Independence Hangs in the Balance: What Do Kosovar Women Think?

Tensions continue to build in the Balkans and the threat of conflict looms. The UN deadline of December 10th has come and gone and negotiations over Kosovo's future are still deadlocked. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that once again negotiations impacting the future of an entire region have failed to include women's voices, particularly the voices of the women at the grassroots level.

Women are the glue that holds their society together during war, and one would think that at this point in the 21st century, politicians would go out of their way to listen to this critical mass of constituents. All around the world this is clearly not happening and particularly not in Kosovo as the international community attempts to resolve the territory's final status.

For long-term peace and stability to succeed in Kosovo, women's priorities and recommendations must be part of Kosovo's national agenda. However, most of the people engaged in this conversation are men acting in their professional capacities as diplomats, government officials and advisors, with very few women speaking on behalf of anyone or anything. Women are simply not at the negotiating table.

In an attempt to amplify the voices of the women, Women for Women International surveyed more than 1,600 Kosovar women on subjects that extended beyond "women's rights" or "women's issues," delving more broadly into the economic, social and political issues that affect all of Kosovo. The status of Kosovo weighs heavily on the minds of the women surveyed. Whether it will become an independent nation, remain under UN administration or be placed back under Serbian control, the result will directly affect the entire region.

Clearly, resolution of final status of their country is a high priority for everyone, but the women we surveyed also understand that independence will not magically transform their situation. While 54.3 percent of the women are dissatisfied with the current situation in Kosovo, more than twice as many cited unemployment as the reason for their dissatisfaction as those who cited uncertainty over Kosovo's status. In order to create a stable country there must be a long term investment to create the economic opportunities that will provide each Kosovar with food on their table and a future for their children.

The presence of international community has always been assumed to be seen as the most objective stable body in Kosovo yet the women surveyed, there is greater confidence in "internal" institutions, such as the police and the media, than "international" ones, such as the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the people of Kosovo need to rebuild Kosovo from the ground up instead of a top down internationalized approach. This means more economic and educational investment for the women and men at the grassroots of the society.

The discussion of the status of the Serbian minority in Kosovo is a major issue of contention at the negotiating table and in the media, with many assuming that they will be put at risk if Kosovo becomes independent. However, the women we surveyed don't see their ethnic differences as unique. The survey found that almost 80 percent of Kosovar women feel that minorities should be able to stay in Kosovo with no restrictions, and over 63 percent of women can imagine themselves working with women of another ethnic group. One of the women interviewed in the survey commented, "In every democratic country, there are minority groups and they live equal, so it must happen in Kosova as well, and I think in fact it is happening. We have to live with them, work and learn with them, Kosova doesn't need to be exceptional."

Finally, if the international community listens to what the women have to say there is a clear window of opportunity to secure a just and stable future for Kosovo -- 89 percent of the women surveyed expressed hope and optimism for next year. This optimism for the future, we would argue, is one of the most important points to emerge from the survey. Hope is a potent commodity that can tangibly transform people's lives. When allowed to flourish, hope creates leaders, mobilizes support and fuels action, all of which Kosovo desperately needs right now in its struggle to achieve true peace.

Because of the roles that women play in their families and communities, sustaining women's hope and commitment to the future of Kosovo is a crucial factor in Kosovo's successful transformation into a democratic and economically viable state. Sustainable peace, democracy and economic development depend on women's economic, social and political participation. It is time for women to be involved, not just in symbolic ways, but through full participation at every level, from the family dinner table, to community councils, to the United Nations. Women's vast potential for leveraging hope into sustainable peace must not be allowed to remain untapped. Stronger women lead to stronger nations.