Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Kosovo: A Beacon of Hope for Gender Equality?

In my previous blog I discussed Kosovo’s current struggle to maintain independence and pursue stability in an atmosphere of intolerance and racism. Unfortunately, Kosovo is synonymous with these ethnic and religious battles that have been waged since the Middle Ages. But, Kosovo faces other challenges: it is one of the poorest countries in the world with roughly 45% unemployment (CIA).
In terms of human rights Kosovo is also below par: it is both a starting and ending point for human trafficking, the justice rate for rape victims is low, domestic violence rates are high, and traditional societal norms in Kosovo make it difficult for many citizens to see gender oppression as a serious issue (OSCE, 2004). It is a complex and fascinating situation. How does a country with only a population of 1.9 million whose autonomy is continually questioned by its neighbors (and sometimes its own inhabitants) even have the capability to address human rights’ issues?
Besides basic human decency, the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) are making Kosovo make human rights a priority. In order for Kosovo to maintain its independence and be recognized on the world stage as a legitimate power, they must be supported by the UN and accepted by the EU, two organizations that scrutinize a country’s human rights’ policies. To help legitimize and stabilize Kosovo, the UN has attempted to make it a model country for gender equality.
UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, has been a presence in Kosovo since 1999. This branch of the UN explains its goals within Kosovo and world-wide:
UNIFEM’s presence has modeled a unique approach that focuses on the facilitation of partnerships for the capacity building of women’s organizations and government institutions. Parallel to this work, under the framework of the Central Eastern Europe programme and guided by the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security, UNIFEM has also supported women’s engagement in peace-building processes. The programs are implemented through the support and cooperation with governmental institutions, civil society and other relevant stakeholders and through a unique approach that encompasses gender-sensitive security sector reform and women’s engagement in peace processes at all political and social levels. This work, while so far mainly centered on Kosovo, is regional in scope and includes both a strong sub-regional component and a focus on inter-ethnic peace-building, not only within Kosovo, but also across borders (UNIFEM).
Because Kosovo needs help and is young in its nationhood, the UN is seizing the opportunity to mold Kosovo into a model state by helping it eradicate gender inequality. On the surface Kosovo appears to lead the way toward egalitarianism. In 2004, its government passed the Law on Gender Equality:
This Law then allowed for the establishing of the following institutional mechanisms for accomplishing gender equality at the local and national level.
a) Institutional mechanisms for gender equality at the national level
• Agency for Gender Equality / Office of Prime-Minister
• Advisory Office for Good Governance – Division for Gender Issues /
Office of Prime-Minister
• Unit for Gender Equality - Institution of Ombudsperson
• Officers for Gender Equality in ministries
• Inter-ministerial Council for Gender Equality
b) Institutional mechanisms for gender equality at the local level:
• Officers for gender equality in municipalities
• Municipal committees for gender equalities (Vuniqi, 2008)
The law is unquestionably well-intentioned and ideal. Yet, is it truly being executed to its fullest extent in 2011 Kosovo? Is it possible to execute a law like this in a country that has one of the highest poverty rates in the world? Can such a big change happen in a country that seems entrenched with traditional thinking?
Three years ago in her report Women’s Role in Independent Kosova (2008), Luljeta Vuniqi, Executive Director of Kosovar Gender Studies Center, prophetically broke down the complexities and obstacles that Kosovo would face in its struggle. For example, she raises the question: how can a country known for its human trafficking be a bastion of gender equality? Can you build equality while significant portions of your people partake in the practice of slavery? Kosovo needs this law, but will its people enforce it? On the other hand, what country in world history began with gender equality laws – this new nation has set an inspirational precedent.
Today, Kosovo has many women in the high places of government, for example, female president Atifete Jahjaga and two female Deputy Prime Ministers: Mimoza Kusari-Lila (Minister for Economic Development and Reform and Minister of Trade and Industry) and Edita Tahiri (Minister for Foreign Affairs and National Security). Unfortunately, some evidence taints the rise of Jahjaga. Although she is a highly educated and worthy candidate, she obtained a post-graduate degrees in the U.S. and EU and did some training with the FBI (Jahjaga’s biography). One could make the assertion that she is a pawn of the U.S. government. She was a relative unknown and aggressively backed by the U.S. in recent elections by U.S. ambassador to Kosovo Christopher Dell (The Economist, 2011).
Because of these links, it is easy to call into question Jahjaga’s authority and jadedly see the involvement of the U.S./EU in Kosovo as a way to appease Islam. After all, Kosovo is a newly independent Muslim republic who is friendly to the West; this allows the U.S./EU to avoid having to address more “delicate” situations, say in Palestine. (To read about such questions read Zoltan Grossman’s opinion piece in Aljazeera Palestine/Kosovo connection).
All of this casts doubt on the legitimacy of the president, which subverts the progress women appear to be making in this fledgling country. To be completely cynical, which one must be in this day and age, the fact that she is friendly with the U.S./EU and met the gender equality benchmark is like killing two birds with one stone. Lastly, the role of president is merely that of a figurehead – it is the Prime Minister (Hashim Thaci, a man) who wields the real power in the country. Kosovo seems to be being careful with their image.
Despite the relative unimportance of her post, Jahjaga’s presidency is a positive move toward women’s equality in a growing, Islamic nation, which at this moment is unprecedented. Jahjaga is a beacon of hope. Yet, such progress feels like it is paying lip service. Kosovo still struggles to eradicate continual human rights violations. Exactly what is their female president doing to foster gender equality amongst her impoverished constituents? And, can a country claim to be working on gender equality when it is still a major center of human trafficking, domestic violence, and injustice for rape victims?
In the coming weeks I will explore how Kosovo honestly seeks to combat these issues. Albeit small, Kosovo could become the model of a country that comes from the greatest depths of injustice to approach gender equality. And, although the U.S. and EU might have ulterior motives for the success of Kosovo, it would not be bad thing to have an increase in human rights be the byproduct.

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