Helpdesk Report: Gender norms in the Western Balkans

from Governance and Social Development Resource Centre
Published on 01 Sep 2017

Evie Browne
17. 03. 2017


What are the gender norms in the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia) at regional and national levels (similarities and differences between countries)? What are the baseline indicators of gender equality? Are there gendered sources of stability/resilience?

1. Overview

The Western Balkans remains a region dominated by patriarchal gender norms. The biggest challenge for improving gender equality is changing the mentality of women and men towards traditional gender roles (Petričević, 2012). The literature consistently identifies social attitudes as a barrier to increasing gender equality. Many people are not aware of women’s rights or gender non-discrimination laws (Petričević, 2012). In several areas of gender equality, legal provisions are adequate and conform to UN and international norms. However, these are not always implemented or adhered to in practice, due to lack of capacity, knowledge, resources or social barriers.

Standard indicators of gender equality include: female/male school enrolment; literacy rate; unemployment; maternal mortality; life expectancy; adolescent fertility rate; proportion of women in parliament1. Others include violence against women and girls; gender equality policy and legislation. Much of the literature recognises the need to include men and raise men’s awareness about gender issues. Most of the literature on the Western Balkans looks at interpersonal and household gender norms, such as girls’ access to school, women’s work and household decision making. There is also a strong literature on women’s political participation and violence against women and girls.

This report provides a brief summary of the main gender issues in the region, as reported in the literature. It is not a comprehensive literature review, but a collection of resources which highlight the key points to consider on gender. Each country has a large selection of resources on its specific gendered issues, which can provide more detail. There is a companion piece to this report which focuses on the relationship between gender and conflict in the Western Balkans. This report sketches the main parameters of gender in the region. The main findings are:

  • Education: Gender parity in education is good in the region, with nearly equal attendance of boys and girls. Increasing numbers of girls go to university. Gender issues are therefore around subjects they choose to study, and what schools teach about gender and sexuality.
  • Women's political participation: All countries have a gender quota and there is quite strong policy in place for women's representation, but this is not always adhered to. Participation is still low, around 15 - 35 per cent. Women do not occupy decision-making or powerful positions. Serbia has the highest proportion of women in parliament – 34 per cent. Training, mentoring and forming cross-party women's groups have all been successful in increasing women’s representation.
  • Sexual and reproductive health and rights: Traditional gender roles and attitudes towards women's sexuality prevail. Serbia has become more conservative since the end of the conflict, due to a rise in religious nationalism. Kosovo has strong legislation on SRHR due to the strong UN presence. Access to maternity care is reasonable, but women may not go to the doctor for any other health needs. LGBTI rights are poorly protected, with rural areas showing worse discrimination than urban areas.
  • Violence against women and girls: VAWG is prevalent and legal protections and services are weak. Domestic violence is perceived as a common problem in the region. Some of the literature identifies violence against women and girls as connected to violent conflict. In BiH, the legacy of war has created conditions of poverty, trauma and substance abuse, which contributes to domestic violence (Hughson, 2014). The history of violent conflict, patriarchal values, women’s economic dependence, and an emphasis on women’s role in keeping the family together has created conditions in which domestic violence is largely accepted (Hughson, 2014). The prevalence of small arms and light weapons contributes to domestic violence, usually perpetrated by men against women. A study commissioned by SEESAC (Božanić, 2016) shows that there are strong links between SALW proliferation and violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence. Men involved in war or military conflicts are more likely to use a firearm in domestic violence than men who were not involved. This paper suggests that the male ownership of firearms reinforces gender norms of male dominance over women.
  • Women and work: Women are formally employed much less than men. Traditional gender roles prevail. The labour market is around 37 per cent women. Women earn less and do not occupy high level positions.
  • Land and property: Property is overwhelmingly owned by men. Inheritance almost always goes to men, even where women have the rights to it. Urban areas have more women owners than rural areas.
  • Migration: Women refugees from Syria have been provided with some women-friendly services, but not enough. There is strong out-migration from Albania for economic reasons, but this does not seem to advantage women.
  • Roma: All structural disadvantages experienced by women are experienced doubly by Roma women. Roma girls attend school less, marry young, do not work and do not have high aspirations. There appear to be no indications of change over the last decade.
  • Men and boys: The ideal of hegemonic masculinity suggests that gun ownership and violence is linked to masculine identity and social status, and used as a way of asserting this identity. SEESAC recommends that reducing violence entails targeting the gendered social system which associates guns with masculine power, protection, and control over women.