A few days after leaving Afghanistan, where I had my first experience with Women for Women International’s program, I travelled on to Kosovo, the second stop in my tour. WfWI opened its office in Kosovo in 1999, the same year the Kosovo War ended, and so far has served over 30,000 women there.
Shortly after arriving, the differences between the women we serve in Afghanistan and those we serve in Kosovo became quite clear to me. During a visit to a vocational training center in Sllatina, I was struck by the fact that even though the Kosovar women were socially excluded and from households with limited assets they were eagerly recording tips on how to improve production of lettuce in their gardens and greenhouses in their notebooks. This was a stark contrast to Afghanistan, where few of the women enrolled in the program had basic numeracy or literacy skills.
While on the whole women in Kosovo face far fewer dangers than those in Afghanistan, their lives are far from easy. Their struggles are very different, but the will and determination to move past them is the same.
One of the major challenges facing women in Kosovo right now is a deeply troubled economy. Over the past few years, Kosovo has had very little economic growth. The unemployment rate stands at 45%, among the highest in Europe. But for women, the economic situation is even worse, as women’s unemployment is at 55% and only 6% of businesses are owned by women. Nearly half the people of Kosovo are living in poverty.
Signs of limited economic opportunities were everywhere in the homes we visited with several family members crowded into limited space, in the costs of food in the markets and the income earning potential of the women we worked with, in the numbers of youth gathered in public spaces with little or no prospects for work.
Early in my travels in Kosovo, I met a woman named Lindita Balas, a thirty-year-old mother of five who was participating in WfWI’s program. Five days after giving birth to her youngest child, Lindita decided to enroll in the program. Just two months in, Lindita has already learned skills that are going to help her increase her economic independence by selling vegetables she grew in her kitchen garden. She told me how the opportunity to meet other women and network with them had given her encouragement and confidence to try something new like this. Lindita was married at 16, and hasn’t had many opportunities to do something for herself, but she told me she enjoys gaining a broader understanding of her rights and building relationships with other women.
Across the country, women are seeking opportunities to earn an income to support their families. For the women enrolled in WfWI’s core program, the business skills training they receive is giving them crucial skills for success. In learning how to price their goods, how to market and sell their products, and how to plan investment needs, women who before had few economic opportunities begin to understand how they could take the leap into business.
Many of the women I met were eager to try to save enough money to build their own greenhouses. It was clear that any seed capital for these budding entrepreneurs would go a long way to opening up opportunities for selling produce within the communities where they lived.
The women know that success will take a lot of hard work, but for them it’s more important to depend on themselves than others. One of WfWI’s graduates Abetare Balaj Halili told her life story how given her political activities prior to independence she was imprisoned several times, she had to quit studying after completing high school. Enrolling in the WfWI program convinced Abetare to do something for her and her family. She saved some of her training stipend, and she started a business to decorate cars for weddings. She used the business training to carefully cost her inputs including the costs of ribbon, and the chiffon she used to decorate the cars – given that weddings were by and large recession proof she had succeeded in developing a thriving business. Her profit margin was sufficient to provide for both herself and her family.
With such poor economic conditions, the Kosovar women WfWI serves are putting themselves at a competitive advantage in the marketplace. By learning beekeeping, horticulture, dairy production, or capturing a market trend in the service industry, women are able to create new opportunities for success.
Learn more about how you can become involved and support Women for Women International’s work in Kosovo.