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Championing Gender Equality

There can be no acknowledging and recognising of the role of women in society without partnership with men. It is important for them to understand that equality takes nothing away from them, but rather that we can provide our full contribution if we work together as equals

Addressing the annual conference of Commissioners, which is held to coincide with the commemorating of the International Day of Tolerance, Serbia’s Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, Brankica Janković, chose to direct attention towards the topic of improving the safety of women and girls in rural areas. This is just one of numerous examples of a commissioner opening discussion of a relevant topic requiring attention in Serbian society.

“Thousands of educative stories of both women and men are waiting to become someone’s guideline and inspiration. We are working on them being heard; on their knowledge, experiences and skills being preserved, shared and improved to the benefit of the common good and the advancement of our entire community, but also beyond it,” says Janković.

“Women from rural areas are of special value to our society and we must work more to ensure everything they know and produce is recognised and appreciated. Do you know just how many hours of labour are woven into handicraft works, which often seem expensive to people from the city? Those who don’t believe it should try doing the work themselves.”

Of course, our interlocutor in no way idealises the position of rural women. “I always say that it is also essential to improve their position, as it is difficult for them to realise many of their rights, such as the right to pension, disability and health insurance, they have no personal income and own no land, which illustrates how difficult their position often is. Gender-based violence is also part of the problem facing rural women. As they are less likely to report it,” says Commissioner Janković.

The selection of the topic for this year’s regular conference of Commissioners was no accident, but rather represents the result of two years of intensive work implementing the project “Improving the safety of women and girls in rural areas”, undertaken with the support of the Embassy of Norway and UN Women.

“We worked on their economic empowerment through the procurement of equipment for agricultural production, but also office equipment for the work of civil society organisations in rural areas, where the civil sector is less active and yet represents an important factor in the development of every democratic society,” explains our interlocutor.

She nonetheless feels that the most useful element for her and her work was a visit to Portugal that was organised by Portuguese ambassador Maria Virginia Pina and her team. “I most liked the model of organising security in the community on the part of their National Guard.”

Given the title of your conference is “View of the future”, what kind of contribution can we provide to ensuring the position of rural women is acknowledged and recognised?

We will achieve that through government support programmes; through projects like this one that we’ve implemented and are continuing, constant education, changes to cultural patterns and, of course, through required amendments to the legal framework. We must take continuous care to ensure that all public policies are gender-sensitive and that we include as much gender-segregated data as possible. There are several initiatives have already been adopted and that I, in my capacity as Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, forwarded to the relevant ministries. These include, for example, the amendment to the decree enabling the individual registration of farms by married couples, registering real estate property rights, bringing equality to the position of female farmers in the calculating of compensation during periods of maternity leave, continuous support for rural young people and women.

Everyone can provide their own contribution in their domain – from international organisations and state institutions, to local governments. When women sufficiently empower themselves, it is much easier for those around them to accept and appreciate their significance. Many have already decided not to wait, to create their own chances in life, by launching small businesses in their households and earning money for themselves, gaining a sense of certainty and independence.

It is essential to constantly change patterns of social behaviour, deconstruct stereotypes on expected gender roles, but also sexist and misogynistic practises in the public sphere

While we’re already on the subject of security, it is important to note that we are awaited by the drafting of a new Action Plan for the implementation of the UN Resolution on women, peace and security”. Is it time for women in general and is it time to address the issue of climate change and the safety of women?

It’s high time for that. I even find it strange that there’s still no laurel branch on the shoulders of some lady officer, considering the great interest in military schools among our girls. That would be both a symbolic message and encouragement for youngsters.

Serbia has implemented two action plans for the application of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, and we conducted independent monitoring, alongside an evaluation of implementation. Many things still need to be done, and there should be no delay in drafting the third National Action Plan. Without women participating actively at every table where decisions are made, there is neither prosperity nor stability. This has been shown clearly by the implementation of this resolution. Analysis conducted by the International Institute for Peace in the U.S. of 182 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2011 shows that the likelihood of peace enduring increases by 35 per cent in the case that women are included in negotiations.

Climate change has long been a major topic on the social agenda, and it is linked significantly to women’s (in)equality. We are all very well aware that climate change has a greater impact on poor people all over the world, while research shows that women are disproportionately harder hit by the adverse consequences of climate change – as they have limited access to water and food, are more exposed to pressure, exploitation and domestic violence, while they are more often victims of human trafficking.

Serbia represents part of the world and shares Europe’s fate on many issues, so it is naturally time for this topic to be included in our political agenda in even more areas.

To what extent can women change their own position; and how much can increased numbers of women in parliament, the government and local government bodies really contribute to improving the position of women generally? Are they valued factors in decision-making processes or merely decoration?

Both women and men can be mere decoration. That is an individual decision, but can also happen by coincidence under some exceptional circumstances. Again, everything depends on goals, personal development and work.

