In 2000, in the aftermath of the conflict, Kosovo held its first national and local elections. Since those first post-war elections, I have been part of the election monitoring process in various elections, representing different international and local entities that I was working for or volunteering with on each occasion.
Nevertheless, the elections of 2000 left a mark in my memory due to the dictum ‘free and democratic elections.’ We all worked around the clock but fatigue was absent in the presence of the civilized democratic elections. Ubiquitously, a scent of democracy, freedom, and exercise of civil rights was circling around men and women, young and old. Expectations from the international community were that the elections would pave the way for shaping democratic development, respect of human rights and for implementing the rule of law.
Since then, I have monitored several elections in different parts of Kosovo where I have had the opportunity to meet different people in the polling stations, discussing general, specific and occasionally personal issues — something that we Kosovars don’t mind doing with total strangers we have just met. Kosovo is no stranger to election monitors, and at times, it has almost been a case of ‘observers observing observers’ due to the number of local and international monitoring missions circling around on Kosovo election days.
The last monitoring mission I took part in was in 2016, in extraordinary elections in one of Kosovo’s Municipalities. Usually preparations for election monitoring day start at 5am, when you collect the monitor’s ID, notebook and pen, and a snack to get you through the day, and it was no exception on this occasion. I traveled with a group of monitor colleagues, stopped for a short ‘wake up’ morning coffee before heading on to our final destination.
Most women were able to cast their vote only after they had fulfilled their ‘Sunday family obligation’ role.
When I reached my polling center, a relatively new primary school building, police officers outside gave us a look of ‘they’re here.’ In the school hall we met the polling center manager and others working on the help desk. My colleague and I received a warm welcome after we identified ourselves and kindly informed them that we would be stationed there for the whole day, before we parted ways and headed to two different polling stations.
I slowly entered the classroom, not wanting to draw too much attention to myself as an observer. There were around 10 men in the room, all of whom were there as part of the Municipal Election Commission or were party observers. I introduced myself and shook hands with all of them. The chairperson of the Polling Station Committee took my details and gave me somewhere to sit. I began asking him a few questions and he responded without hesitation; I believe he wanted to show that everything was good and would remain so.
After some time, I start looking around the classroom I was in. The walls were overwhelmed with the schoolchildren’s paintings; to be more precise, there were 14 drawings featuring the national Albanian flag and two Kosovar flag drawings. I was looking in disarray at the 14 ‘black and red’ paintings, and was trying to make sense of them — what was the meaning of the number of them and the way in which they were presented?
Slowly, people started enthusiastically filtering into the polling station and executing their right to vote, each of them with an individual story of the reason behind the ballot that they were about to cast. It was heartening to witness the enthusiasm of the elderly, who had chosen their best attire for this event, and the inherent courtesy greeting as a matter of course — something that I haven’t witnessed in the bigger, arrogant cities. During the first part of the day I could see mainly men who were ready to cast their ballots; women were largely absent, perhaps home fulfilling their leading roles in ‘Sunday family obligations.’
The social strata of the early voters were people of tradition, ordinary people and a few families that were perceived as politically powerful; the majority of them were male who were often accompanied by an odor of smoke, which culturally represented both their manhood and the liberty of not only casting their ballot but also of smoking both inside and outside of their homes, something that is often culturally frowned upon for women to do.
Most women were able to cast their vote only after they had fulfilled their ‘Sunday family obligation’ role. Yet again, the elderly women showed more enthusiasm in the possible change they were hoping for in this extraordinary election and I could see tears of joy in the eyes of some of those who were still able to vote in their old age. As she cast her vote, I noted one old woman saying “I hope this issue will grow old as I am.” The literal interpretation of this traditional idiom was that she hoped the issue of who would govern her municipality would soon be settled, since the past two municipal mayors had been indicted on war crimes charges.
The unfortunate situation of illiterate women was opportunistically used to the advantage of these men, who could double their vote for their preferred candidate and political party.
But although she could freely make this remark in the polling station, she wasn’t free to physically write her own choice — rather she was assisted in exercising her right to vote by a younger, literate girl.
As coined in election jargon, ‘family voting’ was a common feature of the polling station that I was observing, and it went on until the polls closed. When I finally counted up the frequency of this phenomenon, I learned that the number of those who voted with assistance, or ‘family voting,’ was around 60 percent of the total voters, and as much as 80 percent of women voters. It was obvious that women had no agency in the process of making their own decisions through casting their ballot based on their right to vote.
There were several cases in which women were not even consulted by the man — usually the husband — that was assisting them to cast their vote. In fact, the unfortunate situation of illiterate women was opportunistically used to the advantage of these men, who could double their vote for their preferred candidate and political party. So not only do men play an important role in determining whether a young girl should go to school, and if so, how long their education should last, but men were deciding how women who had not received an adequate education should cast their vote, hijacking another of their fundamental rights.
One should not be a feminist to realize that this is wrong and needs to be changed — all those organizations that perceive themselves as feminist organizations should flag this problem and work to change it.
I cannot but ask why illiteracy is not important for our institutions in Kosovo?
According to Kosovo Agency of Statistics (KAS), more than 50,000 people in Kosovo are fully illiterate, meaning that they cannot read and write; a much higher number are partially illiterate, meaning they have a limited ability to read and write. The 50,000 figure equates to 3.2 percent of Kosovo’s population that cannot read or write at all, which rises to 3.9 percent of all those over the age of 10 — the highest illiteracy rate in Europe. This percentage is even higher among girls and women.
Nevertheless, illiteracy remains a major issue globally and it is estimated that more than 7 million people in the world cannot read and write, costing the world’s economy more than 1 trillion dollars per year. International initiatives in changing this problem are trying to tackle this issue globally, for instance the second objective of the Millennium Development Goals is to achieve universal primary education, and Michelle Obama’s latest initiative ‘Let Girls Learn’ aims to give access to education to 62 million girls in the world; the campaign statement is: “When girls aren’t given the chance to realize their potential, the whole world loses out.”
I cannot but ask why illiteracy is not important for our institutions in Kosovo?
I cannot abstain from making a remark on the international donors that find combating illiteracy in Kosovo ‘not sexy’ enough for their programs, and yet at the same time they find ‘family voting’ very disturbing in our culture and relate that to a lack of a functioning rule of law. Rule of law is not limited to the legal functioning of the country — it also requires that people, in this case women, have a chance to learn how to read and write those rules and regulations made for them.
The upcoming election will surely see a silent continuation of this issue, but I hope that the election observers will ‘observe’ this matter more closely. I hope they highlight the issue in their findings and that the problem receives due attention so that future elections will give women more agency in exercising their full right to vote.