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Brita Fernandez Schmidt
Author Brita Fernandez Schmidt
Women for Women International - UK, Executive Director
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Brita Shares: Reconciliation and Economic Empowerment in Kosovo

Ethnic tensions

When I arrive in Pristina, there are protests on the streets. The atmosphere is tense and we ask why. We hear different reasons - no one is entirely sure. Insults by one of the ministers against ethnic Albanians publicly articulated in parliament? Mining and privatisation? The opposition party of the recently instated government playing games? We don't know. What I do know is that the tensions are real and young men are particularly involved and somehow someone must have an interest in keeping the tensions alive. 

But visiting the communities that Women for Women International works with, I know that the women I meet are not the ones who want to focus on their ethnic differences. They want to focus on the future and how they can find a job, earn a living, learn new skills. I hear that a group of ethnic Albanian and Serb women enrolled in the Women for Women International programme want to learn each other's language. Thanks to the determination of the Women for Women International - Kosovo team, the language training will begin next month with funding from the British Embassy in Pristina.

Despite numerous obstacles and challenges, International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate an exciting future for women’s rights and gender equality.

Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Women for Women International - UK, Executive Director
Photo: Alison Baskerville

Our work in Kosovo

A manifestation of ethnic divisions

Instability as grounds for extremism

Visiting Mitrovica in the North is probably the most visible manifestation of the divide. The city is divided by a river, with the North being predominantly inhabited by Serbs and the South by ethnic Albanians. The Mitrovica bridge, on the south side, is protected by KFOR - Kosovo's Forces, a tanker manned by the Italian peacekeeping mission and a police car. I cannot see if the north side is equally protected because we are advised not to cross the bridge. It feels a bit like Berlin during the cold war but without the physical wall. I am told that if cars drive into the Serbian side with their number plates on, there is a good likelihood they will be attacked - and I see that all the cars passing the invisible divide do not have number plates.

Mitrovica is also the place where the disputes over the mines is taking place with the North and the South controlling the extracting and processing factory. It is that factory that is being privatised and was controlled by Kosovo and now Serbia want to claim it back. Undoubtedly a lot of the dispute is over territory and natural resources, and it is fuelled by extreme high levels of unemployment and poverty. Mitrovica is also witnessing an increase in religious extremism, with financial incentives to those who recruit people.

Join me on the bridge. Photo: Jetmir Idrizi
Photo: Jetmir Idrizi

Working Together

Despite our differences

Last year, Women for Women International founded the first cooperatives of Serb and ethnic Albanian women, and I am delighted to see that the team are continuing to find ways to bring women together across ethnic divides. When I meet the group of 30 Serbian women in Sevce, the most remote village in the south of Kosovo, they ask if we could support them to travel to Pristina to the WfWI centre so they can meet other groups of ethnic Albanian women for International Women's day in March.

Many of them have not left their municipality since the war. One woman tells me that many of her friends are scared. I can see how important it is to focus on reconciliation, particularly in a climate where there are forces who are proactively trying to keep the tensions alive and drive the population apart.

Focusing on income generation and reconciliation hand in hand is therefore a very smart approach and I can see why the Women for Women International programme is so successful. It is addressing a real need. I hear from the Kosovo team that it is not always easy and that they have encountered hostility, but their track record of providing real practical help, their consistent support and the fact that they keep the promises they make to communities has created a high level of trust amongst the communities and the Women for Women International team.

So much so that now after 3 years of operating in the Serb municipalities, women have proactively requested Women for Women International's assistance - a real step forward.

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