The year 2020 will, of course, be remembered for the pandemic — the fears and uncertainty, the lockdowns and restrictive measures, and the countless personal struggles and conflicts we’ve endured as we’ve sought to cope with an imposed lack of freedoms.
However, not even in times like these have the rebels across the region taken a back seat.
They have refused to give up on protesting or speaking out in public, fighting legal battles or various other forms of exercising democracy in practice — fighting for rights and liberties for all. Undaunted, they have continued to challenge those in power, seeking accountability and above all, demanding change.
In order to learn what motivates citizens across the region to take the lead in the fight against various injustices, K2.0 has identified six rebels living around us in the region. They are the people who stand firm against the many absurdities of life in the Balkans and continue the fight, often with the odds seemingly stacked against them and in the face of personal threats and abuse.
Of course, there are many more rebels, as reasons for dissent are endless. But those selected for this series represent a diverse group of individuals and issues; people who have taken one step further, mobilized others and found a way to achieve change in their respective fields.
Doroti Pačkova is an expert on gender studies, a course she teaches at the American College in Skopje. She is the president of the civic organization “Edna može!,” the first and only of its kind in North Macedonia to work on single mothers’ rights and improving their status. We conducted the interview in line with all recommendations against COVID-19.
Doroti Pačkova is a tireless human rights defender who focuses on single mothers’ rights in North Macedonia. Photo: Private archive of Doroti Pačkova.
K2.0: What are the pressing problems of single parents in North Macedonia and has the situation changed over the years, from when you started working on it?
Doroti Pačkova: The civil society organization “Edna može!” (One Woman Can!) has inspired single mothers to gather in a grassroots movement, without intending to formalize our work. However, seeing the grave issues portrayed in the non-existence of systematic solutions, legislation, or any other measures and policies dealing with our target group, we realized that we can’t achieve anything as an informal group; we can’t implement any changes that we are advocating for.
It was difficult to access institutions, to get to the people in positions of power and decision-making. All doors were closed to us. For this reason, we decided to be part of the system we wish to change, and to grow from a grassroots group into an expert civil society organization fighting for gender equality and equal opportunities.
The goal of our activities is to advance the status of girls and women from multiple marginalized groups. Yet, the focus has remained on single parents.
We didn’t have anything when we started. We established the foundations of our work, we analyzed the situation, started going on study visits to foreign countries, and compared their laws with ours. We did all of this so we could gain an insight into the shortcomings and find out why our target group is in such a desperately bad condition.
All of us who gathered around this organization, we are sick of it all ― of this abnormality and the normalization of the abnormality.
The main issue still lies with the state’s ignorance, lack of coverage, the inexistence of solidarity and empathy of those who are making decisions. The lack of experts who work on and explore this topic is also notable. That’s why we have specialized ourselves, both academically and practically, through our field work.
I think that everyone now knows who we are as an organization. There are no women, no single mothers in this state who haven’t reached out to us at the point where they felt they are sick of everything. All of us who gathered around this organization, we are sick of it all ― of this abnormality and the normalization of the abnormality.
The problem was also related to mobilizing members at the beginning, because our target group was let down many times, privately, and publicly, and institutionally. There is no support from the system, the society, or the environment. However, now we are creating a member base of more than five thousand women, and new ones are applying all the time.
The good side is that, over the last few years, we have been supported by international institutions working on gender equality and human rights, so now we have seven employees. At the beginning we didn’t have this kind of support and it was all about pushing our limits. Our organization has grown in multiple ways, so now we have become initiators of change.
What have you managed to change with your activities so far?
The first issue was that we didn’t have the right to speak, the right to say what we think, the right to target a problem, to say that all of this is abnormal. We wanted to change the level of women’s participation from our target group in decision-making.
At the beginning the cooperation was make-believe. They called us to visit the parliament and government, and the local authorities but they did it so we would quiet down. The reasoning is that we shouldn’t revolt because they invited us. Now the participation level is somewhat different. They invite us to the [Macedonian parliament] Sobranje, where decisions are made. We have the right to make decisions, to react. As our organization, as our expertise grows, so does our influence on and access to the resources for our target group.
What are the actual problems that you have solved so far?
