European Movement in Serbia organized a media conference “Share knowledge – Towards gender equality in the region (Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia)”, with an aim to promote regional cooperation in mentoring programs for strengthening the position of women in the region.

The conference was an opportunity to discuss the potential for strengthening regional cooperation in the field of gender equality, as well as the results and perspectives of the regionalization of the mentoring program for women Share Your Knowledge. The first part of the conference was dedicated to the discussion of ways to strengthen cooperation between women and women’s solidarity, while the second part of the conference was marked by the exchange of insights on the potential for joint ventures in building the capacity and connection of women in the region.

Dragana Đurica, representing the European Movement in Serbia, pointed out in her opening address that the conference is being held as part of the project of the same name, which the EMinS, with the support of friends and partners from the Embassy of the United States of America in Serbia and the OSCE mission, has been carrying out for thirteen years.

“The reason for today’s gathering is the expansion of the project that was implemented in Serbia for twelve years, and one year of that as a pilot project in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its further expansion to the Western Balkans. Finally, the event will also bring together the “Share Your Knowledge” Alumni Club, which has over 200 active members and will be led by this year’s participants. During this session, some of this year’s mentees will present the ideas they are working on. In addition to presenting their projects, they will also talk about the “Share your knowledge” program and how the mentoring program improved their work,” said Đurica.

Đurica noted that the program “Share Knowledge” is purely activist, that it does not deal with policies itself, but with their implementation in everyday life and business and sharing knowledge within the women’s network, connecting women and strengthening their positions in society.

“Around six hundred women are empowered through our Program. We have organized more than 40 round tables on the topic of gender equality and women’s leadership, and we have broadcasted two podcast series with a total of twelve episodes, and during the first pilot phase in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 26 women participated,” said Đurica.

The first panel was entitled “Women Solidarity towards the Strengthening of the Position of Women “. Đurica asked the speakers how involved their organization/institution is in the implementation of gender equality, where they see the most progress, and where they see challenges.

The Commissioner for the Protection of Equality of the Republic of Serbia, Brankica Janković, reminded attendees that today is the International Day of Equal Pay established by the UN and that this is the answer to the question of what we have not yet achieved, in Serbia and the region.

“In the European Union, women earn 16.2 percent less on average.” In Serbia, according to official data, the difference is 8.8 percent, but according to other relevant research, those percentages are even higher, depending on the area. We have no doubt that this is one of the challenges that should be overcome. Much has been done to combat discrimination against women, but this data is not commendable. Likewise, the negative trend in the Balkans, namely the marginalization of women and increased misogyny and sexism, should be curbed, and regional cooperation is of key importance for gender equality,” the Commissioner emphasized.

She stated that there is discrimination in the labor market and that there are numerous problems related to motherhood and child care. “A lot has been done at the legislative level, but the law cannot create justice by itself.” We have to change cultural patterns, and they cannot be changed by the law. The custom still prevails. However, the key problem is still pervasive violence against women,” said Janković.

Jasminka Džumhur, Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that the situation is much more complex than in the post-war period and that it is necessary to conduct research and determine the factors that influenced the events at that time and today. “In practice, we have much worse laws and less understanding of what gender equality means.” When we talk about the institution of the Ombudsperson, the problem of violence against women is more visible, and the question of how institutions respond to violence arises. Is it enough to change those laws, if we fail to implement those laws within the penalty limits that are lower than what is planned, that raises not only the question of legal solutions but also what about the implementation and where it was hidden. “Legislation can be outstanding, but if we have weak institutions, then the laws remain a dead letter,” Džumhur said.

She noted that women work in low-profit branches and work on Sundays. “Women should show solidarity and not go to the store on Sundays, so that women who work in commerce or other service activities can be with their families that day,” Džumhur stated.

“When it comes to gender equality, the power holders believe that these are “our issues”, and not that they are issues of politics and the state. What does solidarity even mean with such indicators, it means that you are renouncing women as a human potential that is necessary,” Džuhmur pointed out.

Plamena Halacheva, deputy head of the EU delegation in Serbia, speaking from her working experience in the region, emphasized the existence of a great potential for sharing experience, and knowledge and promoting gender equality and empowering women.

“This region is known for the many challenges women face – wars, violence, but also for women who know how to fight for freedom and equality.” Some studies show that the GDP of the Western Balkans would be twenty percent higher if women had the same participation in the labor market as men. In this regard, it takes a lot of effort to change things in the labor market, if we know that a lot of women do low-paid jobs. Likewise, we do not have enough women in key decision-making positions, which is a common characteristic for all Western Balkan countries. There cannot be equality, if there is no freedom from violence, and it is a well-known fact that 30 percent of women from the Balkans have felt abuse in the family or outside it,” Halacheva said.

