In-depth | Justice

‘If I can do it, so can they’

By - 10.03.2023

Women in the justice system are trying to pave the way for more women.

Right after the war in Kosovo, Albina Shabani-Rama applied to enroll at the Faculty of Medicine but was rejected. Experiencing the rejection as an injustice, she pivoted to a new field that gave her a new purpose in life — ensuring justice. Shabani-Rama, now 41 years old, leads Prishtina’s Basic Court. 

There are 86 judges working in the court she leads. Of these, 42 are women — nearly exactly equal gender representation.

However, this is not the reality of many other courts in Kosovo. 

One of the courts that is still far from gender equality is the Commercial Court. In this court, established in August 2022, only four judges out of 16 are women.

Vice president of the court Saranda Bogaj-Sheremeti is one of these four female judges. Bogaj-Sheremeti recalls 13 years ago, when at the age of 28 she was first appointed as a judge, she felt everyone’s surprise when they saw her on the judge’s bench. This was either due to her young age or because for so many years the final verdict in a courtroom had been delivered by men.

In Kosovo, equal gender representation in all public institutions is required by the Constitution and is regulated by the Law on Gender Equality. The law requires that all legislative, executive and judicial bodies, as well as other public institutions, have 50% representation for each gender. This includes governing and decision-making bodies.  

The number of women working in Kosovo’s courts, especially the branches of the basic courts in smaller cities, falls far short.

Towards equal gender representation 

The Judicial Council of Kosovo (KGjK), an independent institution that aims to ensure the impartiality of the judicial system, operates seven basic courts in Kosovo (in Prishtina, Mitrovica, Peja, Prizren, Ferizaj, Gjilan and Gjakova).

Each of these seven courts has sub-branches in other cities. These sub-branches are led by supervising judges and function within the respective region’s court.

In addition to the Basic Courts and their sub-branches, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and the Commercial Court also operate within the KGjK.

According to their websites, there are 388 judges working in Kosovo. Out of this, 226 are men and 162 are women.

However, the data on these websites does not seem to have been recently updated, as it still lists the names of judges from North Mitrovica, who resigned in November 2022. This was when many Serbs resigned from positions in public institutions as a sign of dissatisfaction with the government of Kosovo.

K2.0 asked KGjK for the exact number of judges in the courts of Kosovo, including how leadership positions are divided between men and women, but received no response.

According to the data available on the courts’ websites, out of the seven Basic Courts, three are headed by women.

Albina Shabani-Rama, head of the Basic Court in Prishtina, said that although there are many other factors, female judges often feel that they have to prove themselves more in order to compete with male judges for leading positions within the courts.

“During my career, I noticed that being a woman is an obstacle, especially when I started seeking promotions. Today, I think that, as a woman, you need to prove repeatedly that you are able to achieve more than the men you are competing against,” said Shabani-Rama, adding that she had not noticed this during her studies or when exercising her duty as a judge, but only when she decided to pursue bigger roles. “This is not written anywhere, nor is it a condition that must be fulfilled, it is something that is felt.”

The President of the Basic Court in Prishtina, Albina Shabani-Rama, leads the largest basic court in Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

According to her, based on the existing caseload in the courts and the low trust in the judicial system, the managerial role in judicial institutions is especially challenging and difficult.

Shabani-Rama said that the lack of women in leadership positions in the judiciary can be partially explained by the fact that some judges prefer taking on roles in higher courts rather than taking on leadership or managerial roles in the Basic Courts.

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Commercial Court Vice President Saranda Bogaj-Sheremeti said that the absence of a larger number of female judges in leadership positions is a result of social ideas about the role of women in the family and is not always because women are not given the opportunity to compete for leadership positions by the institution.

“I am speaking as a woman, as a judge and as a mother. There are many factors that limit you from having the courage to assume a leadership position. For example, if you are a judge, you hesitate to take on additional obligations because of your pre-existing family obligations. You know that you have to devote yourself to the children and home, because that is our mentality,” said Bogaj-Sheremeti.

Saranda Bogaj-Sheremeti, recalls how when she became a judge at 28, she felt that people were surprised when they saw her on the judge’s bench. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

According to a nationwide report by the Musine Kokolari Institute, women in Kosovo spend 6.2 hours a day performing unpaid care work while men spend 3.5 hours a day on such work, meaning women spend 44% more time than men performing unpaid care work.