Up until 2014 there were no measures in place to benefit single parents. Today, we have managed to get and change something.
For example: In kindergartens, we managed to obtain free registration for the children of single parents who receive a below average salary. This type of support is very significant, especially when many women are becoming single mothers; meaning, during the period while their kids are still very young. That’s the most difficult period, because many aren’t able to access the job market. This is a measure that has been in place since 2017.
Our goal is not to be treated like the other social categories — but on the contrary — we want to individualize the approach due to a different family structure.
That same year, in the Center Municipality (of Skopje), we conducted a pilot research study. We then reached out and established contact with the Municipality’s mayor. This resulted in single parents being exempt from paying nutrition services during class, as well as extracurricular activities during regular school days. So, learning foreign languages, sports… All these expenses amount to around 200 euros monthly. Now, single parents can save around 100 euros per month.
Our goal is to introduce the same measure in all Skopje municipalities, but also at the state level.
We also obtained privileges for all single parents’ children who register at the university. If one school year usually costs 2,000 euros, our children pay 1,000 euros. Because the family has only one source of income, it’s only logical that they are able to pay half the amount.
Our goal is not to be treated like the other social categories — but on the contrary — we want to individualize the approach due to a different family structure. It’s a good thing that our women have access to social welfare measures, the existing financial aid that is paid until the child turns three. And there are different quotas.
If one woman from a “regular” family is supposed to fulfill certain conditions in order to be able to have access to social and existing financial aid, or guaranteed minimal aid, the single mother has some mitigating circumstances to get this financial aid. This is a result of our advocacy.
The Edna može! organization hasn’t stopped working even during the pandemic. They helped their members in need, and also advocated for their rights. Photo: Private archive of Doroti Packova.
Similarly, child allowance, school allowance, parental allowance, all these things are part of a different mechanism so that centers for social work could determine if the women can benefit from these measures or not.
It’s good that we now have a new quotient for calculating the relevance of measures that single parent families can benefit from. Before this, they counted us as part of the bigger community where single mothers live, because a large portion of women actually do live in a community with their parents, grandmothers, grandfathers, and/or the extended family. They take into account the income of the whole family the woman lives in. That was a single piece of insanity that we managed to survive. If they asked us to go through that once again, I would tell them: No, I can’t.
I want to say that our general advocacy initiatives were focused on getting things in motion and we are currently working on functionalizing the measures that concern us. The next step is to perfect them in order to reach a larger population from our target group.
Despite the institutional issue you are combating, do you also experience problems from the other side, from women? At the beginning you said that there was some resistance, distrust. What’s the current attitude of single mothers toward you, toward the state, and their own status in society?
I think there is still much to do in this area, especially with the whole COVID-19 situation. At the beginning we were completely shocked and thought it would soon go away, but it isn’t passing as we had hoped. We had to develop adaptation mechanisms.
However, the women were self-motivated ― unfortunately due to the suffering they were exposed to. We are sick of everything that happened so far.
In our office, with the support we have been getting and because we have taken radical steps at the start of the COVID situation and the quarantine, we were all-present in the whole state. We visited all villages and cities.
It's a good thing we are angry. We can't accept something abnormal as normal, thereby violating our basic human rights.
We literally distributed food packages, hygiene products, vitamins, supplements for the women so they can survive the two week isolation period in their homes, confined with their children. It was a good thing that we published it all, and hence the trust of women in our organization increased. They were developing greater courage to speak, and they were increasingly angry at the state, which is a good thing.
It’s a good thing we are angry. We can’t accept something abnormal as normal, thereby violating our basic human rights. I’m happy when we are angry due to injustice. It’s a sign that we are alive and eager to have a dignified life, that we still believe in a better society to come. In our office, we currently have several experts and each of them can push their expertise forward, leading us to achieve our organization’s goals.
What did the coronavirus bring to the surface? What did you maybe find or discover as a problem? Is there something society wasn’t aware of, pushed under the rug, and the coronavirus brought that to the surface?
For example, our target group is susceptible to continual everyday risk in the ordinary state of affairs. In a time of crisis, such as the current one, our problems appear to be more transparent; all the shortcomings of the situation where we try to function properly are visible.
