Women’s Empowerment in Transition Economies: How Has the Role of Women Changed Since the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia?

Last Friday, we celebrated the women in our lives for International Women’s Day and credited the women around us for both their role in our own personal development and global economic development. The growth in global celebrations of this day is a fantastic testament to the steps we are making towards SDG #5: Gender Equality, and our process towards a more equal world. Women are the backbone of society, building communities, and raising the next generation of world changers leaders. Women are also multi-faceted beings, whose empowerment is pivotal in poverty reduction, community development and alleviating worldwide social and economic disparities. However, across the world still, women are systematically denied their human rights based upon their gender, giving them less decision-making power, restricted access to resources and basic services, such as money, protection from violence, healthcare and education. Women in transition economies, such as former-Yugoslav states and former-USSR states, are still disadvantaged in their day-to-day life based upon their gender, with very little relief funding aiding empowerment projects due to differing global priorities.

Following the collapse of the communist regimes in the 1990s, women’s empowerment programmes began to spring up everywhere in the region, aiming to increase women’s autonomy and political power. However, nearly thirty years on, these programmes have failed and faltered, with little continued support in empowering women’s rights and alleviating poverty. Due to this, inequality has grown in the region, poverty levels are still higher than anticipated, unemployment is rife and gender-based violence is still a common occurrence. We assume that when countries transition to more capitalistic models and enter our ‘Western-ideals’, that poverty will reduce, inequality will reduce, and women will partake more in the global economy. Whilst there has been some progress, with Croatia boasting a female President and Serbia a female Prime Minister, Eastern European and Central Asian women are still neglected in the global fight for women’s empowerment. In order for the Western Balkans to ascend to the EU, gender equality must be a vocal policy point to meet the outlined criteria, with Serbia and Montenegro both active candidates for ascension. To comprehend how exactly women have been empowered in these regions in the past thirty years, we can look at labour force participation and education attainment as vital signifiers of empowerment.

One of the leading EU priorities in enabling the ascension of the Western Balkans into the EU is the guarantees of women’s economic and social rights. Whilst the EU average employment rate for females is 65.3%, the highest female employment rate in the Western Balkans is 55%, in Albania (Lilyanova, 2018). On the other end of the spectrum, the ladies of Kosovo have only 14.6% employment rate and those from BiH have an employment rate of 32%. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung identifies the key challenges in the region are predominantly based in the labour market, with labour market insecurity for females, an increasing share of unpaid care work, gender pay and pension gaps widening as well as uneven job progress and sexual harassment and violence (Lilyanova, 2017). Women in the Western Balkans are more likely to see a wage gap in the private sector, which could be why more women are employed in the public sector in most Balkan countries. Women also do a significantly higher share of unpaid labour, such as raising children, running the household and maintaining the community, which keeps women out of the workplace. With lack of access to childcare and elderly care due to lack of financial support, this keeps women in a weaker economic position in men than women, with which can only change with either increased public spending on child and elderly care, or cultural attitudes change towards men undertaking more unpaid labour in the household (Batkovic, 2013). However, there is much hope for the next few years, with many civic groups and feminist uprising advocating and encouraging change in their local communities.

Similarly, women in former-USSR states are also protesting for change, with Marianna Grigoryan stating that “slowly, change is coming” (Grigoryan, 2015). According to the ILO, one of the main countries where women’s pay differs from what would be is expected in Russia, with women earning approximately 32.8% less than men. When considering factors that may affect this, such as education, experience and job role, they should make 11.1% more, which has led to a female labour force participation rate of 56.64%, in comparison to that of 59.28% in 1990. Women in former Soviet states also receive fewer child benefits than those in Europe, meaning they both take on a higher share of unpaid household labour than their partner, earn significantly less than their partner and are poorly compensated by the state for doing so. In Tajikistan, women’s rights are written into the constitution in a way that demonstrates ‘western values’ on paper, yet realistically these rules are scarcely applied, with a women’s rights predominantly depending on her social status (Lillis, 2015). In contrast in Georgia, women are predominantly the household’s sole breadwinner, yet men remain in decision-making roles outside their home.

According to DFID’s 2017 Report on the Western Balkans, the biggest challenge towards achieving gender equality is shifting mentalities in the community regarding traditional gender roles. Across the Balkans, women are more likely to leave education early than men, in comparison to the EU average of 12.2% of men leaving education earlier compared to 9.6% of females. Whilst there are many theories surrounding this, the leading ideologies surrounding this are due to child marriage/ pregnancy, taking up unpaid labour in the home or taking up low-paid work in the community. Serbia is the only Western Balkan state which reported women has having a higher rate of education attainment rate, with every other state having a higher male education attainment rate. Serbia has seen a significant rise in women graduating from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines, with 18.9% of every 1,000 female inhabitants graduating from STEM fields in 2016 – higher than the EU average. Females from ethnic minority groups, such as Roma groups, had the lowest education attainment of all young people in the region – due to both cultural attitudes towards educating females and ethnic discrimination in schooling. Boys are more likely to be privately educated than females in the region, demonstrating a higher monetary value placed on a boy’s education than girls. However, this is slowly changing, with Kosovan females slowly catching up to their male counterparts in the battle for private education.

