Western Balkan countries have some of the lowest female employment rates across Europe. According to a 2017 working paper for the International Monetary Fund, almost two-thirds of women in those countries are outside of the labour force or inactive, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina being the worst. Women sometimes suffer from lack of education which reduces their chances of finding a job. However, a high number of high-school and university-educated women also face difficulties in accessing the labour market, proving that other factors are keeping them back, such as traditional views of the place of women in society.
Alborita Mehana, 23, works for Girls Coding Kosova, an NGO based in Pristina and promoting the access to IT jobs for women. She went into computer sciences to prove that “girls can do it too”.
Anduena Sefgjini has been working as a journalist in Burrel’s local TV in Albania for more than 15 years, runs an art therapy-based organization for children and is involved in local politics. Yet, she has heard countlessly that this was not the place of a woman.
Lejla Čaušević-Sućeska is the expert advisor for international cooperation and information of the Union of independent syndicates of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She will “fight until her last breath” to defend the rights of women to access equality.
Balkanoscope: What did you want to do when you were a kid and what are you doing now?
Alborita Mehana: In primary school, I wanted to be an architect. But then I realized how everybody, on TV, for instance, was saying that girls were not capable of working in the IT sector. I wanted to challenge myself and to prove them wrong. After I graduated in computer sciences, I got a six-month internship in the post office in Mitrovica but it had nothing to do with computers and I knew if I accepted a job there afterwards, I would never have been able to evolve. So I was at home for almost a year, I trained online to fill my CV and I gave maths classes. Then a friend sent me a link to Techstitution, a project by Open Data Kosovo and Girls Coding Kosova. After that, I participated in the hackathon “Tech for Policy”. Then GCK offered me a job and now I am working on a project, “Code for Mitrovica”, to teach code to Albanian and Serbian women in my hometown.
Anduena Sefgjini: I was always watching the news on TV and dreaming of becoming a journalist. I started to write poetry and essays about women and women’s strength and I passed an audition when I was 15. I have been working on TV ever since. I also studied two years in art academy, two years in political sciences, I have a bachelor in psychology and I am studying now for a master. I still present the news, and I am the first woman video montage specialist in northern Albania! Since about a year ago, I am also involved in the local branch of a party promoting the rights of the Cham’s minority.
Lejla Čaušević-Sućeska: I wanted to become a diplomat but this option did not exist at the Faculty of Political Sciences so I decided to study journalism. My current job, which includes information, public relations and international cooperation proved to be the perfect blend of all of my interests. One could say that destiny brought me to this job. I was a member of the student union of the University of Sarajevo and we were fighting for a better position for the students and I got in touch with people who were then managing the youth section of the Union of independent trade unions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I started to work there and got an offer for a permanent position after I graduated.
Balkanoscope: How would you describe the idea of women’s place in your country?
AM: At home cooking dinner, married by twenty with children! Many women miss opportunities for themselves because of this pressure. I don’t feel it, but it is true that sometimes when relatives visit us, they tell me it’s time to find a husband and start a family. I tell them that I am only 23 and that I have time, to look at how women are living in other countries… I feel lucky for the support I received from my friends and my family, even though my mother would have preferred I became a doctor.
AS: It was very difficult to be a woman doing all those things and being alone among men. People looking at me had prejudices, they said mean things only because I was working with men. And the men I was working with thought I was here to clean and bring coffee. It is even harder for women in the provincial areas. Most of them stay at home because men want women to serve them. We have problems with men saying that as husbands, they are the one working and women should not, but then men stay in coffee places or gamble and are violent with their wives and they cannot say anything. In the province, prejudices kill women’s lives, they kill any chance or opportunity they might have because they have to stay at home.
LČS: Everyday we have cases of domestic violence or of assaults in the workplace. I think because of patriarchy those cases have always existed but were pushed under the carpet. Today the figures are terrifying. On the one hand, women are systematically placed in lower positions than men and their everyday life is very difficult. On the other hand, to my great joy, I know a lot of women who have proved that anything can be done if there is a will. The question is how much it is fair to ask for patience from a woman who works from morning to night, for a minimum wage and is constantly under threat of being fired while thinking about children she does not see all day and about taking care of the household. The situation of single mothers is particularly difficult, as it is not recognized by any law as a separate category. Social work services do not have the ability to force their fathers to pay for alimony. There are too many holes in the law that further complicate the everyday life of those women.
Balkanoscope: Public policies are undertaken by governments and pushed for by the civil sector and international pressure are not enough to regulate the accessibility of labour market for women. They often fail to address specific needs of women and help reconcile private life and working life and to fight stereotypes. Changes in the law do not always reach the family sphere. Family duties remain an important reason cited by women for staying inactive. Have you ever felt like it was harder to do what you do as a woman? Have you faced discriminations in your field?
AM: At university, you could see that some male friends had trained before, they were a step ahead of us. It was 60 students and only 10 women. So we worked harder to catch up. There was one teacher who was my favourite. I liked how he taught us coding and motivated us. But at the end of the class, we had to create an app and to show it. He told us: “It is impossible for a woman to do this by herself, I do not believe you did” and gave all the female students a bad grade. I will never forget that. Now while trying to discuss for instance with men in institutions, you can feel that they treat us differently, maybe they are jealous. I feel it in the way they talk to us, in their body language. They say it’s great to empower women and then we never see anything concrete support.