We had an issue with employment and accessing the job market due to insufficient caregiving options for children in public institutions, both pre-schools and schools; there were no daily centers. Now, in the coronavirus crisis, even more women are jobless. It’s harder to establish a work-life balance, to be a single parent for one, two or more children. I think that pressure put on institutions has grown because we are stronger as an organization and as individuals.
Edna može! has grown also due to the increased pressure of our member base that hasn’t existed until this point. Earlier, it was 10 women beating their heads against the wall. Now we have members who loudly say that something is not right.
The women suggested to us to organize protests, to enter the Sobranje, to take our kids to the parliament. We have never before been this creative as a target group.
Although I'm a collector of all things bright, we must detect the dark things in order to be able to illuminate them.
The crisis emphasized the good and the ugly. It’s a good thing that we are here to support each other in extremely critical situations. It has brought about a good thing, which is that we can now practice solidarity.
I’m proud of my team that hasn’t stopped working, taking risks for an ideology that united us, and that is bringing us forward. We respect all protection recommendations but we won’t stop acting. Due to an increase in the number of bad things in the state of emergency, the volume of our work has tripled.
Poverty, existential misery, a lack of opportunities and inequality, job market issues, a lack of community support, all of these are transparent and have reached a boiling point. Although I’m a collector of all things bright, we must detect the dark things in order to be able to illuminate them.
Despite our advocacy initiatives, we are continuously encountering different crises, a resistance to change. There are still academically educated people working in the field of human rights, and publicly negating the existence of different needs of various target groups.
I would say we had one case that would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. A colleague from a different organization, who presented problems and suggested solutions in the presence of the minister, denied our efforts because she didn’t consider herself a member of the target group that’s susceptible to poverty. She emphasized that there is no such thing as the feminization of poverty. At a crucial moment, another minister refused to accept the existence of gender experts as a profession.
Doroti Pačkova describes herself as a “collector of all things bright” that she detects in the dark. Photo: Private archive of Doroti Pačkova.
I don’t want to list all the things, because I should publish a biography for future generations to remember — not to forget— and be grateful for the possibilities that are arising in the new world. Because we were tormented by ignorance, the partial knowledge, the superficiality, and banalization of human lives.
I see that the modern youth have a seed of change in them, I see hope in their potential. A shining example are my students to whom I teach gender studies and who know how to make me cry with the beautiful things they say. A shining example is the Edna može! team. It isn’t easy, but we won’t surrender.
This gives me an opportunity to breathe deeply, it fills my arteries, and pushes me forward — despite everything.
Is there still some societal resistance? Has something changed? Are the apparent sexism and misogyny still present?
I think that, as we grew stronger, all those who opposed us grew weaker, or it’s as if they don’t want to go against us anymore. Nevertheless, misogyny and sexism are problematic and are targeting the weakest among us.
Still, we are an organization that protects the weakest and most vulnerable. That’s why we have established an online option to report discrimination. A form is available on our website and can be used at any point; and then we act in accordance with the Law on Discrimination Prevention.
The government has changed and we now have a new minister of labor and social policy. To what extent was the previous minister active and did she manage to achieve anything? Is the current minister cooperative with regard to your demands?
Honestly, the previous minister [Mila Carovska] acted as a balm to heal all wounds in comparison to the previous regime. She facilitated our access to institutions and we believed in her tremendously because we thought that she was an individual aware of our conditions. Still, at the end of the term of the minister from whom we expected too much, only the surface was scratched on a few points. Little was implemented. These are literally ant steps.
And the new minister [Jagoda Šahpaska] was previously a member of the parliamentary group for social policy and labor. Whenever we organize public discussions, we communicate with this group. Previously, they were open to cooperation, and perhaps now they need time to adjust to the new situation; we don’t know if it’s intentional or unintentional. We wish to give them a bit more time, but they must work on solving our problems.
They should know, just as all others in a position of power, that they must fulfill their duties in the positions they are in thanks to us ― the citizens. These positions provide them with benefits, but also responsibilities; we expect something from them and they need to work hard. We don’t request anything else ― simply to do the job they were elected to do.K
Feature photo: Private archive of Doroti Pačkova.