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In-depth | Gender equality

Going it alone

By - 13.12.2016

Single mothers face social stigma and economic hardship.

Following her divorce from her husband of 12 years, Flutra Zymi decided to reclaim her maiden name. When she applied at the Municipality of Prishtina to update her personal documentation, the clerk at the administration desk asked her the question that she has faced time after time.

“Why don’t you try to get back together?”

The 40-year-old has been asked the same question by civil servants, social workers, acquaintances, friends and family members. She heard it during the court hearings when her divorce was finalized. Even today, seven years after her divorce, she continues to be asked it regularly. And each time, she recognizes that it contains a certain level of disapproval, blame and prejudice.

Zymi is an actress, theater director and a mother of two children. Her fulltime job is unrelated to dramatic arts, as the temporary nature of artistic projects fails to deliver the financial stability that she needs to provide a good living for her and her children. She works as the country coordinator at the Prishtina office of the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), dedicating most of her time before and after work to her son and daughter.

Flutra Zymi has been divorced for seven years, but still feels the daily stigmatization of being a single mother in Kosovo.

Flutra Zymi has been divorced for seven years, but still feels the daily stigmatization of being a single mother in Kosovo.

When her divorce was filed, Zymi agreed with her ex-husband that she would have primary custody rights, including legal control and care of the children, while their father usually meets them at the weekends. The mutual agreement on living arrangements spared Zymi from the stresses that divorcing parents usually face in court, where the struggle for custody rights can often be acrimonious and the standard questioning by court officials and social workers can make parents feel that they are on trial.

However, she says that her ex-husband has not offered a helping hand with the children, meaning that when she needs to work over-time, attend training or participate in after-work meetings, she is usually dependent on her mother looking after the children.

“I think the biggest challenge after the separation is for you to shake off the [feeling] of blame,” says Zymi, expressing frustrating that her every move comes under scrutiny. “Because everybody around you, even when they don’t say a thing, they release an energy that you are the guilty one for being divorced, you are the guilty one that wants to work and do art — ‘why can’t you just go to work and come back?’ They can’t see further than what they want to see.”

Although she had felt stuck in an unhappy marriage, it took her a long time to decide to file for divorce. Zymi believed that her decision would not be accepted as readily as if she had been the victim of a specific action by her partner.

“You don’t have a strong reason for society — that he hit you, cheated on you or that he was gambling,” she says. “I still continue to face the words ‘What more do you want?’ ‘You don’t know what you want,’ or that you are spoiled. I am 40 years old and still face these words every day.”

“There is always the tendency to look at [single mothers] as less worthy, less important, and generally they are less valued by society in terms of cultural and societal representation.”

Vjollca Krasniqi

Zymi’s experience is far from a single isolated case. Research, reports and media articles documenting the experiences of single parents around the world point to the same conclusion: Single mothers are frequently stigmatized by society. They are generally considered selfish for not working to make their marriage work or are accused of their actions having a negative influence on their own children.

Vjollca Krasniqi, a sociology professor at the University of Prishtina and co-leader of the university’s Program for Gender Studies and Research, says that single mothers who live alone are looked down upon compared to women living in heterosexual relationships.

“There is always the tendency to look at them as less worthy, less important, and generally they are less valued by society in terms of cultural and societal representation,” Krasniqi says.

Single mothers’ struggles are enhanced when they live in patriarchal societies that tend to encourage powerlessness in women, as they strongly emphasize the importance of heterosexual marriage, motherhood and the extended family.

“A woman that has children, possibly a boy and a daughter, and she lives with her in-laws — this is the ideal,” Krasniqi says. “This is something projected as an ideal family. As the ideal woman. And when something is destabilized within this concept, then it becomes a problem. Then women are immediately attacked, because they are the problem, because they are destabilizing the social order.”

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Sociology professor Vjollca Krasniqi says that single mothers tend to be looked down upon by society, particularly in patriarchal societies such as in Kosovo.

Krasniqi adds that stigmatization mostly affects women who get divorced because women whose husbands pass away “still tend to be seen as victims in a different context.”

Away from Kosovo’s capital, in more traditional smaller towns and rural areas, single mothers are more prone to being socially outcast and to living on the fringes of society, as the pressure to conform to community norms is much higher. Still, Krasniqi considers that even in places such as Prishtina, which are more socially diverse than other areas, the single mum stigma is still very much alive.

“I think that even in urban cultures, such as in Prishtina, women live with the ‘label’ of being single mothers,” Krasniqi says. “A culture of care hasn’t been developed, which is not intrusive, which doesn’t interfere in the private lives of these women, which doesn’t prejudice and see these women as subjects, as subjects of their own lives — [which sees] that they took the decision on how to organize their own lives.”

Economically disadvantaged

When Zymi filed for divorce she was able to pay for the lawyer herself as she had her own income. But in Kosovo only around 20 percent of women are active in the workforce — meaning that around 80 percent are not even seeking a job — and just 13 percent are employed. With the majority of women being economically dependent on their husbands, unhappily married women can easily disregard the option of starting a new life.

The Agency for Free Legal Aid is an independent public institution that gives free legal aid to Kosovar citizens who cannot otherwise support themselves as they are often marginalized by poverty and assisted by social welfare. Most of their clients are women coming from poor households from every corner of Kosovo, who require legal aid to file for divorce, custody rights or alimony, and who often have a long history of abusive relationships and domestic violence.