Holly Zardus, Cultural Attaché of the Embassy of the United States of America in Serbia said that this topic has been a priority of the embassy for thirteen years.

“It is generally known that the US promotes democracy, but also the empowerment of women who will serve democracy, and that requires inclusiveness, as well as equality.” These problems exist globally and are therefore fundamental. Institutions of power should be more inclusive for women. Women in the Balkans are stronger, they carry power in themselves compared to other women of the world that I have met. When one person decides to do something different, that is the spark that will ignite the fire and bring change. We, at the Embassy, launched a program for young people to empower them, called “Balkan Youth Leaders”, which brings together young people from the region. This program empowers them so that they can manage the future and shape the societies they want to see and where they want to live. It is challenging in the Balkans to influence young people to change their minds. Likewise, I believe that women do not have these obstacles as young people because they are older, wiser, and have lived for a long time in a situation that is not normal – they are paid less for work, feel violence or see violence against other women, which is totally unacceptable and can lead towards change,” explained Zardus.

Jadranka Miličević, director of the Cure Foundation from Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that women in decision-making positions are often not interested in the topic of equality. “Generally, everyone feels that the law on gender equality is an imposed law. I am speaking because we in Bosnia and Herzegovina were the first to start with the initiative on gender equality and for the first laws we used the presence of the international community, in order to return our society to the state it was in before the 1990s. In 1996, there was the first convocation of the State Parliament where only one woman sat out of a total of 192 members. We insisted that a law is passed at the state level, which was adopted in 2003, and at that time we thought that the law solved everything, and to this day, the biggest problem at all levels of government is the implementation of the law. We should be proud of what we have done, but we should continue to put pressure on the decision makers. In our country, maternity leave in ten cantons is neither paid nor regulated. When it comes to the political participation of women, which is low, women in positions of power are not allowed to take the initiative but they do so outside the political party. The issue of alimony in Bosnia and Herzegovina is catastrophic and depends on the municipality and the canton. That’s why it’s very important that we learn from each other regionally,” said Miličević.

The Commissioner for the Protection of Equality of the Republic of Serbia, Brankica Janković, speaking about the legislative framework, reminded that the Law on Gender Equality was adopted two years ago, but she also highlighted the amendments to the Law on Discrimination.

“At the institutional level, we are discussing whether our mechanism at our disposal (recommendation and initiative) will work, because everything depends on the state of society and how much society tolerates discrimination and how it reacts to equality.” For now, according to our recommendations, we have a high level of action on antidiscrimination recommendations, between 80 and 90 percent per year. However, not all cases of discrimination come to the institutions, because there is a high degree of tolerance for discrimination and inequality, but there is also a high fear of reporting, which is part of the inherited culture. After a recommendation and a reprimand that someone does not follow, we inform the public and that is a powerful mechanism. However, colleagues in Europe complain that a sanction is necessary. The processes behind the adoption of laws are not simple because the question arises whether they are necessary and whether they will endanger our family and the country. The key problem is that women are not equal in their private lives and accept the care of children and parents, also, the issue of alimony is important and we are working on the establishment of the Alimony Fund, which would be an important step forward,” said the commissioner.

Jasminka Džumhur, Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina pointed out the problems of implementing the law and the fact that minimum sentences are imposed, as well as the fact that an abuser is a family man and that it is a special problem when there is no desire for joint coordination at different levels. “We can and should do much more on a regional level. “We have frequent law changes because there is a lack of symbiosis of a wider movement, which would include colleagues from the academic community, and international obligations should be the basis, but we should aim for more than the minimum,” Dzumhur pointed out.

The second panel was entitled “Share your knowledge in the region”, and the moderator was Zorana Antonijević, an expert on gender equality and alumnus of the PSZ program.

Zorana Milovanović, representing the European Movement in Serbia, pointed out that the program has a multidimensional impact, and that it is focused on cooperation with the target group.

“The idea of this program is based on empowering women and girls individually, but these effects multiply. We have an activist approach that brings together 600 women participating in the program, and that number is even higher if we include our associates and partners, and this program has a great impact, because the region still suffers from silent discrimination. During the pandemic period, we saw opportunities and based on the enthusiasm of the team members, we decided to start the regionalization of the program. We started with Bosnia and Herzegovina, considering the good partnership, and three years later, with the support of the US Embassy, we are also working systematically on regionalization. The final message of the program and the qualitative effect is that no woman can do anything alone and that female experts are at disposal with their experience. Within the program, our mentees understand the importance of connecting and that they can contribute to each other outside of the mentoring program. The European movement is dedicated to this area with the aim of further regionalization with an aim of regional connection and cooperation, as well as the opening of the market, which is in the process of integration itself,” said Milovanović.

