Women Activists from the Western Balkans Fighting for Peace and Gender Equality

Women have taken on greater roles in peace and security sectors In the Western Balkans since the end of the Yugoslav wars, thanks to government sponsored national action plans. However, a conservative backlash against gender equality now risks undermining these gains. The dynamic in the Western Balkans presents the European Union (EU) and NATO with an opportunity to do more to support women’s empowerment in the region as part of their peacebuilding and accession policies. 

na women 2018

When women security experts from government and civil society from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo [as understood in compliance with UNSCR 1244], FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia were brought together by the Slovenian and Norwegian Foreign Ministries in Ljubljana on February 16  to discuss the successes and challenges they encountered in attempts to increase women’s roles in peace and security, they expressed deep frustration.

“Women’s rights and participation is now under threat throughout the region,” said Sonja Lokar, former director of the Central and Eastern European Network for Gender Issues (CEE Gender Network), at the event. “The role of women is decreasing in political parties, austerity is reducing availability of services to women, international funding for gender equality programming is drying up, national institutions worked in women’s issues are being undermined, and the implementation of 1325 National Action Plans (NAP) is not a priority,” she argued.  

These 1325 NAPs are based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, agreed upon by United Nations (UN) member states in 2000 at the twilight of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. During these wars, women faced years of forced displacement, torture, and sexual violence. The resolution emphasizes the need for basic protection of women’s rights in war and recognized that women can play significant roles in the prevention of wars, peace talks, conflict settlement, rehabilitation, and post-war governance. Bosnia-Herzegovina was the first country in the region to develop a national action plan to implement the resolution. Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and FYR Macedonia quickly followed.

The 1325 NAPs have led to the prioritization of recruiting more women to army and police forces, and paying greater attention to women’s security and needs. As Captain Sanja Pejovic, the highest ranking female officer in the Montenegrin Ministry of Defence described at the Ljubljana event: “The 1325 NAP helped ensure that women are encouraged to join the Montenegro armed forces. Two coordinators posts for gender issues were established, gender and women’s rights were included in pre-deployment training, high level officers were given instruction on gender issues, and the ministry applies gender sensitive language in all its documents.”  

Particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the 1325 NAPs also helped ensure that survivors of conflict-related sexual violence can obtain reparations.. Twenty years after the signature of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 2015, the first survivor of conflict related sexual violence obtained financial compensation through the court system from the accused, a soldier in the army of Republika Srpska. Legislation to provide financial compensation for survivors passed in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2006, in Kosovo in 2014, and in Croatia in 2015. In 2018, a commission in Kosovo will begin to consider applications from sexual violence survivors for financial compensation and other support.

Throughout the process of designing and implementing 1325 NAPs, female policy makers and activists from the Western Balkans have supported cross-border reconciliation, overcoming the ethnic distrust and hatred that characterized the war years and the nationalists politics that justified ethnic cleansing. For example, 1325 NAP implementation in Bosnia-Herzegovina forged ties between various ministries, local authorities, academia, and civil society despite the country’s deeply divided system of government and polarized society along ethnic lines. In addition, the agency leading NAP implementation in Bosnia Herzegovina crossed the border into Serbia to assist government and civil society in the southern city of Nis develop their own NAP.

However, creating effective conflict resolution and peacebuilding policies continues to be a challenge without more women at the negotiating table. In the Western Balkans, five peace agreements were signed during the past two decades. Edita Tahiri, former minister for dialogue from Kosovo, was one of the only women present at any of the talks. “Women are dramatically underrepresented in peace talks. Women have to be empowered to take part in peace processes. Women have different values then men regarding peace, and they have strategic capital that needs to be put up front,” she said at the Ljubljana summit. Looking back at her personal experience, she argued that in order “to see women in peace talks we need to empower women to succeed in political parties. So far women from civil society have been unable to gain access.”

Women in the western Balkans have steadily become more present in politics. Most countries have passed quotas for women’s participation in parliament. Women represent 28 percent of members of parliament (MPs) in Albania, 34.4 percent in Serbia, and 37.5 percent in FYR Macedonia. All of these numbers are higher percentages than have been achieved in many EU member states or in the United States, which sits at 19.4 percent

Progress is slow, but in female parliamentarians have taken steps to forming joint caucuses across party lines to multiply their influence on policy making. In government and parliament, women continue to work together to advocate that new policies addressing security threats are gender responsive, and that women can play leading roles in prevention and response efforts. 

However, alongside these gender equality efforts in the region, reactionary groups and activists have organized against any further “gender equality” gains. In February, the Bulgarian government, which currently holds the EU presidency, bowed to conservative pressure that claimed that “gender equality” would undermine family value and promote homosexuality. As a result, the government abandoned plans to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Slovakia quickly followed suit, also refusing the ratify the Convention. The battle over this piece of legislation has now moved to Croatia, where Prime Minister Andrej Plenković has vowed to see the Convention ratified, despite allegations from within his party that it will lead to the introduction of a third sex in Croatian legislation.

Women in the Western Balkans have worked to forge a path toward peace and women’s empowerment for over two decades, but they cannot tackle these challenges alone. “Our capacities are not great enough to push back on all these threats gender equality and women’s empowerment,” said Tahiri, adding: “Our struggle is not only a regional but also a global one.” She called for assistance from international institutions, saying, “we need our NATO and EU partners to set much clearer conditions for progress on women’s empowerment.”

However, thus far, neither regional organization has applied such measures. The much-heralded February 2018 EU Strategy for the Western Balkans makes no mention of women and the need to advance gender equality.

While looking for international support, women of the Western Balkans have also reached out to assist others in conflict situations by sharing their experiences. In the past year, women from the Croatian non-governmental organization Documenta: Center for Dealing with the Past have traveled to Ukraine to share technical skills on how to record and address war crimes in conflict. Tahiri worked with women from Donetsk and Lugansk on their roles in peace processes. Additionally, in Kosovo, women prepared an international petition for international justice for survivors of conflict related sexual violence with the aim of supporting survivors in conflict zones including Syria and Iraq.

There is a great need for solidarity and knowledge on how to best address gender violence in conflict. Female peace activists from the Western Balkans are a tremendous resource which remains largely untapped and under-utilized. The United States and EU should take note of their efforts and skills in defining their strategies and policies towards the region.

Sabine Freizer, is the adviser for Governance, Peace, and Security at the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia. You can follow her on Twitter @SabineFreizer. Any views or opinions presented in the text above are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of UN Women.

Image: Demonstrators play drums during a march under slogan "Death to fascism, freedom to the women" marking International Women's Day in Belgrade, Serbia, March 8, 2018. (REUTERS/Marko Djurica)