According to the report, women spend 4.73 hours doing housework, 1.97 hours caring for children and 1.15 hours caring for the elderly. Even though women and men in the workforce spend a similar amount of time in paid work, employed women still spend 25% more time in unpaid caregiving than employed men. 

“It is difficult to be a judge and to hold a leadership position at the same time. As a judge, I have my own cases where I have to make decisions and reach the same targets, and also deal with the court’s managerial work,” said Bogaj-Sheremeti. “It takes a lot of time, it burns you out.”

A lack of gender representation outside the city

The number of female judges in the branches of the basic courts is significantly lower than in the central courts. There are no female judges in the Malisheva or Rahovec branches. Podujevo, Lipjan, Suhareka, Deçan, Kaçanik and Istog, only have one female judge each.

Meanwhile, in all of the 19 branches of the basic courts, there are only three women in the leading position.

Albina Shabani-Rama said that although there is a comparatively large number of female judges in Prishtina and other bigger cities, in other branches the number of female judges is very small.

“Throughout court branches, we can see that the number of girls and women interested in becoming judges is small. Even though there are many women studying at the Faculty of Law, when it comes to choosing a career, few of them choose the profession of a judge,” she said. “It’s a little more difficult with the sub-branch courts, since [judges and citizens] know each other and so they are affected by the mentality of their society.”

But, according to her, this mentality must be challenged, and young female lawyers must target the judicial institutions through the municipal branches of the courts and play the role of reformers in society.

“I think our system needs women, it needs strong women who have professional courage,” said Shabani-Rama.

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Saranda Bogaj-Sheremeti thinks that attracting judges into the judicial system in smaller regions can only be done if an intersectoral approach is adopted.

“Policies and awareness-raising activities to attract more women towards judicial institutions should also be focused on smaller cities because there are many hard-working female lawyers but male judges dominate in the branches,” said Bogaj-Sheremeti.

Now 41 years old and with 13 years of experience in the judicial system, Bogaj-Sheremeti recalls when she started as a judge. As a 28-year-old, she often got the impression that others did not take her seriously, either because of her age, or because of her gender.

“It happened in the past that parties who were not satisfied with my decision, when they left [the courtroom] and were in the corridor, I would hear them whisper, ‘Now she thinks she can make decisions,'” said Bogaj-Sheremeti. “But sometimes we choose not to hear, and when you want to reach your goals, you want your success to speak for yourself. When you become a judge for the first time, it is very normal to feel insecure and ask yourself ‘Will I succeed?’ But now, when I hear the cynics, I speak up. Previously, I would have bowed my head.” 

“It happened in the past that parties who were not satisfied with my decision, when they would go out in the corridor I would hear them whisper, ‘Now she thinks she can make decisions,'” said Bogaj-Sheremeti. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Meanwhile, Shabani-Rama tells of a case when the entire court body consisted of women and the defendant addressed them as “sister.”

“I told him ‘we are not sisters, here we are judges,’ but I noticed a kind of underestimation there, only because the entire court body consisted of women,” she said.

The belief that women don’t belong in the courtroom is an especially hard one to challenge. In Italy for instance, where women got the right to vote in 1945, women gained access to judicial careers only 20 years later. The justification was the assumption that women were too emotional to be able to apply the law objectively.

When asked about whether women bring something different to the table when it comes to interpreting the role of a judge, Bogaj-Sheremeti argued that it doesn’t really matter if a judge is a man or a woman, since all proceedings and decision-making are grounded in the same laws, regardless of the judge’s gender.

“Through my work, I am trying to leave a legacy not only for myself, but also for my fellow female judges so that even the leadership positions can be carried out by them,” said Shabani-Rama. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

For Shabani-Rama dispensing justice is challenging. Her work is scrutinized by the public and every decision is commented on, which requires a lot of preparation. This is why, according to her, when someone decides to become a judge they must first show integrity every step of the way, to ensure that they are able to build trust in the parties for whom they will make decisions. 

Shabani-Rama also sees her role at the head of the Prishtina Basic Court as an opportunity to create space for judges who can take her place in the future.

“We are working to ensure gender equality in all public institutions. One way is by entering the judicial system and taking leadership roles, and using our position to invite girls and women to join the judicial system,” she said.   

“Through my work, I am trying to leave a legacy not only for myself, but also for my fellow female judges, so that even the leadership positions can be carried out by them. If I can do it, so can they.”

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.