Daliborka Uljarević, executive director of the Center for Civic Education from Montenegro, said that the very fact that women are discussing this topic at the table today is an indication that gender equality is still a long way off in the region because this issue cannot be related to only one gender and indicates how much the topic is still insufficiently inclusive and that without it there can be no progress.

“Mentoring programs have great potential when it comes to empowering women in various fields. It is important to be alert and follow what is happening around us and to have our own attitude about principles and values because that is what drives us, and all other things can be changeable, and if the value framework is not adequate, it is unlikely that we will change society for the better”, pointed out Uljarević.

During the panel Montenegro was repeatedly mentioned as a good example of women’s organizing, and Uljarević stated that “some things have not been overcome on a mental level, it is not accepted as mainstream that a woman can do the same as a man at the level of social engagement or any other “.

Uljarević believes that mentoring programs build resilience and self-confidence, which are very important. “A lot of quality people pulled out because they didn’t want to be in the mud or they felt they weren’t part of the wider networks.” Today, Montenegro leads the way in the number of abortions due to the child’s gender. Women are not perceived as valuable and active as they were ten or twenty years ago. The largest number of the women’s parliamentary club reacted to the attacks of women and were reactive every day to put out the fire,” she stated.

Speaking about examples of good practice, Uljarević stated that the legacy of women’s struggle in Montenegro is reflected in the legislative framework, primarily through quotas on the representation of women in politics. “However, the problem in practice is that everything in the laws that does not suit someone is bypassed and they are treated like a buffet.” The lesson learned is that it is not enough to have a legislative framework, there must be a world why such a framework is defined and why it must be respected. This implies the emancipation of the decision-makers, but also of the wider citizenry,” Uljarević points out.

Gorica Ivić, executive director of the Banja Luka United Women’s Foundation from Bosnia and Herzegovina, referred to the importance of formal and informal programs for civil society organizations work.

“There is no formal education that can prepare you to work in an NGO. Women who lead non-governmental organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina are from different professions. The important thing about working in CSOs is that if you don’t believe in what you are doing, it is impossible to work. It’s the same if you don’t know what the fight for women’s rights means throughout history. However, the complaint is not directed only at formal education but also refers to the fact that the academic community is very little oriented towards contributing to the non-governmental sector and activist movements for women’s rights. Likewise, NGOs have not committed themselves enough to document what they have done so far. Our organization works with women in politics who do not understand the women’s movement and the struggle for voting rights, and because of that women’s movement, they got the opportunity to vote and be elected. Mentoring programs are the transfer of knowledge of crucial importance in this field, because formal education does not prepare us for it. Working directly with victims of violence is working on their resilience to face violence and for them to be agents of change, not just victims, and they help other women with their experience and contribute to their resilience to confront violence,” said Ivić.

Speaking about examples of good practice, Ivić pointed out that one of the strategic programs is working with women in politics in such a way that through education they are trained in what the position of women is and what violence against women is and within the entity of Republika Srpska they managed to fight that the safe houses are systematically financed by the institutions and run by non-governmental organizations.

Valentina Petrovska Disoska, representing the National Platform for Women’s Entrepreneurship NPWE from North Macedonia, said that without connections in the region and mentoring, nothing would be possible.

“Now we are helping women in business at different levels. We work with authorities, local institutions, and CSOs, with women and young people. We cannot say that we can only empower women entrepreneurs, we had to train our authorities on what that means. Through the National Platform for Women’s Entrepreneurship, we have established cooperation with over 300 institutions and organizations that support us, and that platform is not only for negotiations at the national level with the Government and ministries but through it, we have created councils for women in cities who wanted it and explained to local authorities that it is important to develop infrastructure and create an enabling environment that will help women to develop entrepreneurship. This is the goal of economic strengthening of local governments, and then at the national and regional levels. It is very important to make women aware that North Macedonia is not a market, we have to work primarily regionally through networking in businesses and representing initiatives in business, and to go towards the world market”.

As a closing part of the event, Finally, there was a gathering of the Share Your Knowledge Alumni Club, which has over 200 active members, led by this year’s participants. During this session, some of the mentees presented themselves with the ideas they are working on. In addition to presenting their projects, they also talked about the Share Your Knowledge program and how the mentoring relationship improved their work.

Find more photos from the event at the link

The European Movement in Serbia organized the conference “Regional cooperation for a more gender-equal region (Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia)” within the project “Development of conditions for the regional implementation of the mentoring program for women Share your knowledge – Bosnia and Herzegovina”, which is supported by the Embassy of the United States of American States in Serbia. The aim of the project is to regionalize the mentoring program for women “Share your knowledge” and build a regional women’s network.