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Brankica Janković, Commissioner For The Protection Of Equality

The Swinging Of The Equality Pendulum

The consistent application of laws, strengthening local capacities, work on shifting awareness of approaching the problems faced by women – these are all important steps towards changing the cultural code that creates gender stereotypes and pushes women towards inequality

Despite great efforts and numerous strides having been made, women continue to be presented as housewives responsible for raising children, while men are presented as successful businesspeople, athletes and car owners. These rigid models of patriarchy, which are deeply rooted and which so-called “guardians of tradition” want to preserve at all costs, unfortunately received a “tailwind” during the pandemic. We spoke with Commissioner for the Protection of Equality Brankica Janković about how to re-enter the enduring struggle for women’s rights with fresh energy.

“The pandemic that first confronted us almost two years ago has brought major and numerous changes in almost all segments of life – the way we work has changed, the way children are educated and go to school has changed, our social habits have changed and all of that together has impacted on the society as a whole,” says Janković.

“Though on women significantly more, because women have carried, and continue to carry, the heaviest burden of the health crisis. According to the statistics, this is the situation in as many as two-thirds of cases, and gender inequality has become more evident on both work and personal fronts – women, like men, worked from home, but alongside that they were also much more often in charge of their children’s online schooling and homework. That pressure was too much for many women to bear.”

On the other hand, notes our interlocutor, women whose professions were particularly important during the crisis – nurses, doctors, shopkeepers, teachers and caregivers – also paid the high price of the pandemic. “Nor should we forget about women who fall victim to violence, single mothers, women with disabilities, Roma women, and those working in the grey zone who were left jobless.”

Work from home is still an actual trend, and it has been a particular cause of controversy because it led to an increase in the amount of unpaid work among women who have found themselves in a situation where they are taking care of both children and the sick, and taking care to keep their jobs. How much, if at all, were public policies sensitive to such situations?

This year [2021], the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, with the support of the European Union – within the scope of the WoBaCa project – and together with the Estonian Commissioner and the City of Heidelberg, conducted a survey entitled “Gender Equality and Work-Life Balance”, and the very first question posed to respondents who have children showed how much striking a balance is a more difficult and sensitive issue in the case of women.

The majority of women, as many as 82% of those surveyed, said that they exercised their right to take leave from work in order to care of their children, while only 14% of surveyed men exercised that same right. Women also still generally spend much more time caring for their children than men (e.g., 33% women from 10-30 hours per week; 47% men up to 10 hours per week). However, the picture is nonetheless changing, and that is demonstrated by the examples of Belgrade and Western Serbia. Men in Belgrade engage in housework and childcare much more than in any other region of Serbia, while the importance of intergenerational solidarity is evident in western parts of our country, where parents receive much more support in raising children from their extended family than is the case elsewhere in Serbia.

Citizens with disabilities, women, members of the Roma national minority, the elderly and youngsters often complain to us about the conceited or unacceptable behaviour that they face. That’s why I fear that tolerance will become an obsolete word with a meaning that few will remember

We received the long-anticipated Law on Gender Equality in the past year. Looking at that legislation now, at a distance of half a year since its adoption, how would you rate it?

It’s too early to assess the effects of implementing the Law on Gender Equality, because Serbia has already taken great strides in this area, thanks primarily to the implementing of the Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination and the great involvement of the Commissioner. It is important for the adoption of the law to be accompanied by engagement on the ground, and it is essential for there to be systemic and continuous support that will encourage women to exercise all the rights that they have. No law will eliminate or reduce gender inequality on its own. These problems have their roots in stereotypes and prejudices that have been fostered over decades and are extremely widespread in all spheres of society.

One of the topics it addresses is the unpaid work of women. Does the existing Draft Law on Work Engagement due to Increased Workload properly address yet another neglected area of work that is mostly done by women?

The existing Draft Law on Work Engagement due to Increased Workload has been the target of numerous critics from the non-governmental sector. One of the criticisms refers to the fact that reviewing the jobs covered by this draft law reveals that they are the lowest paid jobs and that they are mostly performed by women. This is primarily a reference to jobs in the areas of hospitality and tourism, home help jobs and cleaning residential buildings. The current draft regulates, to an extent, work in these areas that had previously been known largely as “undeclared work”, but the mechanisms of legal protection are much weaker than those achieved by permanent workers, which is later reflected in the position of women in their later years – in terms of pension level etc.

You’ve also been focusing on the rights of older women for a long time. Why did we need so long to take notice of them?

