Raising women's role in Kosovo

As the province rebuilds, some see a rare chance to improve women's rights in a male-dominated society.

Igballe Rogova makes her way down a cold stairwell in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, carrying a box of food to a basement apartment.

She braces herself for a difficult meeting.

An elderly woman answers her knock. Behind her, a young woman holding a child appears, then quickly retreats. The old woman leads Ms. Rogova into a room where her husband sits in the glow of an electric heater. There, the couple pours forth a stream of angry grievances against the young woman.

Their story is not uncommon. Serbs burned down their house in central Kosovo last spring and killed one of their sons, a fighter for the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel force that opposed Serbian rule. The young woman is his widow, the child his two-year-old daughter.

The grandparents see their daughter-in-law as a burden and want her to leave. But they insist on keeping the child. What sounds unreasonable to Western ears is no more than tradition here allows. Albanian custom frees a widow to remarry, but gives any children to the father's family. The young woman refuses to go, however. She has all but barricaded herself in her room.

It is a wrenching predicament, not only for the family but also for Rogova, a women's-rights activist who spent much of the 1990s helping rural women in a mountain district of southern Kosovo. Today, she confronts a whole new set of problems.

"Every time, I say to people, 'This is temporary. We're going through bad times,' " she says after the visit. She can do little except try to calm the elderly couple.

Rogova is one of a small but growing number of local activists trying to improve the status of women in postwar Kosovo, as the devastated province rebuilds. Unlike much of the rest of Europe, Kosovo is still a mainly rural, peasant society that places heavy burdens on women but gives them few rights and privileges. A decade of Serb oppression and two years of armed conflict only made conditions worse.

At the same time, Kosovar women see this is as a moment of opportunity. Since the Yugoslav Army withdrew last June after three months of NATO airstrikes, Kosovo has been under the administration of the United Nations and KFOR, the NATO-led protection force. The end of rule from Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, marked the beginning of a new order in the province, with the UN struggling to build a liberal democracy on the ruins of the old Communist system. Whether the new order will turn out any better is far from certain, but many women aspire to a greater role in it.

"There are so many things to do here, so many things to fight for!" exclaims Sevdie Ahmeti, director of the Center for the Protection of Women and Children, one of Kosovo's oldest and largest women's organizations. "I'm very optimistic. The younger generation has enough with suffering and pain. We have to energize them and proceed."

It's a big challenge. Jobs are scarce, especially among women, some of whom now find themselves in the unfamiliar role of breadwinner. Women's education has suffered, too. In recent years, many parents kept their daughters at home, worried for their safety but also feeling little need to educate girls. Meanwhile, domestic violence has increased, and Kosovo's feeble legal system can do little to curb it.

Kosovo is still largely a man's world, where men dominate both public and private life. Nowhere is this truer than in the countryside, where 60 percent of Kosovars live, many of them following a way of life that has all but disappeared in the rest of Europe. Here, the clan and the extended family remain the main units of social organization. Women are expected to stay at home, bear children - preferably sons - and obey.

And yet Kosovo also has many educated, professional women, including teachers, doctors, lawyers, and journalists. Women from this largely urban class are working to increase women's rights, to help girls catch up in school, and to teach women employable skills. Even villages produce exceptional women. Shpresa Shehu, a schoolteacher, helps run a women's center in Mala Krusa, where more than 100 men and boys died last spring, including one of her brothers.

"For me there is nothing, just to help people to start to live in normal conditions," says Ms. Shehu.

Kosovar women have a history of activism. Beginning 10 years ago, when Serb authorities fired ethnic Albanians from their jobs and shut them out of state institutions, women helped ethnic Albanian political leaders - mostly men - organize a parallel system of schools and health clinics. Some went further and started small projects that sought to teach women reproductive health, to protect them from violence, and in other ways improve their lives. It was guerrilla humanitarian work, and it took courage.

Rogova was one of them. In 1989, she was fired from her job as a foreign-film editor for state television. Together with her sister Safeta, an actress, she started an organization called Motrat Qiriazi (Sisters Qiriazi), named after two women who pioneered education for girls in Albania.

"In this way, we kept ourselves from getting depressed," Rogova recalls. "We thought that women, especially rural women, needed us. And we needed them, too.

In southern Kosovo she found women living "like 50 years ago." She started libraries, encouraged girls to go to high school, and helped set up health clinics.

Since then, Sisters Qiriazi has expanded to other parts of Kosovo. Rogova also spends time helping displaced women in Pristina, where she lives, bringing them food, blankets, yarn, and often a kind word.

Western organizations are trying to help too, funding centers where women can learn to sew, to use computers, or to speak English. They are setting up loan funds to help women start small businesses. The Kosovo Women's Initiative, with $10 million from the US government, is promoting organizational skills.

Elaine McKay, a consultant for the Women's Initiative, has also worked on behalf of women in South Africa and Southeast Asia. She says that Kosovar women lag behind their counterparts in such places. Moreover, she says, Kosovo's UN administration has until now "not shown more than a token interest in women."

But in some corners, the desire for change is powerful.

"I have this idea that is boiling in me," Rogova says, sitting in a popular cafe. "I can't wait to start - what do you call it? Cooperatives? Between village women, selling milk products, vegetable products, fruit products. They can do that. So many ideas I've got! I can't wait to go to a village and discuss them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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