevalence was increasing.
Valdete Idrizi, the executive director of CiviKos Platform, a coalition working for cooperation between civil society and the government, also argued women are not being represented adequately, have to work twice as hard as men to be acknowledged, and that younger women are not treated seriously by institutions.
“If you want to get a loan, you have nothing in your name,” she added.
According to a BIRN report, in July 2016, little more than 15 per cent of properties were registered under a woman’s name. This is because women do not assert their property rights due to the patriarchal nature of society and fear of angering their family.
And despite a law that grants equal rights to property, only one in three women receive inheritances in 20 municipalities across the country, according to the Kosovo Women’s Network.
Last year the network also reported that 65 per cent of women have not completed their secondary education, compared to fewer than 50 per cent of men. Meanwhile the unemployment rate is 56.9 per cent for women and 40.7 per cent among men.
Male MPs strike back
Speaker of parliament Kadri Veseli, a former guerrilla commander, has promised to work on advancing women rights further in Kosovo.
“There should be more than one-third of women in parliament, because they are 50 per cent of the population,” he told a special parliamentary session with the women’s caucus and female activists earlier this year.
But during a parliamentary session in 2015, Veseli did not hesitate to subject female Vetevendosje MP Albulena Haxhiu to sexist insults after she told him she believed him to be a criminal.
MP Arben Gashi, from the ruling Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, said he doesn’t necessarily agree with the caucus, although he admitted that women face major issues, such as claiming their property rights.
“I don’t think these things should be divided in women’s and men’s… but if it is necessary, let it be,” Gashi said.
He added however that he sees the caucus as ineffective: “In a way, I don’t think they know what to do,” he said.
A few steps forward
“There are a lot of positions [in which] women lead,” said Izmaku, citing prominent female politicians such are former deputy prime minister Mimoza Kusari-Lila, who was also the first elected female mayor of a Kosovo municipality, and former European integration minister Vlora Citaku, who is currently Kosovo’s ambassador to the US.
Izmaku said that while before the war it was rare to find women in politics, post-conflict Kosovo has already had its first female president, Atifete Jahjaga, who was the head of state from 2011 to 2016.
Although Jahjaga was seen as politically weak, many women in Kosovo agree that she tried to make progress for women in Kosovo.
The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus has its critics too.
The caucus is involved in organising public hearings, roundtable discussions with experts and regional conferences with women MPs from neighbouring countries. It also participates in media debates to raise awareness on issues, visits women’s refugees and holds meetings with civil society, municipal leaders and other government agencies.
But many women in Kosovo say they have yet to feel the benefit of its activities.
“At the end of the day, as a woman, I expect more from women. As a woman, my disappointment is that they have faced what we have and they aren’t doing anything,” said women’s rights activist Gresa Rrahmani.
Vjollca Krasniqi, a professor of philosophy at the gender studies department at the University of Pristina, thinks the women’s caucus does a good job facilitating dialogue across party lines but needs to take a stand on a gender equality law.
“They need to not just meet over cocktails and discuss what it’s like to be a woman; while it’s important, they need to do more,” Krasniqi argued. “The women’s caucus needs to consider what is at stake.”
Idrizi, from CiviKos, said the caucus should be more proactive and vocal. “They are 30 per cent [of Kosovo’s MPs], they are not a small force.”
The OSCE Mission in Kosovo, which has been working with the caucus ever since it was set up, also suggested that there is a room for improvement.
“They should be more focused, set more strategic goals. They could do more on systemic issues, which could have more long-term results,” said OSCE Mission spokesperson Edita Bucaj.
Vetevendosje MP Pantina said she was concerned that the caucus’s members only tend to come together on “soft” political issues, and that some women in the parliament only ran for office because their husbands, fathers or brothers would not attract enough votes.
However, both Pantina and Izmaku agreed that the caucus has empowered women in parliament and made a difference.
“It has broken [down] a mentality,” said Izmaku.
“In parliament, we are one third. So we can block anything we want, as a woman,” Pantina argued.
Krasniqi also said she remains hopeful for the future: “Women are more vocal, claiming more space, and this won’t go backwards.”
Meredith Howe is an alumni of the SIT Study Abroad Program Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo: Peace and Conflict Studies in the Balkans. This story was written as an Independent Study Project in Journalism.