In-depth | Gender Equality

Who’s representing rural women?

By - 17.10.2017

Municipalities and candidates doing little to end isolation.

It’s pepper season and the busiest of the year. Fahrije Hoti, moves quickly as she leads the way to her office inside of Kooperativa Krusha, while she laughs and replies to boss jokes cracked by her employees.

More than any municipal scheme in Kosovo, Hoti has been successful in securing the employment of women from rural villages. Her ajvar and pickles have made the name of her Krusha e Madhe village famous as far afield as Germany and Switzerland, where her products are in high demand.

But her success of today has been far from a smooth ride. At the end of the 1999 war in Kosovo, Hoti found herself with two small children, her husband on the long list of missing persons and with her house burnt to the ground. Starting from scratch, she was determined to rebuild her life — and she did so.

Her striking story of survival has piqued the interest of many international journalists and of donors who helped her to set up her business. In Kosovo’s biggest village, which experienced one of the most horrendous massacres in 1999 in which almost all of the village’s men were killed, and in a country where less than 10 percent of women are the main income earner for their families, Hoti went from from selling pickles in fairs to becoming the esteemed head of her agricultural cooperative that is completely run and staffed by women.

Fahrije Hoti established her Kooperativa Krusha business, which employs only women, as a way of rebuilding after tragedy during the Kosovo war. Photo: Fikret Ahmeti / K2.0.

Many of Kooperativa’s employees — most of whom are widows from Krushe and other villages in the Rahovec and Prizren area — are sitting over huge pots filled with roasted peppers ready to go into the grinding machinery when K2.0 visits Hoti at her main site. In addition to the 55 women employed here, six other groups of women farmers plant the vegetables, preserve them and send them to her.

Together with Hoti, the women of Krusha learnt to do agricultural work and rebuild their decimated village and have been providing incomes for their children’s education. But, most importantly, spending every day in the company of each other over the scent of peppers, they didn’t just create a way to generate income, but also to cure their souls.

“These women here had lost so much. There are women that also lost their sons,” says Hoti while pointing toward the window that looks out over the factory floor. “And if you stay locked inside for the whole day, you will just go mad. They play music, they dance, they sing, they crack jokes and nobody gets angry. I can say it was me who tried to keep together a community affected by war — maybe more than the municipality and state. But they [the women] also kept me alive.”

Most of the women employed in Fahrije Hoti’s pickle and ajvar making business are widows of the Krushe e madhe massacre during the Kosovo war. Photo: Fikret Ahmeti / K2.0.

For the likes of Hoti, the upcoming local elections will be just another contest for power between men, the effects of which she has witnessed first hand.

Her longheld need for a single municipal property in which to conduct her business is something that she has been vocal about for some time; she says that her wish isn’t simply one of business convenience, but that it’s also a matter of safety for her employees.

Currently, her three sites are located amongst houses either side of the main road that skirts the village, and she and her employees are frequently bothered as they come to and from work or pass between the sites. There have even been occasions where men have entered the business premises. “If I was a man, they wouldn’t dare to enter,” Hoti says. “Because cafes work all night long and they don’t dare to enter them and interrupt the work — but they come here.”

Hoti believes that having a better secured municipal site, away from the busy thoroughfare of the main road, would help to protect her colleagues from harassment. Still, her requests for assistance from the Municipality of Rahovec have so far fallen on deaf ears and she doesn’t believe that it will consider their complaints.

“If there were five more centers run by women in Rahovec they would break the taboo and give a good lesson and hope to women everywhere."

Fahrije Hoti

She herself used to be a municipal deputy from 2008-12 but thinks that she is more useful outside of politics. During the current election campaign, she claims to have dismissed requests from mayoral candidates and assembly members asking to visit her.

“They do not need to come here and take our time trying to buy votes. Every year Kooperativa finances the studies of two girls from the villages — this is how I can help, not as an assembly member,” Hoti says, adding that Rahovec’s female assembly members have never reached out to see how they could help. “They’ve never addressed me as a group to see: ‘What are those mothers of ours in Krusha doing?’”

