The Western Balkans can only develop by empowering women


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Eurisa Rukovci
Eurisa Rukovci

Founder of Grazeta Media

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

Over the last few years, the concept of economic empowerment has emerged as one of the main paradigms of development throughout governmental sectors in the Western Balkans.

However, in spite of all the steps taken towards this process of economic transformation, it seems that women have been majorly left out. Numerous studies highlight that countries in the Balkan region, especially the Western Balkans, have among the lowest female labour force participation in Europe. Women’s employment in EU countries is as high as 67%, while that of men is 79%. In the Western Balkans, the employment rate is only 45% for women, compared to 65% for men. Additionally, three in ten women work in the traditionally low-paying social, health and education sectors, while almost one-third of men are employed in the better-paying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Why is this the case? Is it because Western Balkan countries were among the last in Europe to initiate the mass education of women? Is it because two-thirds of women in the Balkans have experienced at least one form of domestic or non-domestic abuse? Or is it because of the absence of incentives to defeminise care work, which has always been a burden for women in this region?

Global and specific regional gender issues affect women from the Western Balkans

The second meeting of the Friends of Europe’s Working Group on women’s economic empowerment in Niš earlier this October opened the floor to discuss the potential reasons behind lagging women’s economic empowerment in the Western Balkans.

Global and specific regional gender issues affect women from the Western Balkans. According to a 2022 study by the World Bank, on average, the gross domestic product (GDP) of Western Balkan countries could be 20% higher if women were to participate in the labour market at the same level as men, whereas 5% of GDP loss can be attributed to the gap of participation of women as entrepreneurs.

Apart from increasing women’s access to finance via grants or incentives for women applicants, supporting women’s ownership rights is of critical importance. Enhancing and enforcing ownership rights through specific laws would enable women in the Western Balkans to take financial risks and decrease human rights violations throughout the region, empowering them not only economically but also socially. Additionally, free legal aid can offer a helping hand to not only safeguard women’s rights but also serve as a mechanism to facilitate women’s participation in the labour market. Given the importance of digitalisation in the 21st century, women across the Western Balkans must be adequately equipped with the digital and technical skills too.

One contributing factor […] is the underrepresentation of women in politics

It is worth noting that governments across the Western Balkans should be held accountable for failure to implement laws and regulations that aim to advance women’s economic opportunities. One contributing factor to delays in the implementation of laws that empower and protect women is the underrepresentation of women in politics, a common characteristic of countries in the region. In fact, the low participation of women in political decision-making positions, as well as in other spheres of life, is as much a reflection of patriarchal norms, layered over decades and centuries, as it is also a product of the modern circumstances and barriers that women encounter in education, employment and society at large, such as discrimination, lack of access to property, lack of entrepreneurship opportunities and the added burdens of care duties.

We need to continue examining factors that are important for social change from multiple perspectives, while at the same time address practical barriers that constitute hindrances to women’s economic empowerment. The above are just some of the critical issues that need to be addressed if we are to empower women throughout the Western Balkans. But there are other factors that also play a crucial part in enabling women to be independent changemakers, which will certainly be addressed during future meetings of the Working Group. Making further demands for an expanded set of rights is critical to conceptualising opportunities for women’s economic empowerment.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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