Give women a role in Kosovo

Vjosa Dobruna spent the last 10 years running a health center for Albanian women and children in Kosovo because the Serbian system would not serve them. As a leading voice against oppression by Serbian authorities, she was among the first targeted when the massive "ethnic cleansing" began in March. Dr. Dobruna fled her home in Pristina and crossed the border into Macedonia, where she immediately took up her work again, creating a health clinic and training teams of refugees to assist rape survivors.

Now, back in Kosovo, she is facing a new - but not unfamiliar - set of challenges. She wants to be sure Kosovar women have a part in the reconstruction effort.

It is not a matter of money. More than $2 billion has been pledged for reconstruction by the US, the British, and other governments. The money is there, but the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) needs to figure out how to spend it.

One aim of reconstruction is to create local institutions. UNMIK recognizes that the Kosovars are skilled administrators who ran a parallel set of institutions alongside the official government during a decade of Serbian oppression, and the long-range goal is to create a stable local government. But UNMIK doesn't want to fund the most powerful local institution, the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The practical approach is to involve more women. Because so many men were killed or imprisoned by Serb forces, thousands of Kosovar families are now headed by women. Plans to rebuild the province are beginning to reflect this. UNMIK intends to create a gender advisory unit to get women to participate in all programs.

This is encouraging. But it will also take action by the Kosovars themselves - and the dozens of private relief organizations now in Kosovo - to include women, fully, in relief and reconstruction.

Women need counseling and family care, but they also need to take part in political decision-making, local government, media projects, business development, education, and training.

After the Dayton Accords ended the war in Bosnia, no specific efforts were made to engage women in reconstruction, even though millions of women doctors, nurses, farmers, and housewives helped keep families alive and communities intact throughout the war. After this was pointed out to donor governments, the US State Department gave $5 million for a Bosnian women's initiative to support small businesses, including cafes, brick factories, and beauty salons. Rural women have started "cow banks" that provide butter and milk, plus livestock, to local markets. The success of this program helped inspire the Kosovar women's initiative, a UN program of support ranging from trauma counseling to income-generating activities.

Like the women in Bosnia, the women of Kosovo were not passive spectators or victims in the drama of war, displacement, and return. Inside Kosovo, they were leaders of the organizations that helped the Albanian population survive 10 years of repression by the government of Slobodan Milosevic.

Vjosa and hundreds of other women like her worked in the refugee camps and the refugee-hosting neighborhoods of Albania and Macedonia to keep their society together. They're already starting again in Kosovo. Support for programs such as Vjosa's Center for Women and Children, Afterdita Kelmendi's Media Project, or Igoballe Rogova's Sisters Qiriazi is an investment in the future of a Kosovo with vibrant civilian leaders and institutions.

UNMIK should pay careful attention to Kosovar women. They have the experience delivering medical care, education programs, children's activities, and other assistance. Most important is that the gender unit of UNMIK be integral to all the operation's work, not just those commonly thought of as "women's issues." For example, the UN is now training a police force. To keep it from becoming an arm of the KLA, the UN should recruit more women into it. The police training should include education about domestic violence, rape, and prostitution.

Kosovar women recognize this period as an opportunity to improve their standing, gain literacy skills, and combat domestic violence. In Kosovo, village society tends to be extremely conservative. Widows seldom remarry. Rape victims may be rejected by their husbands and families. Bride prices are often negotiated by a young woman's male relatives without her permission.

"We have a lot of work to do ourselves, among local people. We can't just blame the internationals for not including women," explains Vjosa. "We need to include men in the process, and younger people. And we need the international agencies to listen to the people. Many women say their first priority is to rebuild their houses. They know that winter is coming and plastic sheeting will not be good in the snow. They want to rebuild their houses and will do any work, even the more difficult jobs." Vjosa and her colleagues say some rural women aren't interested in office jobs or policymaking but want to be included in housing construction training and in brick-and-mortar distributions.

After years of observing that refugee repatriation works poorly if it excludes women, the reconstruction of Kosovo is a unique opportunity to include them. The women and men of Kosovo don't want simply to rebuild the old Kosovo, they want to build a new one, and make it better.

*Mary Diaz is executive director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, in New York. Kathleen Newland is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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