The institution that I head has spent many years pointing out that elderly citizens are not, and must not be treated as, an obligation, a burden and an expense of society. We have devoted an entire Special Report on Discrimination to the elderly, precisely in order for us to define their most pressing problems and propose solutions.

Of course, older women are in a particularly sensitive position, as they are more exposed to violence – physical, financial, sexual, neglect, because they often find themselves on the margins, forgotten and alone, not knowing what rights they have and how to exercise them. And they could be something completely different, as they show us ever-more clearly: counsellors to younger women just starting out in their careers or creating families; they could be volunteers in associations and thus continue contributing to society; they have a lot of knowledge and continue to create new values. That’s why older women are an advantage for a society and that’s why society must venerate them, providing them with a dignified life, alongside full respect for their rights.

We have yet to receive a new strategy on the elderly. Is the fact that we’ve spent six years waiting for a new strategic framework a sign that this section of the population is being disregarded?

The failure to adopt a strategy isn’t a sign that the elderly are being neglected, but the strategy should be adopted because it monitors the very complex conditions of the demographic and socioeconomic framework of old age and aging, which we – as an institution – constantly highlight through recommendations. The demographic dynamics are so complex that I understand the fears of the authorities engaged in the process of drafting this document. Serbia shares the fate of Europe, where one in every five citizens is over 65. The Republic of Serbia also shares the fate of Europe and the world – our country is home to around 1.4 million people aged over 65. Ever-more people are aged over 80; there are almost twice as many elderly women, but there are also 180,000 more women in the total population; a depopulation trend is particularly pronounced in rural areas.

The mentioned data say enough about the challenges of aging and the essential need for effective action from all competent stakeholders in society. This certainly also implies the adoption of a new strategy, because the old one expired in 2015. In that context, the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality sees its role not only as an observer of the situation, but rather as a proactive and credible partner of all state bodies and civil society organisations, which is why we compiled the Special Report on Discrimination against the Elderly.

I’ve just been convinced of how important this topic is at the global level through my participation in the Ministerial Conference on Demographic Resilience “Shaping Europe’s Demographic Future, Pathways for Societies to Thrive in a World of Rapid Demographic Change”, which was held in Sofia.

It is easy from a “Belgrade armchair” to say your husband mustn’t beat you, you have the right to protection, your employer mustn’t fire you if you are pregnant or ask if you’re planning to have a child, but a problem arises when those words don’t correspond with their experience. You simply need to reach out to people and encourage them to believe in the system of institutional protection

On the other hand, we received a new Gender Equality Strategy and a Strategy for Combating Gender-Based Violence. To what extent can this strategic framework help us to better cope with the pains of our society and many others?

No strategy is a magic wand that will solve problems on its own, but they are important legal documents that provide guidelines for solving problems in every society, including ours. That’s why the Commissioner states in the recommendations of measures in each Regular Annual Report that it is necessary to draft new versions of strategic documents and action plans that have expired or are about to expire (such as strategies for prevention from, and protection against, discrimination, the development of social protection, the prevention and protection of children against violence, the development of adult education, corporate social responsibility, strategies for aging etc.), in order to ensure continuity in the implementation of measures and activities. Thus, the strategic framework is important because it represents a kind of guideline for the implementing of essential activities in the solving of problems, but that doesn’t mean that we should sit around and wait if a strategy doesn’t exist or has expired.

You have stated yourself that citizens very often turn to you due to all kinds of injustices, and not due to something that is defined as discrimination. How much have we progressed or regressed in terms of tolerance and respect for others during this period?

When it comes to complaints, we are still mostly addressed by citizens with disabilities, women, members of the Roma national minority, the elderly, youngsters, who often complain about the conceited or unacceptable behaviour that they face.

That’s why I fear that tolerance will become an obsolete word with a meaning that few will remember. According to psychologists, the crisis has intensified everything – it has made the good better and the bad worse. It is certain that we’ve increased our sense of solidarity and become more humane, but we are simultaneously increasingly illiberal and exclusive. Hence the impression that tolerance has regressed in society, which is by no means exclusive to Serbia.

INJUSTICE

I concur on the necessity to legally regulate the work of women in the domain of cleaning and care for children and the elderly, but it is still difficult to understand why this gruelling work, which is mostly done by women, pays so little

POTENTIAL

I think we’ve started to realise all the things we can gain if we offer older women a chance to be useful members of society

IMBALANCE

The crisis mobilised women to provide and contribute much more, thus additionally burdening them, so the pendulum of gender equality shifted, in relative terms, to the detriment of women

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