Celebrating only five years of independence and following recent fanfare surrounding its struggle to achieve recognition by 100 members of the United Nations, Kosovo may not necessarily be the first country that comes to mind in contemporary discussions of women in diplomatic leadership. Often characterized in terms of its one-way relationship (or lack thereof) with neighboring Serbia, the country has much more to offer than its anecdotal history of ethnic conflict would suggest—specifically in lessons of development as a post-conflict nation in the often overlooked regions of southeastern Europe.
At the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Director of the Center's Women in Public Service Project Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis welcomed four female delegates from Kosovo to discuss the changing role and impact of women at the helm of lawmaking in their country. Panelists included Senior Legal Officer at Kosovo's Ministry of Justice Venera Kabashi; Council Member for the Capital Municipality of Prishtina Meliza Haradinaj; UN Populations Fund Project Coordinator Linda Abazi-Morina; and Chief of Cabinet for Kosovo's Deputy Prime Minister as well as Minister of Local Government Administration Blerta Miftari.
Kosovo does have an impressive track record of advancing women to positions at the leading edge of domestic and international policy initiatives. President Atifete Jahjaga was elected in April 2011 by members of the Parliament as Kosovo's first female, and the youngest ever, Head of State. Jahjaga previously served as Deputy Director of the Kosovo Police, holding rank as Major General. She finds herself among only a handful of female leaders at comparable levels of decision-making power in the region. Kosovo's President symbolizes what panelist Venera Kabashi called a “mentality change” in their society that “countries in transition” are in need of, and which Kosovo so far seems to be modeling quite well.
The panelists each individually spoke on an issue among the many facing themselves and their fellow countrywomen, elaborating on modern conditions and the associated regulations in place or in the process of being altered. These areas included affirmative action and quotas for female political representation, advancing women in local governments as Mayors, addressing violence against women in private as well as public spheres, and the rise of women in diplomacy across disciplinary fields. Underlying the logistics of their presentations though was a message that surfaced repeatedly throughout the talk: that rhetoric does not give rise to action.
Panelists lauded the country's “highly advanced legislative framework” with a 30 percent quota for female members of all political parties, but acknowledged “advantages and gaps” in the system, endorsing the ultimate goal of changing attitudes towards women in such a way that at some point quotas will no longer be necessary. Even with its flaws the quota system produces material results, with compliance by a majority of municipalities—a shortcoming apparent in other points of the discussion.
Blerta Miftari spoke on the difficulties of enforcing the 2004 Law for Gender Equality adopted under the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The law aims to establish equal participation for women and men in local governments by designating those administrations themselves to organize institutions and activities that tackle inequality between the sexes, intended to lead naturally to equality in political representation. However there is no federal budget allocated to gender equality measures, so local governments are responsible for determining their own budgets. At first this placement of responsibility seems reasonable, but Miftari pointed out that only 23 out of 37 municipalities have elected an official for gender equality; those presently in charge of the budget for much of the country have no engagement with the issues for which they are planning alleviative measures. How can they be expected to enforce them?
Linda Abazi-Morina of the UN Populations Fund discussed domestic violence and policies aimed at better addressing the issue, touching on the basic but important problem of defining the term. Previously, Kosovo law recognized domestic violence as any such behavior between a cohabitant couple, only recently expanding the definition to cover violence against the elderly, children, and those with disabilities. Abazi-Morina echoed Miftari in pointing to budget issues as a major constraint on improving life situations of those subjected to violence, but happily shared an increase in shelters and investigation rooms equipped to comfort victims and, if present, their children. These measures are changing the culture surrounding the sensitive issue, allowing for a more appropriate treatment of victims in relation their perpetrators and creating a society that won't accept the behavior as routine.
Representative Haradinaj echoed her colleagues in reaffirming the importance of having living laws instead of meaningless statutes, calling for the “voluntary implementation of principles of gender equality” as necessarily preceded by a change in sociocultural mentality shift. As Kabashi mentioned at the beginning of the talk, laws can hasten the speed of this shift, building channels for success and producing role models—not just for aspiring female youth in Kosovo, but for their families as well. Kabashi noted a recent study citing an indirect symbolic impact that females in leadership positions can have for fathers with daughters: when fathers see females elected to leadership positions in their country, they want their daughters to achieve the same.
Without a place at the decision-making table for women, half of the population is robbed of a voice. This phenomenon is a human rights issue, not a gender role misunderstanding; value changes that go beyond writing laws will cement generation-spanning change. Kosovo's female population is poised to help continue to close the already-waning gap in equality between women and men. Their male colleagues' willingness to carry their weight in the struggle will determine its success.