“The obligation for sheltering these women is an obligation of the Ministry of Social Welfare, but they have a lack of budget and have failed to provide this.”

Flutura Zena

Flutura Zena, an official from the Agency for Free Legal Aid, explains that there are frequent cases of women with children finding themselves out on the streets as their families would not accept them back after separating from their husbands. “There are cases when the [mother’s] family tells them, ‘I will accept you because you are our child, but I won’t take in his children,’” Zena says.

Meanwhile, no government institution or relevant agency monitors the number of women who are single, unemployed and mothers, which translates into a lack of policy solutions; the government’s social policies for single, unemployed women and mothers are limited only to the general scheme of social assistance, which varies from 50 to 150 euros per month — barely enough to cover the expenses of renting a single-room apartment.

“The obligation for sheltering these women is an obligation of the Ministry of Social Welfare, but they have a lack of budget and have failed to provide this,” Zena says.

The lack of income can be particularly damaging for single mothers when it comes to custody rights over children. Since economic conditions are an important factor that the court considers when deciding upon awarding custody, and the participation of men in the labor market is much higher than that of women, there are cases where women have effectively lost the custody battle before it started. Or as Zena says, sometimes mothers give up the fight for custody rights because they simply don’t have shelter over their heads.

Krasniqi argues that this is part of a larger picture of the state neglecting women. “Social policy is often unequal in terms of gender equality, which is part of the state’s rationality,” Krasniqi says. “We see it in politics, we see who the leaders are; 90 percent of leaders in Kosovo and the world are men. Even in cases where there are interventions through social policies that are viewed as more progressive, we see that the interests of men, fathers and husbands are protected — women always come second.”

Unpaid financial support

One source of financial support that is technically open to single mothers, is from their former partner. A divorced or separated parent who doesn’t have custody rights is still obliged to support their children through the payment of financial maintenance. Additionally, divorced persons who don’t have sufficient financial means to support themselves — often unemployment women — are entitled to claim alimony from their ex-partners.

However, accurately setting appropriate financial support levels, and enforcement of payments once levels have been set by the court, are huge challenges for the Kosovo legal system because fathers often have little or no income, or fail to declare the income that they do have.

“We often take decisions knowing that it is very difficult to realize them."

Enes Mehmeti

Enes Mehmeti, a judge from the Basic Court of Ferizaj argues that Kosovo’s economic conditions hinder the issue of paying court-ordered financial support and thereby the wellbeing of mothers and children. He says that courts usually favor mothers when it comes to awarding custody rights, leaving to men the legal obligation of supporting their former-partner and children through financial assistance.

“We often take decisions knowing that it is very difficult to realize them. Here lies the problem. The real economic life that we have today in Kosovo brings about these difficulties,” says Mehmeti, discussing the problems over non-payment of financial support.

According to Kosovo’s legislative framework, non-payment of a court-ordered alimony or financial maintenance for children is a criminal offense. However despite what the law says, there is a widespread tendency in Kosovo for former partners such as Zymi’s — who she says has never paid a cent throughout the years — to avoid paying the remittances that they owe.

But most women do not press criminal charges against men for not fulfilling their financial obligations, either because they are not aware of their right to do so or because they feel discouraged as they are unable to prove the real incomes of their former-partners.

Those in work regularly don’t have official employment contracts and are frequently paid in cash, so bank statements don’t prove their financial means. Courts are therefore deceived into setting lower rates of financial support and even then can’t execute their rulings.

Another way in which fathers often avoid maintenance payments is by ensuring that family businesses are registered in a relative’s name, so although the business might be successful, it is not reflected in their official documentation.

Legal experts from the Center for Legal Aid and Regional Development (CLARD) say that at times men actually transfer their companies to somebody else’s name just to avoid their financial obligations, giving an example of a man in Mitrovica who was working as a professor for years at a private university without a contract, just to avoid paying financial support for his children.

“I think that the black economy is impacting alimony payment,” CLARD’s Arbana Shala-Rama says. “There is no doubt that the courts put the child’s interests as a primary consideration, but children’s interests are being violated in terms of alimony.”

Krasniqi concludes that the government should particularly direct its focus toward single mothers with a lower economic status by developing education projects.

“I think that education is an empowering intervention; the more education, the more hope there is of empowerment,” Krasniqi says. “Why should [women] be dependent upon the state? … That dependence [needs] to be stopped. Education is of key importance to stop interdependence from the family, state and others. It helps the mobility of women … so women can have a chance in society.”

"There is a light at the end of these experiences."

Flutra Zymi

Throughout the years since her divorce, Zymi has fought hard to suppress any feeling of fragility; be it a financial strain, fatigue or guilt, she has dealt with her struggles on her own. “Since the separation, at any moment up until now, I haven’t had time to process my pain,” she says. “Nobody is interested in seeing that you are hurting inside, and throughout you need to be prepared to show yourself as strong all the time.”

Recently Kosovo has seen a number of women talking publicly about their social and emotional challenges in being a single mother in the country, by telling their stories in their own voices through blogs and articles.

“It is important for us that have been through this process to speak out,” Zymi says. “This country needs to see that [these things] do happen, and that there is a light at the end of these experiences.”K

Photos: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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