With the support of donations from abroad and from Kosovo’s central government, Kooperativa has managed to double its production in recent years. But not many women in Kosovo have been lucky enough to receive such support.

Just 12.7 percent of women in Kosovo are employed* — less than in any other country in the region — but this issue also disproportionately affects rural women. For women living in agricultural areas, selling seasonal vegetables in the markets could potentially provide some income but the majority are excluded from their community markets as it is considered “inappropriate.”

“If there were five more centers run by women in Rahovec — because here the whole area is very agricultural, which could provide employment for hundreds of women — they would break the taboo and give a good lesson and hope to women everywhere,” Hoti says.

Showing an interest

The feelings of such empowerment of women after getting their own income have been witnessed often by Iliriana Gashi. As director of the NGO Women for Women Kosovo, she has supported the empowerment of women in villages since the end of the war. “The moment when women go out to the fair and sell their products and at the end of the day she goes back with her money — there is nothing that can stop that woman anymore,” she says.

Director of Women for Women, Iliriana Gashi, says that municipalities need to take some initiative when it comes to projects for empowering women. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Although businesses such as Hoti’s need much greater support than local administrations can provide, municipalities can still play an important role by giving small subsidies to women farmers. According to Gashi, while there have been signs of steps in the right direction in some places, such initiatives have rarely originated from the municipalities.

“There is progress when it comes to municipal support for women, but usually it’s not initiated by them, but from donors,” Gashi says. “They just need to give around 10 percent of support. But now we see some improvements, and for instance the municipalities of Kacanik and Viti told us: ‘Anytime you have a project, we are ready to finance it.’ I want to say that there is progress, but it’s not at a desirable level.”

Gashi says that municipalities should be taking ownership of empowering rural women and going out to villages to make assessments in order to see where the help is needed, but that she has seen little evidence of officials attempting to create connections with the people they represent.

“They might even state that [they are interested], but we are in different villages every day and we know the reality,” she says. “Otherwise I don’t think you would hear people saying: ‘Why did you come here? Just for elections?’”

“This campaign isn’t any different from times before, because they talk about infrastructure in detail, about sewers, about a project, but they do not talk about what women and children will gain for their well being.”

Luljeta Demolli, Barazia co-founder

Since the start of the local election campaigns on September 22, the term “gender equality” has been much used by candidates for mayors, but according to Luljeta Demolli from Kosovar Center for Gender Studies, it has largely represented empty words.

“This campaign isn’t any different from times before, because they talk about infrastructure in detail, about sewers, about a project, but they do not talk about what women and children will gain for their well being,” she says. “I do not see that the problems of women in rural areas are being targeted … even when they do, they approach issues in a very superficial way, without translating them into financial commitments.”

In the absence of discussion of such topics by mayoral candidates, during the past two weeks the blogging platform Barazia (Equality) has organized a series of debates around the country. These discussions, which have taken place in different cities and towns and have included women from urban and rural areas as well as female municipal deputy candidates, have been aimed at identifying the basic issues hampering the lives of women in more isolated areas.

Rreze Abdullahu, one of Barazia’s founders and one of the organizer’s of the debates, says that similar issues have been raised in the municipalities of Kacanik, Ferizaj and Drenas, such as a lack of transport. In many villages in these municipalities, the bus is available just three times per day and doesn’t run at all when children are off school.

“As a result of this, the issue of school and work abandonment and the lack of interest in finding a job was raised,” she says.

Abdullahu notes that reproductive health rights have also been raised as one of the biggest concerns during the discussions: the lack of gynecologists, and at times of female gynecologists, as some women refuse to get checked up by a male doctor. Other similar issues that have been brought up, she adds, include an absence of family doctors throughout villages and a lack of maternity hospitals and mammographies in smaller towns, causing further troubles for women living in more isolated areas who need to travel to bigger cities for a regular checkup.  

