Advancement of women rights still remains an important but challenging issue in Western Balkan countries including Kosovo. While the country is still undergoing post-conflict transformation, the urge for gender equality and women empowerment is high. Women in Kosovo face different challenges including: gender based violence, political participation, employment, stigmatisation of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. UN Women have worked in Kosovo since 1999 to foster gender equality and women’s empowerment, as well as to make gender equality central to the work of other UN agencies in Kosovo.

This interview with the Head of Office of UN Women Kosovo, Vlora Nushi, will provide an overview of the evolution of women’s rights in Kosovo.

1. How have women rights in Kosovo evolved in the last 20 years?

It is certain that women’s rights in Kosovo have evolved a lot in the last twenty years. However, unfortunately, as everywhere in the world, women still do not enjoy their full rights and freedoms. Having said that, I would like to highlight that there has been progress in numerous areas.

In terms of Legal Framework, gender equality is defined as a fundamental constitutional right by the Constitution of Kosovo. Kosovo has also signed many important and binding international documents, which guarantee gender equality and prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender. Moreover, Kosovo has made progress by defining all acts of domestic violence, in alignment with the Istanbul Convention.

In terms of conflict related sexual violence, as of March 2014, the survivors of sexual violence gained legal recognition. Following this, UN Women supported the establishment of the Government Commission to Recognize and Verify Survivors of Sexual Violence during the conflict. The new decision identifies and gives survivors the official status as civilian victims, making them eligible for reparations, including financial assistance in the form of monthly pensions.

In terms of gender representation in the political processes, in Kosovo a 30% gender quota is applied as set out in the Law on General Elections and Law on Local Elections.

In the last few years, we can see some progress, as women’s representation has increased in all policy-making institutions. Furthermore, Kosovo has had women as President and President of the Assembly. As women’s political representation still remains a challenge, we as UN Women have supported the Women’s Caucus in Parliament, in developing a new three-year strategic action plan. The  goal is to increase the number of young women involved in leadership, peace-building, and politics.

2. Then, which areas still need progress?

The economic empowerment of women still remains an area that needs progress,  as officially only 13% of all women are employed, compared to 47% of men. A key factor contributing to women’s low labour force participation is unpaid care work, which has only increased during the current pandemic. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, gender discrimination, persistent wage gaps and limited opportunities for career advancement.

Domestic violence is another area that still remains widespread in Kosovo, beside the significant improvement in the reporting of domestic violence cases. According to the Kosovo Police, in 2020 there has been a significant increase in domestic violence. Tackling domestic violence is difficult as it is underreported due to the stigma attached to it. This type of violence has become even more invisible during the pandemic, as women are trapped in their homes with their abusers, being unable to reach out for help, especially in rural areas.

Traditional views on gender roles have left women in Kosovo under-represented in decision-making at all levels. Beside the calls for full and equal participation of women in peace processes, the Pristina – Belgrade dialogue has remained mainly a gender blind process. Women’s participation in the negotiation, peace and reconciliation processes is also among the main objectives of Kosovo Program for Gender Equality 2020-2024.

3. In which areas is the work of UN Women Kosovo focused more? 

In recent years, UN Women in Kosovo has supported activities and programmes that focus on ending violence against women, and advancing the women, peace and security agenda. Furthermore, we have also promoted women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution, as well as in decision-making processes, and women’s access to justice.

In the framework of preventing gender-based violence and domestic violence, UN Women Kosovo is part of the European Union-funded regional programme ‘Implementing Norms, Changing Minds’, which aims to end gender-based discrimination and violence against women in the Western Balkans and Turkey. Latest major achievements contain: The revision of the Criminal Code, in alignment with the Istanbul Convention; The establishment of an integrated and unified database for cases enabling the monitoring and prosecution of domestic violence cases in Kosovo; The establishment of Municipal Domestic Violence Coordination Mechanisms helped inter-ethnic dialogue between North and South municipalities through working on eliminating violence against women. In addition, UN Women Kosovo plays a vital role during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign by raising awareness on the issue through different events, activities, statements and advocacy letters.

Furthermore, UN Women is engaged in gender-sensitive transitional justice through different projects by aiming to contribute to a more just and stable society by prioritizing victims and taking into account the different needs of conflict-affected populations.

UN Women supports the Regional Women’s Lobby for Peace, Security and Justice in Southeast Europe (RWLSEE), which is a regional women’s peacebuilding and mediation organization. Its mission is to advocate and lobby for gender equality and women empowerment in decision making, peace, security and justice processes, while advancing processes of peace building, democratization, justice and reconciliation in the region.

Under the joint initiative of UN Women, UNDP-UNV and UNICEF, there is a project taking place/in progress called ‘Empowering Youth for a Peaceful, Prosperous, and Sustainable Future in Kosovo’.

The project directly engages young women and men from communities divided by conflict, to work together on issues of shared interest and concern. The goal is for youth to become more active change makers, hence fostering peace and trust-building efforts in Kosovo.

4. Isolation because of COVID-19 raised the cases of domestic violence all over the world, including Kosovo. What strategy or measures have you applied in terms of addressing this issue?

Let me start by saying that by now we know that COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health issue, but it is a profound shock to our societies and economies, and women are at the heart of care and response efforts underway. For this reason, together with UNDP and UNFPA, we have conducted a Rapid Assessment – nationwide survey to assess the social and economic impact of COVID-19 on women’s and men’s lives and livelihoods. At the same time, we have provided technical expertise to the government to ensure that any response plan on COVID 19 is also gender responsive.

Kosovo introduced various restrictive measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a lockdown period between the 12th of March and 31st of May. As the protective measures were implemented, we witnessed a worrying increase of domestic violence in Kosovo as well. From the beginning of the pandemic as UN Women we have been in regular contact with the Kosovo Police to monitor the situation. Aiming to raise awareness and call for reporting of cases of Domestic Violence in the first weeks of isolation measures, UN Women launched a major awareness raising campaign “Report Violence, Save Lives” which included video messages in three languages from main political and civil society figures. Furthermore, we have regularly contacted women’s organizations, shelters and other service providers to ensure that they remain functional. Through a joint UN Kosovo Team effort, shelters have been provided with supplies such as food and hygienic kits for 550 domestic violence survivors in the shelters . Shelters have received technical equipment ensuring that the attendance of online learning classes by children in the shelters was not disrupted.