In this new interview, Balkanalysis.com contributor Aida Dervishi gets the perspective of Filloreta Kodra, Albania’s Deputy Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, regarding what strategies the government in Tirana is undertaking to foster gender equality and achieve greater female participation in social and political life.
Aida Dervishi: After the elections, you were appointed Deputy Minister of Labor, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities. Since then, have there been any particular reforms taken by the Ministry of Labor in order to empower women in Albanian society?
Filloreta Kodra: In 2007 a national strategy for equal opportunities and anti-domestic violence was adopted, a strategy that has brought significant changes to the recognition of gender issues, identifying problems and barriers in women’s development as well as illustrating priorities and tools for their realization.
An important milestone in implementing the strategy was the increase of women’s participation in decision-making in more direct way, by setting quotas for the participation of women in lists of MPs, a measure that brought the immediate doubling of the number of women in the Albanian Parliament. The strategy in question, however, was very wide in corresponding with the problems people deal with, especially women. In addition it contained many priorities. For that reason, along with the fact that the strategy was three years old, we started reviewing it in order to focus better in some directions and define more precisely some priority areas, which will directly affect the rapid change of the status of women and the development of society in general.
Furthermore, in an attempt to answer your question, I feel that this is a very important reform for changing society’s mindset toward gender issues, as well as for changing the status of half of the population.
AD: Women living in rural areas especially have many more challenges to overcome. As has often been reported in the Albanian media, there are cases of families living in extreme poverty where women are dependent on traditional family structures for support, and where they also experience limited public activity. Hence, their opportunities to find a job are rare, with serious social and economic impacts for their families. Is there a strategy available to integrate the role of rural women in Albanian society?
FK: It is true that rural women face acute economic and social problems, this is why in the revised strategy they have been given a special place and treatment. However, let me also express some thoughts that might differ from what we consider as a general attitude in the media; women in rural areas live in poverty, are working in the fields, sow and reap, care for children, the elderly and solve all the problems that arise in their houses and outside of it. In most cases, women carry the heavy burden of being the head of the family, since men are often in economic immigration.
In this sense, I would say that women in rural areas are free to make more powerful decisions (though maybe they do not realize this) than many other women in towns who are economically dependent on men and locked inside their houses.
In this aspect, the government is addressing them in a diversified way in the revised strategy, women in urban and those in rural areas. For example, while for women of the urban areas job creation and the promotion of opportunities is a necessity, for women in rural areas, on the other hand, is necessary to facilitate them from their heavy labor, orientate and train them in the processing of agricultural products, promote the creation of social structures and opportunities for growth, child care and education, in order to be more active in social and public life. All the above ideas will be materialized in the revised strategy, with all required legal provisions for their implementation.
AD: However rural women generally are not employed. The activities you referred to above are not paid. Keeping rural women dependent on agricultural self-employment and household activities (not included in the unemployment figures) can isolate them more and exclude them from the labor market. With no sources of income, and an increasing cost of living, the position of rural women is deteriorating. Are there any concrete mechanisms or instruments available in order to link those women with the labor market, and so in this way to protect the social structure and encourage development?
FK: The unpaid labor of women is a problem for both women of urban areas and those in rural areas. The strategy that the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities is reviewing and preparing for the years 2011-2015 aims to focus on priority issues and setting development priorities. We think this will be employment, or more broadly economic empowerment of women which includes promoting employment, narrowing the differences in payment between women and men, promoting women’s participation in entrepreneurial activity by applying fiscal policy for women, grants for opening businesses and other measures to increase the number of women entrepreneurs, as well as encouraging them to open new job positions mainly for women.
These measures will target all women, and I would say that rural women have more opportunities to get involved in such activities starting with agricultural products which they produce themselves. In this sense, women farmers will have a concrete opportunity as long as they produce themselves the raw materials needed in the processing of agricultural products, adding as well in the development of entrepreneurship. Naturally, these developments will need counseling, financial aid, credit and other measures, more than that we are looking at the possibilities of meeting those needs in an institutional and systematic way.
Women in rural areas will also have a special support mechanism protecting them from violence; a system that has been built and has begun to operate in urban areas, as the system of referring cases of violence, as well as the prevention of it and will soon be extended to rural areas.
AD: To What extent has Albania’s tradition of a rural and patriarchal society prevented women from full participation in political life? Is this changing, and if so, why?
FK: Albanian tradition has always put women in charge; you are certainly aware of the legends [of women like] Teuta to Shote Galica and many other women from north to south. Unfortunately, chaotic development during the transition period has brought back some denigrating behaviors toward women which are misinterpreted as tradition, like the application of kanun, or other justifications, which have aggravated the situation of women more than the rest of the society.
In a way, women in rural areas are freer than urban women because they work, albeit in difficult conditions, but they do go to work, while urban women are often largely kept at home and essentially serve their families. I mean that is not tradition, even it has its share too, but rather than the fragmented economic development, lack of employment, lack of social measures to help young mothers with childcare that have led to the limited presence of women in social and political life.
