One-on-one | Politics

Atifete Jahjaga: All the activism that was synchronized from one side of the globe to the other shows that enough is enough — the time has come to act

By - 14.01.2019

The first woman president of Kosovo speaks about the importance of women’s participation and challenging the patriarchal mindset in politics, as well as her cause for survivors of wartime sexual violence.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to be your President. I bow down to you eternally! Thank you! Our journey doesn’t end here. Together we will make Kosovo,” Atifete Jahjaga wrote in April 2016, after the end of her five year mandate as president of Kosovo.

Almost three years later, Jahjaga is reserved and discrete regarding her potential political future. But her journey is still marked by the main issues that she focused on as president — the rights of women and wartime sexual violence survivors.

Born in Rashkoc, Gjakovë, Jahjaga had a long career in the police force. She was an official within the Kosovo Police from its establishment in 2000, while in 2009 she served as the force’s deputy director, holding the rank of General Lieutenant Colonel.

In 2011, Jahjaga became the first woman president of Kosovo and in modern day Western Balkans. Although many critics alluded to her political impotence to make reforms from her position as president, Jahjaga was greatly esteemed as the leader that has done most to positively influence the image of the state in the international arena. In 2012, she organized the International Women’s Summit, in which more than 200 women leaders from around the world took part.

Jahjaga is a member of the Women’s Leadership Council, as part of which she was invited to various global conferences for empowering the role of women in society, including the first Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held in London in 2014. Through the establishment of the National Council for the Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence in Kosovo, and the 2015 artistic installment “Thinking about you,” which was done under her patronage, Jahjaga created momentum in the discussion for institutional support for survivors of sexual violence in Kosovo.

Last year, Jahjaga founded the Jahjaga Foundation, which is focused mainly on the empowerment of women and their integration and advancement in society, as well as other issues relating to security, and the war against corruption and violent extremism.

“It’s my vision and heritage, to empower women and young people so that they can take over and take responsibility for the things that it is necessary to build in this society,” Jahjaga told K2.0. “By empowering the base of Kosovo’s society, which is the biggest part of society, so that they can pave the way for sustainable development, emancipation and continuous empowerment.”

At the end of 2018, a year marked by ever-growing activism for gender equality, both globally and locally, K2.0 met with former President Atifete Jahjaga to discuss the need for greater inclusion of women in political decision making processes, her dedication to institutional and societal recognition of sexual violence survivors, and the fight against sexism in politics.

Atifete Jahjaga. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

K2.0: Nine men are part of the new negotiation group, which is based on the resolution of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), taking part in the most recent phase of the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. The representation in the final talks between Serbia and Kosovo reproduces a situation in which women are excluded from important processes relating to Kosovo’s statehood. How do you view this delegation when we consider UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which foresees consideration of the gender perspective and enhancement of the role of women in attempts for peace and security?

Atifete Jahjaga: Resolution 1325 of the United Nations is a good guide that [should] always contribute to an increase in the percentage of women, especially the advancement of the position of women in all levels of decision making, especially in the field of security.

However, unfortunately Resolution 1325 has more of an instructive character — it gives recommendations rather than having obligatory powers or weight to [compel] the states or institutions that adopt it. The UN itself functions in that way. It doesn’t have a mechanism of sanctions for countries that do not implement the resolution. The implementation of this resolution is simply dependent on the good will of states or institutions.

You know very well that Resolution 1325 was approved in 2000 [at the UN Security Council] and the Agency for Gender Equality [within the Prime Minister’s Office] drafted and approved an action plan [in 2014] that was supposed to be integrated in Kosovo institutions and implemented. But from that day, we haven’t witnessed its full implementation, rather we’ve seen partial implementation of the Resolution.

Going back to your question, it’s truly disappointing to see the composition of Kosovo’s negotiation team for the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. It’s a clear message that Kosovo and its institutions still don’t see women as part of these decision making tables. They don’t want women as stakeholders in these crucial processes for the future of our country.

In this regard, it’s not just about the representation of women as individuals, but also about excluding over 51 percent of Kosovo’s population and their voice at a table at which the future of the country and its citizens is being discussed, especially when we consider the additional element that women have been a target of the repression and crimes that were committed in Kosovo in the last two to three decades. In all this time, women have been excluded from all processes that are related to lasting peace in Kosovo. This is a huge injustice for the representation of women in Kosovo.

