What it means to be a woman and a survivor of war in Kosovo

What it means to be a woman and a survivor of war in Kosovo

Social stigma, spotty enforcement of inheritance laws, and inconsistent government policies have all made things harder for female survivors of war in Kosovo, when what they’ve needed is help to heal.

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By Hana Marku

The village of Krusha e Vogel is tucked away in the south western part of Kosovo, and was the scene of one of the worst massacres of the Kosovo war. In March 1999, the Serbian military rounded up its inhabitants. The women and children were told to go to Albania or be killed. Nearly all of the men were executed. After the war, the women returned to find their male family members dead and their village razed to the ground.

With great difficulty, the women rebuilt the village and learned how to do the agricultural work previously done by their men. In a country where less than 10 percent of women are the heads of their families, these women support their dependants and run their own affairs. No perpetrators of the massacre have been brought to justice.

Imagine how these women must have felt in August this year, when a forensic team staffed by the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, and Kosovo’s Department of Forensic Medicine showed up to the village unannounced and started digging up the graves of three family members killed during the war. The bodies had been misidentified, and the forensic team brought the allegedly accurate remains with them, without asking for permission to replace the remains in the first place.

‘Prishtina Wake Up!’ graffiti in Kosovo’s capital. Photo: Agron Istrefi via Flickr.

When the inhabitants of the village tried to stop the forensic team from exhuming the graves, yellow police tape was put around the graves and they were forbidden from approaching. The Kosova Women’s Network, an NGO, sent a public letter directed to EULEX, detailing the incident, and how the needs and concerns of the women of the village were completely ignored. The head of the mission, Gabriele Meucci, responded nine days later with a lukewarm letter of apology addressed to the Kosova Women’s Network, instead of the women themselves.

Women who lost immediate family members in the war carry an especially heavy burden because of their gender. Being a woman in Kosovo means you’re less likely to be employed. A recent study by the Kosovo-based think tank Democracy for Development revealed that only 1 in 10 women are employed in Kosovo. The gender employment gap in Kosovo, 40 percent, is the greatest in the region. The same study found that women for the most part are economically inactive, due in part to the belief that domestic responsibilities are the proper realm of women.

>Being a woman in Kosovo also means you most likely will not inherit any family wealth or property. The cultural expectation is that women will relinquish their claims in favour of the male members of their family, and in the vast majority of cases this is what happens. In the village of Krusha e Vogel, only one woman owns her property outright. The houses inhabited by most of the widows have been signed over to their husband’s relatives. These factors may explain why households led by women in Kosovo tend to have higher rates of poverty than their male counterparts (39.8% as opposed to 29%, according to a report sponsored by Kosovo’s Agency for Gender Equality).

All this means that if a woman in Kosovo has lost her husband to war and doesn’t have a job or family support, her reliance on the state’s flimsy welfare system can also mean a life of poverty. Women whose spouses were killed or went missing as civilians during the war receive a monthly welfare payment of 135 euros per month.

Free education, free healthcare within the public system, and priority in employment are guaranteed by Kosovo’s legislation on war victims. However, these benefits only apply to families of Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers who fought against Serb forces in the war. For most civilian victims of war, their monthly welfare payments are the only form of regular institutional support they get.

One study has shown that 96 percent of women widowed by war have experienced major depressive episodes and that for many widowed women, remarrying is not a socially acceptable option (in contrast to their male counterparts). Another study has shown that fear of community surveillance and gossip also keeps widowed women from participating fully in public life. In essence though, their needs are simple and within the scope of even Kosovo’s meagre social welfare system: gainful employment, dignified shelter and a guarantee that their children’s education will continue.

The government of Kosovo and EULEX have an obligation to abide by UN Resolution 1325, which calls for the active participation of women in the post-war peace process – this means, among other things, empowering women and girls touched by war. Looking at Kosovo today, it’s clear that this commitment hasn’t been fully met. The powerbrokers in this country are almost entirely men, and even when women leaders are in a position to make women’s voices heard, that doesn’t happen as a rule.

For example, former deputy prime minister Edita Tahiri was the head negotiator of the EU-brokered peace agreement between Kosovo and Serbia and is arguably one of the most powerful women politicians in Kosovo. After months of negotiations, the final agreement included no commitments on indictments for wartime rape cases.

Last summer, Tahiri began a petition calling for the UN to investigate cases of wartime rape in Kosovo. The petition received approximately 100,000 signatures by August 2014, and the public was told the petition would be sent to the UN by September 2014. Over a year later, the petition remains unsent, with no explanation from Tahiri’s end. Although a UN report on wartime rape in Kosovo would provide no guarantee of justice for the survivors, the Kosovo government failed at even this symbolic act.

Despite this, wartime rape may be the single issue affecting women in this country that has begun to receive adequate national attention. Kosovo has come a long way since 2013, when members of parliament argued against including wartime rape survivors in legislation that would entitle them to monthly welfare payments just like other war victims. The reasons ranged from constraints the amendment would place on the governmental budget, the impossibility of medically examining applicants to verify their claims, and fears that people who hadn’t been raped during the war would claim they had.

In March 2014, wartime rape survivors were included as a distinct category in Kosovo’s law on war victims. There are still no accurate figures for how many people were raped during the Kosovo war, though numbers range from the low thousands to 20,000. President Atifete Jahjaga has taken the lead on figuring out how to document and provide governmental support to wartime rape survivors through the new amendment.

Jahjaga formed the National Council on Wartime Rape Survivors, which has amongst its ranks representatives of NGOs that have closely worked with women throughout Kosovo – including wartime rape survivors. And strangely enough, it seems like their input has been reflected in the step-by-step ways the amendment will be rolled out. For example, wartime rape victims applying for the welfare payment guaranteed by the law will not be asked to provide witnesses.

On the first anniversary of the council’s creation in March, Jahjaga announced the creation of a five-year commission, which will be fully funded to document each claim. She placed an emphasis on rehabilitation for survivors, including employment, psychological support, health care services and access to justice – a holistic approach well beyond just a monthly welfare payment.

Jahjaga’s hands-on approach to the issue sets her apart from arguably every other president that came before her, and they are promising words indeed. But how easy will it be for women survivors to come forward in Kosovo’s villages and towns, where they face multiple social barriers, apart from the stigma of rape? What about other women affected by war, like the women of Krusha e Vogel, who don’t have a public figure like the president championing their cause?

One thing is certain: Kosovo needs to give its women a chance to heal, with dignity and without judgement.

Hana Marku is an editor and writer in Prishtina, Kosovo. Follow her on twitter @hanamarku.

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here.

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