It was therefore necessary the intervention of the state, with a vision of concrete measures for promoting employment, enhancing social care, nurturing of children with a frame of mind where men and women are treated equally, as well as avoiding any tradition that prevents the development of girls and women, and alternatively creating a culture of cooperation and development for the whole society.
AD: According to the last report on the Implementation of the CEDAW Convention in Albania /June 2010, Albania still remains a male-dominated society where women are under-represented, both on the local and national level. Although Albania has set standards and has passed laws in promoting gender equality, this goal has not been reached. Where do you think the problem stands now? Is it a matter of stereotypes or of a previous historical legacy?
FK: The answer to your question is partly to be found in the question itself. The differences between man and woman and the subordination of women has been a practice experienced globally for thousands of years, and is also a way of thinking inherited from generation to generation, expressed most clearly in gender stereotypes that we face daily. It is difficult to face a wall set up over centuries.
Walls can be broken down by dynamite, but also by bypassing them and moving forward. And we are moving forward, not yet to the degree that we would like, but we do not stand still. A mentality cannot be demolished, so we work to build a new practice and create a mindset where first of all human rights are respected; the first requirement of a democratic country is to protect and respect the rights of each individual, particularly those of women.
International conventions and institutions such as the CEDAW Committee are instruments to help us move forward and always learn from the experiences of countries that are ahead of us. Setting quotas for increasing women’s participation in decision-making is a good step forward, but not the only one. The fight against domestic violence, along with improving health care for mother and child, education, social protection and employment are instruments that greatly support the further progress of gender issues in Albania.
AD: Albania still has one of the lowest percentages of elected women in Europe. After the adoption of a quota of 30% for the under-represented gender in the last general election, the representation of women in parliament increased from 7% to 16.4%. Is this shift in the gender balance reflected in the decision-making process?
How has it contributed to the decision-making in Albania so far?
FK: I prefer to consider the optimistic side of the issue, the one that I mentioned above. The number of women MPs in the parliament has doubled compared to the previous legislature, and this is a direct result of a legal obligation of setting quotas for female participation in decision-making.
The process of drafting the law for the establishment of quotas has been a long and difficult process, with objections and arguments pro and against, which fortunately brought a quantitative change in parliament. Regarding how much this shift in quantity has changed the quality of parliamentary life- this is an issue that will need time to verify, at least one parliamentary term.
Unfortunately, since the last parliamentary elections in Albania it has been a period of conflict, during which some of the MPs were spending more time outside of the parliamentary walls than inside. Moreover, many of the female members of parliament preferred to make the spokesperson of their party’s leader rather than to deal with major policy issues or the problems that concern the society and women.
Further, they are even less concerned about increasing Albanian women’s interest in politics- particularly in terms of political issues that directly affect their daily lives, as well as to increase women’s participation in elections… therefore the support of the mass of women in relation with those elected.
Obviously, this behavior will be reflected in the electoral results of the upcoming local elections, as well as in the general elections three years from now. I personally believe that increasing women’s participation in parliament, the executive branch, local government and other institutions will have an influence on changing the social mindset, especially in the education of the generations to come, without prejudice, with the right ideas on freedom, equality and living in harmony.
The means of implementation differ, it can be implemented gradually over a long time, or can be performed institutionally, in ways that require a shorter time and that create opportunities for continuity. The Albanian parliament and the government have chosen the second way, and the results of this are starting to become visible.
AD: The percentage of women in the public administration is still low. Given that you have a long experience in public administration, what do you believe is the cause of the weak female representation in public administration? The same situation prevails in local institutions, where out of 65 mayors, only one is a woman, and only 9 women are head of municipality councils, after the last local elections in 2007. Is there any strategy for mobilizing more women in the upcoming local election in 2011?
FK: Your question concerns two categories of individuals: those elected and civil servants. It is true that the percentage of women in both elected and appointed positions is low. For women elected at the local level, who are few in number, I would say that the electoral code provides a strong constraint in forcing all parties participating in the elections [to ensure that]for every three candidates one should be a woman. This obligation will significantly result in a considerable increase in the number of women in the local elections next May 2011.
However, increasing the number of women in the upcoming elections is not just a matter to be left up to law enforcement. It is also being accompanied by a number of other measures, education, and training- and, especially, in terms of raising the awareness of women themselves and general public opinion regarding the importance of increasing women’s participation in public and political life.
There is a different ratio in the civil service, where 67.4% of those employed are female and 32.6% male. However, at managerial levels this ratio is reversed; 43.2% are females, whereas 56.8% are males. This is a clear expression of the position of women in Albanian society. In order to change this situation, work has started on an institutional level, such as with making suggestions for the revision of the job descriptions for civil servants, or setting quotas for managerial positions. Among the civil and public servants, a special effort is being made in order to raise awareness among women themselves about their value, and the importance of increasing their participation in decision-making, and more widely in public, social and political life.
AD: Has Albania received support from outside parties, such as the UN, US or EU, in developing programs for empowering women in politics? If so, what were they and has there been any positive result?