Interestingly, the Soviet Union had a much better record of training women in STEM than developed countries such as the US have today (Lillis, 2015). The Soviet Union placed significant importance on the education of its citizen, which has shown a remarkable decline since the collapse of the communist regime. In the -stan countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, women’s education has significantly dropped on the political agenda due to the revival of conservative norms, leaving women in the home and men in the workplace (Turdieva & Hellborg, 2016). Rather than attending classes, women are expected to take care of the household, whilst men predominantly migrate to Russia in pursuit of work. Rising poverty levels have also reduced educational opportunities for girls, with a rise in protectionism from international trade further heightening the negative implications of poverty on girls. A lack of urbanisation in these states has also led to a decline in the provision of education to girls from rural communities, making travelling to and from school more and more expensive. Due to these constraints, families prioritize their son’s education over females, due to the idea that women are ‘temporary’ members of the family until marriage when they live with their husband’s family.

Whilst we often assume that the developed, middle to high-income countries surrounding us are on the forefront of women’s empowerment due to our own assumptions based upon our lived experience, it’s somewhat sad to see the opposite. Fly 3-4 hours outside of the UK, and a women’s access to education and paid employment seems to drop by the minute. When we talk about countries that struggle with female empowerment, at the forefront of our mind are those ‘developing’ countries based in Sub-Saharan Africa. We don’t tend to think of countries such as Montenegro or Georgia as having these issues, due to a lack of representation of these problems in the news. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, with many female campaigners and activists within these regions slowly but surely making positive changes for females in their regions. So, for this IWD, and the next ones to follow, I’ll be celebrating those women at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights in the countries surrounding me, near and far. I’ll be advocating for genuinely empowering programmes for these women, and not just service-skills training programmes set to help women make a few pounds here or there. We need to stop making women beacons of victimhood, and instead, empower them to help develop their community in a way which suits them, empowers them, and doesn’t just appeal to our western ideals of empowerment.

Works Cited
Batkovic, Z., 2013. BALKANS Evidence of Change in Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, Geneva: CARE International.
Grigoryan, M., 2015. Slowly, Change is Coming: Life for Women in the Post-Soviet World. The Guardian, 08 04.
Lillis, J., 2015. ‘We Want a Voice’: Women Fight For Their Rights in the Former-USSR. The Guardian, 08 04.
Lilyanova, V., 2017. Rights and Empowerment of Women in Western Balkans, s.l.: European Parliament.
Lilyanova, V., 2018. Women in the Western Balkans, s.l.: European Parliamentary Research Service.
Turdieva, Z. & Hellborg, M., 2016. Losing Out: Barriers to Girls’ Education in Tajikistan, s.l.: Institute for Security & Development Policy.

Published by Development Perspectives Ireland

Ten Years of Independence: All about Kosovo and the challenges to come

The Republic of Kosovo is a disputed territory and partially-recognised state in South-east Europe that declared independence from Serbia on the 17th February 2008. Kosovo has been conquered by the Byzantine, Bulgarian and Serbian Empires, part of the Ottoman Empire and then more recently, part of Yugoslavia. Its long history has led to confusion over borders, questions of its legitimacy, and an array of languages and cultures muddled up into one small land-locked country. Much like Wales, it has spent much of its history fighting for its autonomy and rights, and much like Wales, has come out a success story. But just who exactly is Kosovo, and why is it deemed Europe’s youngest and fastest growing economy?

kosovo 1

Kosovo is an Albanian majority country, with 93% of the population identifying as Albanian. Minority groups consist of Serbs (predominantly in the North, Montenegrins, Romani, Bosniaks, Croats and Turks. During the 1999 Kosovo War, over 70,000 ethnic Albanians, 10,000 ethnic Serbs and 7,000 ethnic Bosniaks were forced out to neighbouring countries. Many of the ethnic Albanians returned following the United Nations taking over administration of Kosovo after the war. The main languages are Albanian and Serbian, with Bosnian also an increasingly popular language. It considers itself a secular country, in which the two main religions are Christianity and Islam. Kosovo has had a dark history, and still today faces many socioeconomic and political issues.

