Last week’s celebration of International Women’s Day produced the usual should-be-embarrassing photos of a Russian leader surrounded by uncomfortable looking women holding bundles of flowers. In the Washington Post’s coverage, it is hard to tell who looks more uncomfortable: Vladimir Putin or the textile workers arranged around him. The headline explains: “Russian women get flowers, not power.”
While it is easy to pick on Russia for the incongruity of such a celebration in the face of male dominance of government and business (there is apparently only one woman in a Cabinet position), the headline could be rewritten to name many other countries. The new country of Kosovo, where the Urban Institute is working with 25 local governments, comes to mind.
Supported by an array of bilateral and multilateral assistance since the end of the war in 1999, Kosovo has a full set of laws and policies to promote greater roles for women in society. A quota for female participation in national and local assemblies is set at 30 percent. Indeed in 2011 Kosovo elected a woman, Atifete Jahjaga, to be president. But for most women in Kosovo, reality lags far, far behind.
Unemployment for women is over 60 percent; labor force participation is a third that of men. Women own only 6.5 percent of businesses, and those businesses are half the size of businesses owned by their male counterparts. Illiteracy among women is three times higher than among men.
But in municipalities across Kosovo change is in the air. Women elected to municipal assemblies are organizing and asserting a greater role, altering the direction of local policy and services (see photo above).
Taking advantage of the 30 percent quota, which extends to local assemblies too, women have formed 15 caucuses—informal groups that cut across party lines—in both Serb- and Albanian-majority communities. A regional grouping has formed as well, combining women from both ethnic groups. In several local assemblies, women hold more seats than the 30 percent quota; for example, women hold 45 percent of seats in the municipality of Ranilug.
Why is this important? The caucuses are pressing local governments to mainstream gender issues, not leaving them to be “celebrated” one day a year. This is done by separating data by gender, enabling local governments to track services important to women. For the first time, local policymakers are tuning in to the gender impact of arrangements related to education, health, domestic violence, property ownership, and employment. Even when these issues are not wholly within the span of local control, the existence of data is fueling more effective advocacy.
In some municipalities, the push has forced local assemblies to open up key committees on policy and budget to participation by women members. As the regional caucuses extend their efforts, comparative data on the role of women in different municipalities will be readily available.
If, as some expect, new elections are called as early as September, women in Kosovo will be able to vote with specifics on the performance of their local officials in view. This political empowerment is an outcome of work by many, many women—and men—in Kosovo whose efforts can, if continued, assure that future International Women’s Day celebrations are more deserving of flowers.