2018 is now considered as the year of women’s activism. In South Africa and India, huge protests were held against sexual violence. In Ireland, Argentina and Poland, they protested against strict laws that repressed the right to abortion. In the United States and Europe, the #MeToo movement sought accountability for systematic abuse from men in positions of power, from the Hollywood film industry to political representatives. How do you see the impact and interconnectivity of these developments, both globally and locally?

I would not separate them no matter where they are happening. All these initiatives have one basic demand — to advance the position of women in society, and simply to have women treated equally.

"All this activism shows that enough is enough — the time has come to act."


Their demands or our demands are, in general, natural and legitimate demands; be it the protests that were organized by women and activists against sexual abuse in Washington or other cities in the U.S. and Europe; or the protests organized by women and activists in Ireland to support abortion legalization; or the protests organized by women and activists in the capitals of Asia, the Middle East or Africa, against the continuous discrimination against women.

They are protests that demand respect for women’s rights as basic human rights. And always when I mention this phrase, I recall a meaningful quote from a very powerful activist at the global level; a great friend of mine and a great friend of Kosovo, Hillary Clinton, who three decades ago said: “Women’s rights are human rights.”

And all the organizations that we are seeing are related to the basic demand for women’s rights, so that they can have a peaceful life, a safe life, a dignified life; so that they can have equal access to the right to property and employment, and be treated equally in institutional and social life.

Jahjaga and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on December 14, 2011 at the Department of State in Washington, where they signed the U.S.-Kosovo Agreement on the Protection and Preservation of Certain Cultural Properties, which currently hangs in Jahjaga’s offices. Photo courtesy of Atifete Jahjaga.

All this activism that we’ve seen in recent years, especially in 2018, where everyone was synchronized in different parts of the globe, shows that enough is enough, that the time has come to act. It’s not just me and you, all of us have to act equally to reach the success we want to see. I expect this spirit that has been set at the global level to continue, and continue it must.

In 2018, Kosovo was yet another example of increased momentum when it comes to activism, which in recent years has been headed by the feminist collective MARShojmë S’Festojmë (We March, We Don’t Celebrate). Calls for putting an end to patriarchy, for equal participation in the labor market, as well as the denouncement of homophobia and transphobia, have now become mottos of the feminist collective’s protests. Which causes incite you to go out in the streets and protest together with activists?

On many occasions I’ve publicly supported such initiatives, be it through statements or physical participation in marches and protests. Everything that activists and civil society have done in recent years is based on the Kosovo Constitution and Kosovo’s laws. Simply put, their demands are constitutional.

They are legitimate demands, and we as a society, as institutions, must do our utmost to realize them; be it the demands for women’s rights, youth rights, children’s rights, the rights of marginalized groups, which unfortunately have not been in focus in recent decades — this is an issue typical not only of Kosovo, but the whole region of the Western Balkans and South East Europe.

As President of the Republic of Kosovo, during the 2011 to 2016 mandate, I launched many initiatives that I considered to be permanent in my work. They were not only a result of my constitutional and legal obligations, but also of my strong belief in these principles. And only in this way can we build a sustainable state that respects everyone, without any prejudice.

Something that was very close to my heart, which perhaps was not a component of my constitutional obligations, was the initiative for the status of wartime sexual violence survivors. A great number of people, around 20,000 women and men in Kosovo, were targets of one of the most macabre war crimes, where rape was used as a weapon of war against them. We’ve stigmatized them for 15 years since the war, and for us as a society it was a taboo subject, a public silence on something we all knew about, but about which we never dared to speak.

Jahjaga became one of the faces of the ‘Be My Voice’ Campaign, launched by the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT) and Medica Gjakova with the aim of  addressing Kosovar society at large to be the voice of victims, through the expression of acceptance and empathy from family members, communities and institutions. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

So, by using the authority of the institution of the presidency, I took it as my mission to push forward a cause that is related to the interests of Kosovo’s citizens, by starting with their rehabilitation and socialization, up to the most recent phase — access to justice. Even after my mandate, I continued to use my role as former president, but also worked through the Jahjaga Foundation.

