The art installation Thinking Of You, by the Kosovan-born, London-based artist Alketa Mrripa-Xhafa, in Pristina, Kosova – 2015. Photograph: Hazir Reka/Reuters
This month, 20 years ago, the 1988-89 Kosovo war ended. It was a particularly brutal conflict that led to allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity, and the controversial involvement and bombings from NATO. During that war, 90 per cent of the population was displaced and some 20,000 women and girls were systematically raped - a crime that was used as a weapon of "ethnic cleansing."
In this predominantly traditional ethnic Albanian country, the rape’s stigma is so strong that many women have never talked about what happened to them during the war and never sought help. Some of their husbands have left them, unable to endure the shame.
Two decades later and despite years of international supervision that was supposed to bring gender equality, rates of sexual assault and domestic violence remain worryingly high. In a 2015 survey, 68% of women reported that they had suffered from domestic violence at one point in their lives.
In Europe’s newest country (which declared independence from Serbia in 2008), women struggle every day for social and economic equality in a rigid patriarchal society where men have the final say in all family matters and women are left with very limited access to education, health, property, protection and job opportunities. More than three quarters of women don’t have jobs - Kosovar women have the lowest employment rates and education levels in all Europe. Many have been widowed during the war and placed in the role of primary provider for their families, but without access to skills and resources, they are unable to make ends meet.
But many are fighting back. Some have formed associations that give women the tools and resources they need to rebuild their lives and their communities, while others have run for office. Others yet have launched small business, like Zarie Malsiu, from Kacanik municipality, a mother of five who married young and dropped out of school, like many young women at that time. After the war, she enrolled in a training for social and economic empowerment run by local NGO Kosova – Women for Women. She has formed her own agriculture association, collecting and selling medicinal and aromatic herbs and forest fruits. Her organization now counts 100 women. Kosova – Women for Women, a local independent organization affiliated to Women for Women International, has trained over 33,000 women in over 30 communities across the country, in life and vocational skills and rights awareness.
Women have also fought for justice and campaigned for women’s rights.
Among them is the amazing Dr Feride Rushiti, a physician who is the executive director of the Kosovo Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims in Pristina. Through almost two decades of research and advocacy, she has secured access to healthcare and justice for civilian victims of war. In 2017, her campaigning work led to a landmark government decision to fund pensions for Kosovo’s victims of wartime sexual violence. And now, after many years of silence, hundreds of survivors have started to come forward.
Kosovar women’s braided stories show the enormous challenges women still face in the country, but also how they have managed to become self sufficient and obtain recognition and reparation - and the impact it has on themselves, their families, communities and the next generations.
I wanted to report this story with Arben Llapashtica, a brilliant photographer based in Pristina, as well as a cameraman and documentary filmmaker, but sadly we couldn’t get a commission. If you know a publication that might be interested, please let us know.-->