A nation of just over 2 million people in the Balkan Peninsula in Southeastern Europe, Macedonia has experienced much turbulence since declaring independence from (the former) Yugoslavia in 1991 and a civil war in 2001. Now, nearly a decade later, the country seeks membership in the European Union, faces the growing influence of religious groups, and struggles with the economic crisis that has wreaked havoc worldwide. Gjuner Nebiu of Antico, a women’s civic initiative and interethnic network of leaders from the NGO movement in Macedonia, discusses how women are faring there today.
AWID: What are some of the most urgent issues facing women in Macedonia today?
GN: The majority of women in Macedonia do not have same rights, opportunities and responsibilities as men.
Women in Macedonia face issues that are deeply rooted in the traditional, patriarchal values and gender roles in the family and in the society. Lately, their unequal position at home is has been strengthened by the growing the influence of religion and the long, difficult transition process. Value systems are changing for the worse, and the bad economy compounds gender discrimination.
The current government is closer to religious circles and, in a subtle way, is trying to promote religious values, including incorporating them into the educational system. Given that many religious interpretations, position of women as inferior, this will mean stagnation and regression achieving gender equality.
Another factor, which in principle should be positive, is the process of integration into the European Union (EU). The EU is “encouraging“ the Macedonian government to invest in gender mainstreaming, but without following and sufficiently supporting the process of real implementation. This gives people the perception that gender equality is being achieved, but it is actually weakening the power and the impact of women’s movement in Macedonia. In theory, strategies, national plans and programs for gender mainstreaming are well formulated but not well implemented because there is not adequate public awareness, political will or professional capacity to do so.
Also, in Macedonia, feminism is interpreted as harmful and the word and the ideas behind it generally still have a negative connotation among many people.
AWID: Are some of the issues faced by women more acute for ethnic minority women and for women living in rural areas?
GN: Official statistics do not differentiate based on ethnicity – an indicator of the multiple forms of discrimination and marginalization ethnic minority women face. Analysis from civil society organizations shows that Roma women and ethnic minority women living in rural environments face discrimination in housing, access to resources (including education, health care services, especially reproductive health services), lack of social programs and unequal representation in public and political life. Moreover, they experience high rates of domestic violence and many situations of unpaid and exploitative labor.
AWID: Is violence against women largely prevalent in Macedonia? What about trafficking?
GN: According to research, one out of every four women in Macedonia has experienced domestic violence, although this number is higher in reality.
Trafficking of women surged during the 1990s and is still prevalent. At that time, most of those trafficked were from foreign, poor countries and neighboring countries in transition. Currently, the largest percentages are from Macedonia.
AWID: Macedonia has an exemplary reputation in terms of respecting the rights of ethnic minority communities. Is this consistent with your experience?
GN: Macedonia is multiethnic country where a large number of ethnic groups, including Roma, Albanian, Serbian and Turkish communities, have been living next to each other for centuries. Yet, even today, there is very little interaction or understanding of each other. Among the ethnic groups, especially among youth, there exists a high level of prejudices and stereotypes. In all important segments of social, public and political life, organizations and work environments are segregated based on ethnicity, with very few instances of integration.
AWID: Can you tell us about women’s roles in peace promotion in Macedonia?
GN: Women have been playing very important roles in building peace in their communities through three important periods: pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict. In each of these periods, the women’s movement exerted strong pressure over relevant institutions and circles in national as well as in international level.
Since before the conflict, women have been trying to solve problems in peaceful way, including through appeals to national and international institutions and creating safe multiethnic spaces for dialogue and organizing public debates.
During the conflict period, women were heavily involved in the humanitarian aid, offering psychosocial support to women and children from conflict zones. We raised questions about the connections between nationalism, militarization and war and challenged policymakers to think about what security actually means.
In the post-conflict period, we worked hard to create mutual and secure spaces for different groups to come together, repair trust, and build cooperation.
Unfortunately, although women were deeply engaged and made many contributions, in most of the cases, we didn’t succeed in achieving the expected results. We didn’t have decision-making power at a societal level and our knowledge, skills and experience were not taken into consideration during the preparation of the Ohrid Peace Agreement, which ended the armed conflict and laid the groundwork for improving the rights of minority communities.
AWID: Is women’s participation in politics and legislative reform important?
GN: We need women to participate in order to make changes in politics. As more and more women participate, they break down existing prejudices and stereotypes and prove their competence and skill in the political arena. Lately, though, we are seeing a disturbing trend that women in power aren’t supporting and collaborating with each other and aren’t raising “women’s issues.” We need their influence in drafting and implementation of solid legislation.
AWID: How are women faring economically?
GN: The economic status of women has improved very little since the conflict, and, in some segments of the population, is even worse than before. Generally, women have good rates of educational attainment but there are not enough jobs for them. In urban areas, more women than men graduate from high school, university and with masters and doctoral degrees. Over half the employees in the education sector are women. However, in order to secure income, women often accept any job with any level of income in the “black market,” in which they become potential victims of different forms of discrimination and exploitation.
The situation is much worse for rural women and ethnic minority women. 85% of them are unemployed or are working in seasonal jobs in the informal economy or for their families as unpaid laborers.
AWID: How strong is the women’s movement in Macedonia? Are young people given opportunities to participate and take leadership positions?
GN: Women’s organizations were among the first civil society organizations to be founded. They’ve had a significant impact in the NGO sector, however their power and impact is decreasing because of the lack of financial resources and withdrawal of the donors.
Also, at the moment, very few women are joining the women’s movement because they do not have financial security, are busy and frustrated with the unemployment situation, and are not motivated to take part.
Generally, many women in Macedonia have a low level of awareness for the real position of women in the society, although some do join movements for youth rights. Women’s NGOs need to do more to attract young people and give them opportunities for involvement.
AWID: Macedonia seems to be increasing its infrastructure for communications, including the internet. Do women’s groups there see communications and media as ways to reach people?
GN: Currently, about 40% of households and 80% of public sector organizations have access to the internet.
The internet is one of the most widely used forms of communication by women’s rights groups, including to collaborate with the media in highlight women’s issues. For example, during Antico’s recent international conference in Macedonia on Peace and Security, the media helped highlight the ideas of feminism and raised visibility of topics discussed at the conference – ultimately, the media helped publicize our analysis and bring people to our movement.