Recently the Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kosovo Bar Association, which will offer pro bono services to all survivors for building cases against wartime rape, which will then be referred to the Kosovo Prosecution. Up until now, in the last two decades, no perpetrator that has ended up [before] either the Kosovo Prosecution, Serbia Prosecution or in the international courts has been sentenced for this crime. So, this is something that I’ve held very close to my heart, and it’s a mission or pledge that I’ve made to the survivors, that I won’t stop working for the rights of wartime violence survivors.

Is this initiative an attempt that somehow alludes to the institutional failure to achieve justice for wartime sexual violence survivors?

The fact that since the end of the war no perpetrators have been sentenced or brought to justice for these crimes is a clear signal that there is a huge institutional — but also social — gap regarding access to justice for wartime sexual violence survivors. This will be complemented by pro bono services by member lawyers of the Kosovo Bar Association, who will work to build and present cases to the Kosovo Prosecution.

Investigating war crimes is not the exclusive responsibility of Kosovo institutions. The competence for investigating war crimes has belonged to international mechanisms, from the UNMIK police, and afterwards the EULEX police. We have a few cases [of sexual violence] that were reported after the end of the war, but they resulted negatively after the first, second or third instances of complaint [in the courts]. This is truly discouraging and it has pushed back survivors. In a way it has closed them off once again.

The revelations of Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman at the end of last year opened a new stage for discussing wartime sexual violence: Never in the past have we witnessed such social or institutional support. Are you optimistic about this? That there will be support for survivors, and their battle for justice and against stigmatization? Or will the support of politicians be limited to the few days after the revelations?

For me and for every citizen of Kosovo, Vasfije is the boldest person of the year. I was outstandingly fascinated by her great courage from the first moment I met her. And I thank her for this because she has opened a new page in the perception of citizens toward sexual violence survivors.

On October 16, 2018, in a televised interview, Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman became the first Kosovar Albanian woman to publically share her experience as a survivor of sexual violence during the 1999 war. Screenshot of October 2018 interview on RTK’s Be My Voice.

What I’ve seen and heard in the eyes and words of Vasfije, I’ve seen and heard among all wartime sexual violence survivors. I’ve personally met hundreds and thousands of them throughout Kosovo, be it in Prishtina, Drenas, Gjakova, Mitrovica, Gjilan, or wherever else. I also want to thank Vasfije’s family, her brother, because there are many different interpretations after Vasfije’s public appearance, about what she has experienced.

But Vasfije’s family has supported her from the beginning, right after the end of the war. It was one of the first cases of rape that was reported in the immediate aftermath of the war, where rape was used as a weapon of war, and this automatically created a completely different momentum for addressing stigma, for raising the voice of wartime sexual violence survivors.

When I took over the mandate of the President of the Republic of Kosovo, one of the first meetings that I had was with wartime sexual violence survivors. This was one of the reasons that I took over this issue as one of my most important priorities.

The first attempt was in 2012 after the approval of the Prishtina Principles, which emerged from the International Women’s Summit, which I organized and launched in Kosovo, and which hosted more than 190 medium and high level decision making representatives from over 190 different states from all continents. The Prishtina Principles included the main objectives of advancing the position of women, empowering women economically, realizing women’s right to heritage and their access to justice, and recognizing the legal status of wartime sexual violence survivors.

"At the time they couldn’t wait to take me to the Constitutional Court at every opportunity for potential constitutional violations, so that they could find the only legal and constitutional gap to act."

These principles were sent to the Kosovo Assembly in October 2012. And for me one of the biggest surprises — firstly as a woman of this society, and then as the bearer of the highest institution — was when in my office I heard debates of the lowest level from deputies of the Kosovo Assembly, from individuals who were elected by the people as their representatives, individuals who were voted by the people to push forward causes that are in the interest of Kosovo citizens. The debate went to the extent that men and women deputies were seeking to implement gynecological examinations 15 years after the end of the war.

For me, this was an insult, an insult to half of society. Let alone how victims or survivors felt, and how they would approach and express that to me. This was a turning point that I took as a personal mission, so that this narrative would not be built further.