Having more women in politics and occupying important positions in society doesn’t necessarily contribute to the better representation of women’s interests, but if there are none there certainly won’t be any realistic overview of the needs of women and policies required to satisfy them. Having said that, we mustn’t forget that men are also elected to represent the interests of all citizens, regardless of gender. Responsibility is thus shared and is neither less or more for women.

In the fight to lead “balanced” policies, we are often confronted by the “glass ceiling” phenomenon, where it is much more difficult for women to reach the top political positions, regardless of quality. We now have a negligible number of women heading parties, and most of them withdraw prematurely from the political race, in the belief that they lack credibility.

However, in other domains too, the height at which women will “hit” the glass ceiling is determined not only by labour market restrictions, rather reasons can also be sought in various sociological and cultural phenomena.

We have spent years monitoring the situation, forwarding recommendations and initiating changes to ensure we have balanced representation of both sexes in all spheres. A lot has been done on that front. We also have important and responsible allies in that journey among politicians.

We’ve increasingly been seeing women working in diplomacy in recent times, primarily serving as ambassadors of European countries in Serbia. To what extent are we following this European trend?

We are part of Europe in all ways, and in this are we are somewhere among the average. I don’t think there’s even full gender equality in diplomacy anywhere among the EU member states. And that’s unusual to say the least, considering their skills and knowledge, or more precisely the overall capacities required to deal with diplomacy.

I’m glad that many companies set the goal of having up to 50 per cent of their decisionmaking positions held by women in the near future. I believe that could have a significant impact on improving the business climate, and thus also the social climate

We currently have a slightly larger number of lady ambassadors in Belgrade who hail from EU member states, which wasn’t the case until the recent arrivals of the ambassadors of Belgium and Germany. Statistics indicate a continuous increase in the number of women holding positions of heads of diplomatic and consular missions, which also applies in Serbia’s case. Data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that almost 40 per cent of positions of heads of diplomatic missions are held by women, including 18 who hold the rank of ambassador.

Climate change also leads us to the topic of women’s health. We’ve witnessed shocking documentaries about the treatment of women in maternity wards, but that’s certainly not all we could say on this topic. Where does room exist for the Commissioner to act in this area?

Only a woman who’s healthy is productive and satisfied. And here I’m referring to overall health, both mental and physical, and a feeling of wellness, and not just the absence of disease. There is ample room for action, because the law provides us with a solid range of powers and we utilise all mechanisms to act with the aim of improving the general health of residents and promoting healthy lifestyles. Interestingly, health situation often provides the basis for discrimination in the complaints submitted to us by citizens. We determine in individual cases whether there has been a violation of the right to protection against discrimination and provide a recommendation to eliminate said violation, though we also submit general recommendations, as in the case of treating women in some maternity wards, while we initiate various amendments to laws and policies. Many modern medicines and therapies are now available thanks, among other things, to our formal opinions and recommendations. What I would like to see, as a result of joint action, is the introduction of sexual and reproductive health programmes to school curricula.

Even during the time of the pandemic, the majority of our recommendations aimed at resolving the health problems of vulnerable residents were accepted.

Toconclude, insteadoflistingmany other subgroups of women who find themselves facing an unequal position in society, I would like to ask you if you have encountered any field, company, institution or segment of society where women enjoy full equality in Serbia?

There are evident changes in the promotion of women’s equality, but I would struggle to find a single area where full equality has been achieved. There are numerous reasons for this, while it is noticeable that achievements in different areas differ greatly. In lower-paid occupations and areas with the greatest social importance – such as education, healthcare, social care and the judiciary – we have a shortage of men, which represents a major imbalance in every sense.

It can be seen from the data of the National Strategy for Gender Equality that, compared to the average among EU member states (28), Serbia scores a gender equality index value that’s 10.4 points lower. To improve things, it is essential to intensify the processes that have been launched, by integrating the gender perspective into all public policies and the budget, by intervening directly in certain fields, and by strengthening independent protection mechanisms. The academic community and the civil sector have an important role to play, while the private sector has perhaps the most important role. I recently supported the wonderful initiative of AmCham Serbia – “Support her idea”, which is aimed at advancing the gender perspective of business in the right way, and I’m glad that many companies set the goal of having up to 50 per cent of their decision-making positions held by women in the near future. I believe that could have a significant impact on improving the business climate, and thus also the social climate. An independent, professional and free media also serves as a powerful ally in the creation of that climate. Gender equality is, for me, an issue of fundamental rights and, ultimately, an issue of our vital national interests.


There are evident changes in the promotion of women’s equality, but I would struggle to find a single area where full equality has been achieved


We must take continuous care to ensure that all public policies are gender-sensitive and that we include as much gender-segregated data as possible


What I would like to see, as a result of joint action, is the introduction of sexual and reproductive health programmes to school curricula