AS: I had to work so much more than them to earn my place. They were pressuring me to do always more and at the beginning, I thought they were right and I asked them: “Why do you keep me then?” When I had training in Tirana people encouraged me, but not the ones I was working with. At some point, I was crying in the toilets because I did not want them to see me. But I started to read books at home and I discovered that there were many women facing those difficulties and I said: “It’s not me who is worthless, it is them who cannot appreciate me”. I decided never to surrender, to stay and do everything I wanted, no matter the pressure.
LČS: As the youngest employee and what’s more as a woman, I saw very quickly that it would take a lot of efforts to be accepted by older colleagues, particularly by men holding some functions. The first ten years, I was actively participating all the activities of the Youth section, and I helped establish the Women forum in our union. At that moment I already had a very clear picture of how much harder it is for women to reach leadership positions or just to get the necessary dose of respect and appreciation from colleagues and superiors. It is unacceptable to me that someone would start in a lower position due to things one cannot influence such as gender, age, place of birth… The accelerated pace of life has posed an additional burden on women who want to be successful both in their private and professional lives. It is difficult for everybody to find a permanent position, but it is even harder for young women as a lot of employers avoid hiring them. This is most visible in the industry and service sectors but the situation is not better when it comes to “state work” because their women are doing the worst paid jobs while top management positions are traditionally reserved for the “stronger sex”.
Balkanoscope: Do you feel a change coming and that you are having an impact?
AM: Kosovo needs a lot of work, but I see more opportunities for women and we are really opening doors. I remember 35 year-old women form Pëja/Pec, married with two kids. She enrolled in our four-month-long program and her husband was driving her to Pristina for that! She was amazing. My friends and my family are proud of me and they keep being supportive. I would never give up what I have now just to obey the traditional codes of our society. If I had gotten married and had kids, I would not have taught our former president coding during “Hour of code”!
AS: I used to have a program about the lives of women in the region. Every time when I would walk home in the evening, I would hear people’s TV and my voice! When the show stopped, women asked me: “what are we going to watch now?” and men said they will finally control the remote again. Some women kissed my hands to thank me for my work and telling their stories, kids know me by my name and show me so much love even in the street. I received a lot of messages on Facebook and calls at my parents’ home. I am an example that women can do it all. Men’s first opinion is that a woman is to be a slave in the house. Now they see our power as I am here and I exist.
LČS: In the fifteen years I have been working at SSSBiH, a lot of young girls and women sat in front of me and presented me sometimes with very painful facts about the way they were treated in the workplace and in their lives. I always gladly helped, provided them with advice and counsel on who to talk to and how to write a complaint. When it comes to discriminations, a big part of the work was done by our legal team. We also organized aid collection campaign for those women, it was never a lot but it could help put a little smile on their sad faces. Unfortunately, my vision of our society is not a vision shared by me by most of my fellow countrymen. It is easier to swim along the water and let it carry you. Women need respect and equal opportunities, starting with education, employment, promotion in the workplace… Without a regulated system, this will not happen. And this means changes in the content of children’s learning in schools, the way we are educating children as parents, as well as the modification of penal provisions in the laws that will punish all forms of discrimination against women. System support should also be strengthened for women trying to prove that assault or discrimination has been committed against them.
Balkanoscope: Where do you see yourself in the future?
AM: I just started to work on my goals, I also want to become a software engineer. I hope to have the opportunity to go study for a master degree abroad and then to bring this new knowledge back to Kosovo. I would like to open a company or an organisation to teach people how to code. I want to share what I know. But not like my professor at university! I think we will be a better country in the future, but for now, we need to work hard.
AS: For New Year’s Eve people told me it was time to find a husband and have kids. But they also say I cannot be a housewife because I don’t know how to cook! I want to have a family, three boys to teach them to treat women better. But I will have a serious talk with my husband about my plans. I want to finish my master studies and expand my association of art therapy for children in the whole country. I also want to have a Youtube channel about women’s power and also anything about society and empowering people through psychology. My biggest dream is to write a book about women and to work as a therapist to change mentalities in our community.
LČS: As someone who is infinitely in love with this country, I never wanted to allow myself to think of leaving one day. Unfortunately, as the mother of two children, I increasingly think about the fact that for the three of us maybe we should try to find a better future far away from here. I would like the association I founded with my friends a year ago to start working at full capacity and to share all my knowledge and skills with young people. We need to restore faith in young people that honesty, effort and work are eventually rewarded. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a little “differently cut”. I will never give up the fight and I will never bow my head in front of any man, and until my last breath, I will publicly, clearly and loudly fight for my views. It is a hard path and many do not want to take it, for their own comfort, fear, ignorance or some other reason. I sincerely hope that Bosnian women get the place they deserve in our society. I believe that one day we will be able to proudly say that we as a society have responded to this task. Unfortunately, this will not happen so quickly, but it is important that we never give up.