It took a couple of years to research the proper legal and constitutional basis, because at the time they couldn’t wait to take me to the Constitutional Court at every opportunity for potential constitutional violations, so that they could find the only legal and constitutional gap to act. So I established the National Council for the Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence, as part of which I brought together all decision making institutions — including the prime minister, the president of the assembly, all ministries that are directly related to the issue, Kosovo Assembly deputies, especially the Assembly’s Group of Women Deputies, as well as civil society [organization representatives] and the media — around a single decision making table.

In February 2018, the much delayed process of legal status verification [of wartime sexual violence survivors] was initiated. But at least now things are in the institutional channel, and it is a process that has received institutional backing.

While we as institutions have done our job, most of the work of institutions has been conducted by organizations and activists — starting with the late Sevdije Ahmeti — who have filled this institutional gap by offering services, from healthcare and gynecological to psychological services for wartimes sexual violence survivors.

"Since Kosovo is not a part of the UN, it is yet to be recognized internationally that rape was used as a weapon of war in Kosovo. This was and continues to be my battle."

What the Council has done is it has connected all these activities so that they can be channeled at the institutional level, and to enable institutional attentiveness. Whereas regarding the social support and the addressing of stigma, we still have work to do.

Vasfije’s voice came at the right moment, especially when we consider addressing stigma, but also access to justice — and this should be furthered by institutions, but also by citizens. In particular, I’ve continuously made calls to families, because the support of families for survivors, their voice and faith, plays a big role.

Now we will further this momentum of raising awareness among the population, but this is not the case only in Kosovo. We have a lot to do to raise awareness at the international level as well. Because you know very well that due to the huge political gap, specifically that Kosovo is not a part of the UN, it is yet to be recognized internationally that rape was used as a weapon of war in Kosovo, such as in the cases of Rwanda and Bosnia, or other countries. This was and continues to be my battle, but also the battle of other activists and institutions, to push forward this issue to the international level, and to achieve international recognition.

You said politicians should have a moral and institutional obligation. The current president, Hashim Thaçi, has seldom focused on the issue of sexual violence survivors. Do you feel disheartened that the president has failed to push forward a cause for which you advocated greatly during your mandate?

I don’t want to mention any names in this regard, because unfortunately this is a phenomenon that dominates the masculine and patriarchal mentality of Kosovo’s society. But on the other hand, I want to call on all politicians and academics within Kosovo society to fulfill their constitutional, legal, but also moral, obligations.

On the other hand, I thank the politicians of our country, because I deliberately mentioned the National Council for the Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence. Initially they were hesitant to be part of this decision making table, but afterwards they each gave their utmost to reach decisions that were made regarding the status of wartime sexual violence survivors.

At the ‘Be My Voice’ campaign launch in June 2018, Jahjaga joined the march together with Mirlinda Sada (far left) from the NGO Medica Gjakova, EU representative Nataliya Apostolova, then U.S. ambassador Greg Delawie, and current president Hashim Thaçi. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha /K2.0.

But the survivors need more voice, more public support than what we witnessed with recent statements. We are not aware of how much a meeting, statement of action or support positively influences their morale and sentiment. Because in the end we don’t do it for us, we do it for a cause, we do it for a stratum of society that has been forgotten for a long time. It is a moral and institutional obligation for all politicians in the country, who are elected by the people to fulfill their obligations.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges for a Kosovar woman politician? If we look at gender representation in the presidency, government and municipalities, we see that politics continues to be a sphere of men. The most recent parliamentary and local elections provide a gloomy reflection of this.

Kosovo, compared to other countries in the region, has the most advanced legal structure regarding women’s rights. However, as for their implementation and gender representation in institutions, we are under 1 percent. It is truly discouraging and very disheartening.

In recent years I’ve been very vocal, especially in lectures and conferences in Kosovo, in expressing that we’ve experienced regress in women’s representation. At the Kosovo Assembly level, we have satisfactory representation with the 30 percent quota [of women deputies]. At the executive level, both in the central and local levels, the situation is much worse.

Up until the recent parliamentary elections we had one woman mayor, whereas now we have none. There are two municipalities that have women deputy mayors, and two or three municipalities that have women in the position of municipal assembly president. In the whole of the composition of the government we have only one woman minister. We have more than 70 deputy ministers, and only seven or eight of them are women.

"Women in the private sector often come to my office and say: 'I don’t dare say that I’m pregnant because I’ll immediately lose my job and won’t even be considered for interviews for certain job positions.'"