But according to Abdullahu, besides serious issues that affect women’s health, in order to improve the inclusion of women in rural areas, the discussions to date have also concluded that there is a need for better street lighting, more spaces for women to develop their hobbies, grants and mentoring for women farmers, as well as finding ways to tackle illiteracy and decrease widespread domestic violence.

Needing candidates who care

Luljeta Demolli says one of reasons that such concerns are not being heard is that politicians rarely venture into more rural areas. “The routine for children and women in the villages ends before the night falls,” Demolli says. “There is no recreacion, there is no life, and nobody says anything about what to do about it. Everybody is focused on the city, because they eat their lunches and dinners in the city. It is the city where they give away tenders and do the money laundering.”

On the rare occasion that a politician does go to rural areas, it is largely during election times, and that even then, women aren’t necessarily listened to. Demolli points to the mayoral candidates who rely upon the phenomenon of family voting — whereby the most senior man in the house decides how everyone else will vote — and who don’t make efforts to build up a connection with women to see how they can address their problems.

Luljeta Demolli from Kosovar Center for Gender Studies says that politicians and candidates rarely make an effort to listen to the voices of women in their localities. Photo: Fikret Ahmeti / K2.0.

Over the years, election campaigns — local or national — have seen candidates paying visits to families in the villages and promoting themselves by sitting around with men in Odas, the room of the house where women traditionally haven’t been allowed. Demolli says these attitudes need to be widely condemned.

“This is so patriarchal,” she says. “The way how they enter, how they approach the house, making it clear that it is the house of the old man, that is the man who is waiting for us, or that the man is from a particular party. And we see that there are women in those spaces, who we miss also in big gatherings, or debates, because the candidates don’t treat women’s problems.”

Iliriana Gashi had much higher expectations of the female municipal assembly members, but she has also been generally disappointed by their approach. During an empowerment program that she led last year, she contacted female municipal assembly members in order to take them out into some of Kosovo’s villages for them to get to know issues on the ground and the challenges facing rural women. Except for those from Prishtina, and just a few municipal deputies from other cities, she says that her invitations were not taken up.

“I want to emphasize that in Kosovo there is no support for women in decision making for other women,” she says. “I have said so many times that even they [women in decision-making positions] will be strengthened if they support other women, but this is not happening.”

“I really feel like raising the voice of women in the villages. Nobody is doing this. I know women who are educated women but don’t have a job. I know illiterate women but they can do something if they are supported.”

Valdete Sahiti, Vitia Assembly candidate

Tired of not being represented by their respective municipal assemblies, Albana Malsiu (27) from the village of Nikaj in Kacanik and Valdete Sahiti (39) from the village of Skifteraj in Vitia decided this year to run to become municipal deputies themselves. Malsiu joined Vetevendosje, while Sahiti joined PDK, after both were selected by women from their own communities as leaders, following a program organized by Women for Women.

“I decided to stand as a candidate in order to raise the voice for the position of women in the villages and show problems that we women in rural areas face every day,” Malsiu says. “For example, there is no gynecologist in any of the 28 villages of our municipality.”

“I really feel like raising the voice of women in the villages,” Sahiti says. “Nobody is doing this. I know women who are educated women but don’t have a job. I know illiterate women but they can do something if they are supported.”

Sahiti herself spent all of her 20s and 30s as a housewife raising her four children. Now, she is about to open a vegetable pickling micro-factory that was supported by international funding.

“I think I am a great example that you can do things when you are given a hand,” she says. “It is such a different feeling. It feels like I was in a coma for 15 years. I feel prouder and stronger of myself, and somehow I feel people are looking at me with more pride.”K

Feature image: Fikret Ahmeti / K2.0.

*Editor’s note: The originally published version of this article stated that the women’s unemployment rate in Kosovo is over 80 percent. While more than 80 percent of Kosovar women are not in work, statistically speaking this is not the same as the rate of unemployment. The article has therefore been updated to clarify meaning. (More information on the statistical terms can be found here.)