Brankica Janković, Former Commissioner For The Protection Of Equality

We Must Change Cultural Patterns

We’ve managed to present the topic of gender equality in public as being very important, which resulted in changing the attitude towards this issue. There are now no serious actors on either the left or the right of the political spectrum who haven’t included this issue on their agenda. Of course, much remains to be done in practise to make women and men more equal.

The position of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality has been vacant since May of this year. The damage this causes has been pointed out by numerous experts and non-governmental organisations dealing with the topic of discrimination. While we await the government’s appointment of a new Commissioner, we spoke with Brankica Janković, who headed this institution for the last four years.

She says that the amount of damage done by not naming a new Commissioner depends on the perspective. “I wouldn’t be so bold as to give such an assessment, because only the citizens can assess how much this has created problems for them,” says Janković.

“In a situation in which we face a risk of enormous proportions and great unknowns, it is difficult to assess anything realistically. I can only say with certainty that this institutions always provided citizens with timely and effective protection against unequal treatment in any form and area, and it operated especially effectively during the pandemic, when no one in the institution was spared and we did everything in our power to help those who need it, and to do so in the shortest possible time, because the legal deadline of 90 days and procedures are not useful in a sate of emergency, when people’s health is endangered or daily functioning is hampered. In addition to my regular job, I also volunteered continuously for the Serbian Red Cross.”

Do you consider that the issue of amending the law to prevent this problem from recurring to be among the priorities of the government?

– Perhaps not at this moment, when public health and the preservation of citizens’ lives should be the top priority, of course along with the preserving of our healthcare system, but I believe that such a will still exists and that this issue will be resolved in the period ahead.

Since the establishment of this institution and during your mandate, to what extent has it managed to change the situation when it comes to discrimination against women?

– My assessment is to a large extent based on arguments that I can confirm – a large number of successfully resolved complaints of citizens, and success implies that the Commissioner’s recommendations for the elimination of violations of rights have been respected and implemented, and that discrimination has been eliminated in many individual cases. There were cases when a female citizen only had to indicate that she would file a complaint to the institution for that potential discriminator to stop. We also managed to present the topic of gender equality in public as being very important, which resulted in changing the attitude towards gender equality, although the situation is of course far from ideal.

It was on 5th March this year that the European Commission presented its Strategy for Gender Equality for the 2020-2025 period. What are the most important recommendations that we should adopt ourselves?

– Serbia is on a good, European track when it comes to this issue, and our strategic documents also contain almost identical goals/recommendations as the European document, which is quite expected given that we are firmly on the path of European integration. It is also a fact that no EU member state has achieved equality between women and men to date. Progress is slow, as stated in the mentioned document, while gender differences still exist, mostly in the areas of employment, salaries, care and pensions. In order to bridge these gaps and enable Europe to utilise its full potential in business, politics and society, the Strategy also defines targets that relate to ending gender-based violence (33% of women were victims of physical and/or sexual violence, while 55% were sexually harassed), breaking gender stereotypes, eliminating gender differences on the labour market, achieving the equal participation of genders in different sectors of society, combatting differences in wages (the EU average is 16%) and pensions based on gender, eliminating gender differences in the area of care and achieving a gender balance in making decisions and policies.

We must preserve the right to decide for ourselves about our body and our health, and we must be ready for a great struggle – there are no arguments supporting a different opinion, because that is a huge achievement of civilisation in terms of women’s human rights

Many believe that everything that had been achieved in the struggle of the feminist movement was undone with the arrival of COVID-19? What is your opinion on what happened to women’s equality in this period?

– The realistic picture is slightly more complex in practise and there are two sides to the coin, like everything in life – on one side are the measures for prevention and protection against the virus, particularly various restrictions burdening the economy, which have led to a gender gap as a consequence in many areas, especially in the economy, and women have been hit much harder. One cannot express the difficulty of living and working from home while simultaneously taking care of most family members, with additional hygienic prevention measures. If we add to this online education for children – women who’ve had such obligations have been seriously burdened, if they hadn’t previously fought for equality in the private sphere, which is mostly undervalued in the equality agenda. The other side of the coin actually showed how much and what kind of capacities women have, and served to remind political actors about how valuable women are as a resource of society. Take a look at our political scene today – it truly reflects the situation regarding equality for women.

Have we missed the opportunity to deal with domestic violence sufficiently during this period?

– We missed a lot of opportunities in our country and around the world, here I’m primarily referring to knowledge about the virus and increasing capacities for different types of emergencies – we could certainly have done even more to combat the spread of infection and test our systems for some new disasters that probably won’t bypass us in the future. This also relates to violence against women, but, again, we must ask how realistic it was to pay special attention to that issue under such extraordinary circumstances. Instead we need to pay enough attention and allocate enough resources in the regular state of affairs to see where we’re still lacking in the protection system, which has improved significantly over the past few years, but it is worth working, mostly on prevention and changing cultural patterns. It is good that we have leaders in public life, albeit only a few, who are ready to send clear messages about the unacceptability of violence and the obligation of the state to provide protection.

Movements aimed at banning abortions are strengthening in many countries. Do you believe that something like this can also happen in Serbia?

– Anything can happen anywhere. An intelligent person will never say that something is impossible in our country – if people have done something somewhere. That should be the red line of attack on women’s human rights. We must defend them by all means if and when necessary. We must preserve the right to decide for ourselves about our body and our health, and we must be ready for a great struggle – there are no arguments supporting a different opinion, because that is a huge achievement of civilisation in terms of women’s human rights, and we mustn’t at any price allow a situation where little girls as us to tomorrow what we did and how we went backwards by a century. What is the authority that should convince us otherwise?

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