We have a huge discrepancy between the legal and constitutional basis, the obligations that stem from them, and their implementation. I wish and hope that 2019 will be a year of equality in Kosovo, be it in institutional life, or social life in general.

We must do more to realize women’s right to employment, property, inheritance, maternity leave, and we must do more for their economic empowerment, from fiscal policies to loans and other things that are interconnected with women’s general education and development; they are all elements that are interconnected with the empowerment of women in society, as well as institutional and social life. And it is very concerning because we only see the institutional level, and we don’t see the private sector; we need institutional control mechanisms that oversee the implementation of these laws.

Women in the private sector often come to my office and say: “I don’t dare say that I’m pregnant because I’ll immediately lose my job and won’t even be considered for interviews for certain job positions.” There are other elements that stem from the law, but the state institutions have not set other control mechanisms that empower the implementation of laws.

As for further democratization, there is much more to be done regarding the spirit of political parties, because unfortunately in our mindset, women are seen only as a percentage, a figure.

They are always seen as elements that comprise a percentage that is foreseen by law. It’s believed that they should not do men’s work, but should deal only with women’s issues, gender issues, children’s issues, and other issues that are not related to politics or state leadership.

However, it’s that social approach, that institutional approach and mentality, which doesn’t give them a chance to prove themselves, because they constantly face prejudice.

Often, women politicians, deputies or members of political parties are not spared from criticism for not managing to push forward gender policies because they fail to dissociate from the party lines of their male colleagues. How would you comment on this?

On one hand, I’ve seen good practice regarding the role of women, especially within the Kosovo Assembly and the Group of Women Deputies. Often they’ve proven that they have gone beyond party lines for issues that are not only related to the general interests of the state. Maybe not to the extent that I expected, but especially regarding the gender agenda of young people, and elements related to general social welfare. In most cases they have proven themselves able to go beyond party lines — I’m talking about the time during my mandate.

But I’ve also followed this issue more recently. One debate on gender budgeting comes to mind. It was an initiative from women deputies, but perhaps it was not sufficiently intensified to a level that would enable these policies to be pushed forward, not only in parliament, but also within their political parties.

So in this regard, I expect greater organization and mobilization of women, but also men, to push forward certain issues. Because they don’t do it for their political parties or the institutions that they serve, they do it for the citizens, the people who put their trust in them by voting for them.

Atifete Jahjaga. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha /K2.0.

Sexism continues to be present not only in the workplace, but also within political parties and the Assembly. We’ve seen certain deputies expressing sexist attitudes or comments toward women politicians. You’ve also been a target of sexist comments yourself. Take for example the graffiti that was painted on the side of a building in Prishtina, which was heavily condemned by women activists. Do you feel that such a response should have also come from political representatives? How do you comment on the sexism that has been apparent within the Assembly?

Absolutely. First and foremost, these issues are sanctioned by law, and secondly, such a level of expression or language should not comprise our political ethics and morals. We as citizens of this country often witness the language, the narrative of expressions that are built against women politicians in Kosovo.

Women shouldn’t be the only ones to criticize or support. Men must also react. Because these things are sanctioned by law, by the Constitution. We simply need to create a completely different and wider approach to women’s representation, but also for men who believe in these causes, to build a completely different narrative regarding violence against women, discrimination against women, maltreatment of women, but also the sexist approach that we are witnessing.

I know very well what it’s like to continuously be an institutional and public target, because I am all for being judged for my vision, decisions or certain strategies, but never for the way I look, the way I present myself, because it is very sexist and disheartening for other girls and women who follow that road and see their future in politics.

Here, a considerable part of the responsibility falls on the media. The way media present the role of women in politics is very disheartening and discouraging. A concrete example: A few days ago I was in a bar in Prishtina having coffee with my brother, and the headlines in Kosovo implied that I had found a new partner. They should not post such things for clicks, because private life, especially family life, should not be touched by anyone.

If we continue to constantly build such narratives, we are building the role of women in politics in a prepossessed way. We’ve always had masculinist and patriarchal elements in our view of women, with sayings like, “she’s speaking like five or 10 men.” This is an inherited and damaging approach for young girls who see themselves in politics.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Albanian.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.