‘The beautiful show’ – Fathers for gender equality in Kosovo

By Nikki van der Gaag
Originally posted in the Huffington Post.

Cover of "State of the World’s Fathers: Balkans Review"It is a Monday morning and there is a huge buzz of excitement in the hall of the American School in Kosovo. As balloons are blown up and posters straightened and microphones tested, more and more people, mostly under 30, crowd in.

They have braved the unseasonal rain in Prishtina to come to a conference on the work of the Peer Educators’ Network (PEN) and Care International about working with men and boys on gender equality, and in particular, the launch of the State of the World’s Fathers – Balkan Review report, following on from the global State of the World’s Fathers report published last year.

This work is sorely needed. Kosovo is still a very patriarchal society, one that continues to suffer from the aftermath of the 1998/1999 war some 700,000 people were expelled, and more than 11,000 people died.

Despite a range of progressive laws on gender equality since then, women and girls remain very much second-class citizens. A Swedish report notes that: “Women’s rights remain one of the key challenges for the development of Kosovo’s society.” Besnik Leka from CARE International in Kosovo notes, that: “A lot is being done in terms of good visibility, and if you were to look from outside, one might think how fast and progressive Kosovo society is, but from inside we know this is a ‘beautiful show’.

Look behind the ‘beautiful show’ however, and it is not difficult to see where reality does not match the rhetoric. According to Besnik, the legacy of war has led, among other things to a high suicide rate among young men, who feel unable to live up to family expectations: “not being able to provide, support family, and find a job.”

Just over half the population is under 25, and overall unemployment is very high at 45 per cent with a marked differential between women (56 per cent) and men (41 per cent). On top of this, the annual per capita income is only $2300, meaning that Kosovo is the poorest nation in Europe, with 37 per cent of people living below the poverty line. For young people, who are rarely involved in political processes, the situation is ever worse, with unemployment at 73 per cent for those under 24 – the highest in Europe.

This lack of a role in a country where family and status still rule leads to high levels of male violence, both against children and against women. A 2015 report from the Kosovo Women’s Network , found that almost 70 per cent of women and 56 per cent of men say they have experienced violence in their lifetime. This cuts across geographic location, educational level, and income brackets.

And yet, despite laws on domestic violence, one in three respondents said they believed that domestic violence is “a family matter, so neighbours shouldn’t report it to police”.

Ajete Kërqeli, from the Peer Educator’s Network, told me that the prejudice against women working came from both sexes: ‘Even girls consider it to be negative if the mother works. They expect to be married and there is a constant pressure to have children.” She also noted that once a woman is married, there is no way out: ‘Divorce still has a huge stigma attached and is considered to be shameful. Besides, there are no state benefits and very few shelters and if a woman did want to leave where would she go? How would she live? There is a strong belief that whatever happens in families stays within families.”

Her comments are backed up by the Kosovo Women’s Network study which found that one third of respondents said they believed that domestic violence is “a family matter, so neighbours shouldn’t report it to police”.

Besides, says Ajete, “it is quite likely in a rural area that the local policeman drinks with your father or your husband. Who would believe you anyway?’

Which is why it is so important to work with young men as well as young women. The Peer Educators’ Network, Bonu Burrë (Being a Man) Club and CARE’s Young Men’s Initiative have all challenged what it means to be a man in Kosovan society. The Balkan review shows that fatherhood is another way in to working with men in the family in order to bring about a shift in attitudes towards gender equality.

The Young Men’s Initiative found that workshops with young men were able to lead to a shift in attitudes. For example, at the start of the programme in Prishtina, 81 per cent of participants agreed with the statement: ‘A woman’s most important role is to take care of the home and cook for her family.’ This fell to 66 per cent at the end of the programme.

Likewise, at the start, 52 per cent agreed with the statement: ‘If I woman cheats on a man he is justified in beating her’, which fell to 37 per cent at the end.

And 69 per cent of participants agreed with the statement: ‘Physical strength is the most important quality for a man, compared with 42 per cent by the end of the program.

These are all still high figures, but they are a move in the right direction.

As Monday’s session draws to a close, I speak to some of the young people about what it has meant to them to be part of the Being a Man club, and what they have learned. ‘Be a real man, just smile… and no violence,’ Benjamin tells me, in English, with a grin. And Gent says: “Being a man is not about having a moustache or big muscles but about having a smart brain and being able to love and support your family.’

Agon tells me how: ‘In high school lots of my friends behaved in stereotyped ways. They used to bully women and smoke and I thought that was cool and I was thinking ‘Should I do that too’? Then I joined the Bonu Burrë club and it was a real turnaround.’ His brother Aid interjects: ‘We learned about gender equality and homophobia. We learned to do the housework, to help our mother. I have new hobbies – I cook, I vacuum, I wipe up the dust and stuff.”

Ajshe, one of the young women in the club, says: “I have seen how much my friends who are boys have changed; their attitudes to alcohol and drugs but above all the way that they treat me and the friendship we have has improved a lot since we joined the club.”

Let us hope that this work, together with other projects such PENs’ Pro WO+MAN mainstreaming work, or Girls Coding Kosovo which is setting up a system to be able to record sexual harassment online, will begin to make Kosovo’s gender laws a reality on the ground. The country will then be able to become more than just a ‘beautiful show.’