Kosovo is a transition lower-middle income economy, having seen solid economic growth in the past decade and being one of only four countries in Europe to experience growth in every year since the 2008 financial crisis. Kosovo’s growth model is heavily reliant on remittances to fuel domestic consumption, particularly due to the extremely low average monthly wage (€304) and lack of employment opportunities. In recent years, Kosovo has received an influx of foreign direct investment, seen developments in its financial and technological sectors, and increased exports significantly. Kosovo’s main exporting partners are Italy, Albania, Macedonia, Switzerland, Montenegro and Germany, and its key exports are metals, mineral products, textiles, packaged foods, plastic and rubber. In more recent years, the wine production in Kosovo has grown and has started to be traded with Germany and the US, as well as smaller countries within the region.

A Brief History of Kosovo

1st Century ADRomans gain control of the area, populated by Dardani people. 
6th CenturySlavs begin to settle in the area, which slips from Roman/Byzantine control and becomes a disputed border. 
12th CenturySerbia gains control of Kosovo – which becomes the heart of the Serbian empire, seeing the construction of many Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries. 
1389Battle of Kosovo leads to 500 years of Turkish Ottoman rule. 
1912Balkan Wars lead to Serbia regaining control of Kosovo from the Turks. 
1946Kosovo is absorbed into the Yugoslav Federation. 
1974Yugoslav constitution recognises the autonomous status of Kosovo, giving the province de facto self-government. 
1990Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic strips Kosovo of its autonomy and imposes Serbian administration, prompting Albanian protests. 
1991Start of the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. Kosovar Albanians launch passive resistance movement but fail to secure independence. 
1996The rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) start attacking Serbian authorities in Kosovo, which see’s retaliation in form of a Serbian crackdown.
1999NATO implements a 78-day air campaign on Serbia due to international effort failing to stop the Kosovo conflict. Yugoslav and Serbian forces respond with ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians. Following a peace agreement, Yugoslav and Serbian forces withdraw from Kosovo and a UN sponsored administration take over. 
2008Kosovo unilaterally declares independence. 
2012Group of countries overseeing Kosovo since 2008 end its supervisory roles, but NATO-led peacekeepers and EU rule-of-law monitors remain. 
2013Kosovo and Serbia reach landmark agreement on normalising relations which grants high degree of autonomy to Serb-majority areas in the North, with both sides agreeing not to block each other’s efforts to seek EU membership. 

Transparency International ranks Kosovo as one of the worst countries in Europe for corruption perception, significantly lower than many developing countries. There is much dissatisfaction with the war-time politicians still in power in Kosovo, due to many unresolved allegations of war crimes and abuse. Tensions with Serbia are still rife, with the occasional conflict arising in the North, particularly in Mitrovica, a melting point of cultures divided by the New Bridge over the Ibar river.

A 2016 estimate predicted that Kosovo has a population of 1.816 million people, in which roughly half are under the age of 25, according to the UNDP. Youth unemployment reaches a global low, with over 60% of young people unemployed. Education attainment is low, and most young people attend mono-ethnic classes in which all staff and students belong to the same ethnic group. The Kosovan economy generates only half the required jobs to keep up with the amount of young people entering the work force – and with poor education standards, low education attainment and segregated schools, young unemployment only seeks to grow until the Kosovan government and policy makers implement change.

Roughly 190,000 Kosovans are thought to have left Kosovo since its independence declaration in 2008. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovans left prior to this, seeking refugee due to the Kosovo War and the following unstable and corrupt political climate, with many seeking refuge in Germany and Switzerland. 50% of Kosovo’s youth stating intention to emigrate if the strict and unpopular EU visa regime changed. Migrants send money back to their family in Kosovo, in which these remittances account for approximately 15.6% of total GDP – one of the most remittance dependent countries in the world. Whilst remittances benefit the recipient due to the increase in disposable income, they further inequality due to their inflationary impact on the local economy, and their use for luxury consumption as opposed to infrastructural investment. Many migrants frequently return to Kosovo, and express dissatisfaction with the current state of the country due to the high rates of corruption and lack of representation for the Diaspora. The purpose of the establishment of the Ministry of Diaspora in 2011 was to research the causes of migration, and to represent the interests of expatriates as well as to offer representation for them to directly influence government affairs.

Whilst we celebrate ten years of Kosovo, and its booming growth in the face of 2008 and its ongoing fight for international recognition, there are still many issues that need facing. Although the main battles are over, the war is not yet finished and with the help of international organisations and development funds, its wholly possible for Kosovo to come out as a beacon of hope from the ashes of former Yugoslavia. For such a young economy, we need to aid in developing employability skills in the youth, matching jobs to seekers, and aiding ascension into the EU to enable the youth of Kosovo to access an international network of employment and education opportunities. We need to hold those accused of war crimes accountable and aid the government in reducing corruption and increasing transparency for its country. Finally, we need to connect the Diaspora, to develop a network that aids Kosovo in its development in more ways than foreign aid ever could – through the transfer of finance, skills, culture, education and political power.

Published with the WCIA Voices.