FK: Albania is considered one of the countries to have made considerable progress in the development of gender issues over the past three years. This is partly due to the assistance that it has received with the implementation of the One UN program. Albania is one of eight countries worldwide that are implementing this program.
The One UN program in Albania has proven very successful in some respects, one of which is the increase it has achieved in women’s participation in political life. In this endeavor, the government is being supported by UNIFEM, within the framework of One UN and the OSCE, with program projects continuing to be implemented. The Albanian government relied on this program for the drafting of the Electoral Code in the parliamentary elections of 2009, a process that brought about a doubling in the number of female representatives in parliament.
We believe that the law on gender equality and the implementation of the Electoral Code, which obliges the political parties to nominate at least one woman in every three candidates, will make it possible in the local elections of May 2011 to have more women in the municipal councils- and, why not, as mayors or heads of municipalities.
AD: Ethnic nationalism is a hot topic in the Balkans, and sometimes political leaders in Albania use it for making themselves appear stronger, especially in regards to caring for events in Kosovo and Macedonia among Albanian issues there. What about female politicians from Albania? What is their relationship to the ‘nationalism issue’? Do women have a different approach – in general – to dealing with nationalism and ethnicity?
FK: If there is any issue in which the Albanians do not excel, this is nationalism and this is an inherited national virtue we have. Regarding your question I would say that women in general and women in politics are particularly involved with dialogue, cooperation and understanding. The fact that UN resolution 1325 on women, peace and security has been initiated and supported by women of the region is an achievement of all women and an example to follow.
There is no clearer example than this of women’s approach to regional nationalism and the devastating consequences it has brought to the region. Personally, I think that the agenda of Albanians, and also that of the region is the orientation toward Europe, towards prosperity and welfare, towards a Europe where nationalism is no longer a problem, at least [to the extent that it was] over the last fifty years.
Recently in Albania and Bosnia, the barriers were knocked down that had impeded the free movement of persons- marking one more opportunity for getting closer to Europe not only physically but also mentally. [It marks] an opportunity to see that Europe has developed specifically because the countries that comprise it decided to set aside nationalist strife to cooperate for a common future which has successfully been envisioned. It is time for the Balkan to look towards Europe, towards development and this development can be achieved by requiring and building within each country, but also all together for a better and prosperous life. Let our past serve as a lesson and not as an inspiration; the future is open to a developed and cooperative Balkan.
AD: In this light, how are female politicians affecting the type of issues that are appearing on the parties’ political platforms? 5 years in the future, 10 years in the future, will there be any considerable differences in the kind of issues that political parties in Albania raise, specifically because of female political participation?
FK: Changes occur daily and 5 or 10 years from now those changes that we are planning today [will be realized]; how we work today, how committed we are and how fast we move, will also determine to what degree those changes will be accomplished.
It is important that women and girls become a stable and integrated part of politics as a result of personal choice and support they receive from society as well as women in particular- something that is happening [naturally], and not due to any imposed conditions. Also, it is important that this process continues. The quantitative increase in the number of women in legislative and executive positions, and in social life in general will necessarily also result in an increase of their influence in politics, economy and society, and change social and political agendas, by focusing more on problems concerning society and seeking solutions, such as in education, health, empowerment and improvement of social care.
All of these will necessarily be accompanied by other legal measures and concrete actions towards a more responsible and fairer society. This will happen because women facing these problems daily also require these changes. Practice has proven that the more active are women in society, the more advanced is the society itself, and the more developed, prosperous and peaceful is the country.
AD: There is a lot of corruption in Albanian public life. Is there any difference in how male and female politicians in the public sector are involved with corruption, or react to it? Or, similarly, do you think that an increase in the degree of female political representation can have an effect on decreasing corruption?
FK: Personally I think women just like men can be corrupted in certain situations. But I can also say that in all cases presented in the media – because usually such cases are reported in the media (and this has an effect on transforming the fight against corruption, minimally to a political instrument and maximally to an unresolved matter)- that there should be evidence.
What I am trying to stress is that unfortunately, we have no investigative media in a professional sense, at least not in Albania and as far as I know not in the region as well; which means that with regard to the cases denounced by the media, they should also be accompanied by proof or evidence, so that the cases can then be handled in prosecution or courts. In practice, however, denunciations in the media are made by political forces and afterwards are used for political motivations… and this can also hinder the investigation by the competent institutions.
Under such conditions, a situation is created whereby everyone accuses everyone one, and no one holds responsibility. This has created a negative opinion of the political class among the public. Even if this is not true, it results in the detachment of politics from the public and the opposite, which in the end leads to the preservation of the status quo among the political class.
It would be more appropriate if before declaring a case of corruption in the media, it could be investigated by the competent authorities beforehand, if indeed there is evidence. Here, the media has a very important role to play by being careful in the publication of news, and thus to help in the fight against corruption in particular.
About the interviewer
Aida Dervishi is a native of Albania, who holds a BA in International and European Studies from the University of Piraeus. She has been working with the NGO Vote Women in Politics, a non-partisan organization dedicated to helping women to run for office, and to be elected, in countries around the world, while also inspiring young women to participate in politics. Her interests include government, project management and media outreach.