Local women’s networks drive gender equality in rural Serbia

Cross-posted by UN Women

In rural Serbia, where the political and economic landscape is primarily dominated by men and few women participate in decision-making, local Women Councilors Networks set up with support from UN Women are challenging the status quo. The Networks, now active in ten municipalities across Southern, Eastern and Western Serbia, are empowering women to take active roles within their communities, while building their skills to gain economic independence.

In the agricultural town of Svrljig, a Women Councilors Network is helping women farmers make the most of the land they own already. The network distributed seedlings to women farmers and organized trainings to improve their agriculture and production skills.

“We got a fantastic opportunity to learn more about growing organic food. The workshops not only provided the theory behind the process, but we were able to practice as well,” said Snezana Randjelovic, one of the participants of the training. “We’ve been absorbing every word and are now applying the knowledge in our gardens,” she added.

Why did the Network focus on organic food production? A member of the Network in Svrljig, Tatjana Lazarevic, explained: “We visited every village in the municipality of Svrljig and spoke to women about their needs. Every single woman we spoke to owned some kind of land, but didn’t know how to cultivate or benefit from it. So we decided to encourage them to make the most out of their land.”

To boost organic farming by women, the Women Councilors Network in Svrljig recently submitted a proposal to the local assembly to finance organic production certificates for local women farmers. With an organic certificate, local women will get a chance to grow their markets and expand their businesses.

“The municipality has allocated a budget to advance gender equality and we sincerely hope that our initiative will pass,” said Tatjana Lazarevic. The decision is expected around September this year.

The Women Councilors Networks project is part of a mission to strengthen the role of Serbian women in decision-making processes at the local level, in partnership with UNOPS and financed by the EU and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The Networks specifically target women in the most underdeveloped and disadvantaged municipalities, where they have fewer opportunities to participate in politics and are less likely to influence the policies that shape their lives.

Within a few months since the establishment of the Networks, more than 100 women councilors across the country have been mobilized to advocate for gender equality in their communities, including on sensitive topics such as prevention of gender-based violence, enhancing women’s health and increasing women’s participation in local public offices. At the same time, the project has also expanded the skills and knowledge of local administrations to promote gender equality.

For instance, in Merosina, a traditional village 55 kilometres west of Svrljig, where patriarchal norms are still persistent and women rarely report gender-based violence, the local Women Councilors Network organized the first-ever community meeting to address the issue of violence against women.

UN Women is excited about how the Serbian women’s networks are growing by the day. “We hope that these networks will inspire women in other municipalities to follow in their footsteps,” says Milana Rikanovic, UN Women Representative in Serbia, adding:  “Men and women’s needs are not the same and unless our development planning takes that into account, men and women will not equally benefit from our policies and investments. It is important to support local policies for gender equality.”

To date, the Women Councilors Networks have developed a total of 25 formal recommendations for local authorities across Serbia. These include: promoting more women in decision-making processes, more women in agriculture; providing support to women entrepreneurs, and strengthening local women’s civil society organizations.

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