“Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
Antonia Hoidal ’16 completed a Global Health Internship at the Kosovo Women’s Network in Pristina, Kosovo, during the Summer of 2015.
Walking along Pristina’s Mother Theresa Boulevard at night I am always in awe of the fabulously dressed women of Kosovo. Effortlessly gliding in 3-inch heels, they saunter along the boulevard singing melodies in Albanian, while in the background, the “Ezan”—the Muslim call to prayer—echoes across the city hills.
Kosovo represents a unique clash of cultures, characterized by ever increasing tension between traditional Muslim values and modern Western values. As the second youngest country in the world, this small nation is going through a transition that has changed and modified its citizens’ lives and societal behaviors in complex ways. In particular, traditional notions of womanhood are being challenged and drastically transformed.
Although each society is endowed with its own vision of womanhood and gender roles, women everywhere are bound together by common experiences, similar health issues, and shared familial burdens. What it means to be a woman goes far beyond fitted clothing, painted nails and silky hair. One’s gender directly influences the societal power given to an individual. These gender relations of power lay the foundation for gender inequality and are among the most influential of the social determinants of health.
While a traditional way of living is still present in many small and rural areas, pressure to adopt a European modernized lifestyle is reflected in the views and lifestyles of many urban youth. In Kosovo society, the structure of the family is heavily influenced by tradition and determined by the “book of law” called “Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit” (The Code of Lekë Dukagjini). Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit declares that the man of the family has all the decision making rights and duties, the woman has a right “only to ask for food and clothes” from her husband. While this book may be an important cultural cornerstone, it reinforces patriarchal practices that are harmful to women, and may impede a woman's decision-making power, including access to health care.
Over the last several years, in large nationwide surveys, the Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN) has been working to capture the female experience, and the challenges Kosovar women face. During my internship with KWN, I investigated the ways in which gender relations impact the health of Kosovar women. My work has made me very aware of the many ways in which traditional gender relations of power in Kosovo may be present during patient-doctor relations in Kosovar health institutions.
Beliefs about family planning, reproductive health, maternal health, and appropriate sexuality and virginity significantly influence women’s health choices. Traditionally in Kosovo, a woman’s virginity is considered by most of the participants to be the most important part of morality, dignity and a woman as a whole. In fact, one draft of my health survey had to be edited because even the term vagina, when used in medical questions, was far too provocative.
Women in Kosovo face unique health problems, and have specific needs that should be addressed by policies and institutions. In order to implement gender-sensitive policies, it is imperative to understand the gender dynamics present within and outside of health institutions. KWN advocates for gender disaggregated data, gender-sensitive budgeting, and works with the government to mainstream gender at all levels of policy.
The majority of my work at KWN focused on coding and analyzing a survey on domestic violence, and creating a survey to determine women’s health characteristics. These surveys attempt to develop a better understanding of the underlying factors and determinants of domestic violence and health. Afterwards, I worked a domestic violence survey—96 pages of heartbreaking stories of domestic violence and sexual harassment. The data is in the process of being turned into comprehensive statistics.
When I walk the streets of Kosovo, I wonder about the many burdens these confident women may carry with them. I feel a hunger for justice and for challenging the pervasive male dominated health practices, but I also appreciate the progress that has been made so far. I am grateful for the women I worked with and the government’s attempt to incorporate gender into its policies. Nevertheless, I am now very aware of the importance of considering the role of gender during health policy making for all countries, new or old.
- Basha, Vlora and Inge Hutter. (2006). “Pregnancy and Family Planning in Kosovo: A Qualitative Study,” UNFPA and University of Groningen.
- Ministry of Health Kosova (2015). “Viewpoints on female virginity among students in Kosovo,” Government of Kosovo Ministry of Health: Prishtina.
- Sen, G, Ostlin, P, George, A. (2007). Unequal, unfair, ineffective and inefficient. Gender Inequity in Health: Why it exists and how we can change it. Final report to the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health, 2007.
- Vuniqi, L. (2008). “Women’s Role in Independent Kosova,” Kosova Gender Studies Center, Prishtina.