Helping women in war-torn Kosovo

Last October, we visited the Women for Women International (WfWI) programme in Kosovo which focuses on giving socially-excluded poor women access to knowledge and resources to help them build better lives.

Note to Readers: This article was written and published by the Cartier Charitable ​Foundation and is reprinted with permission.

Last October, we visited the Women for Women International (WfWI) programme in Kosovo which focuses on giving socially-excluded poor women access to knowledge and resources to help them build better lives.

Small steps make bigger steps possible

Last October, we spent three days visiting the Women for Women International (WfWI) programme in Kosovo, Stronger women, stronger societies. The Programme is supported by the Cartier Charitable Foundation and focuses on giving socially-excluded poor women access to knowledge and resources to help them build better lives for themselves, their families and communities.

We visited a range of different training activities and classes, including Vocational and Horticulture Classes in Sodovine, and Domestic Violence and Life Skill Training in Lubizhde. We also had the opportunity to visit a newly-created cooperative in Komogllava and meet up with Lutije Gashi, a woman who graduated from the WfWI year-long programme in 2013 and is now vice president of a cooperative called "Manushaqja".

Iliriana Gashi leads the Women for Women International team in Kosovo and accompanied us during our visit. This is how she explains the work she is doing.

What is the mission of Women for Women International?
"We work with marginalised women in countries affected by conflict and war to give them knowledge, means and skills, empowering them economically and personally so that they can understand their value and become active citizens. Kosovar women struggle every day for economic and social equality in a patriarchal society that offers limited job opportunities and where rates of sexual assault, domestic violence and sex trafficking are exceptionally high."

What is the programme about?
"During our one-year core training programme women learn job skills and receive business training. But job skills alone are not enough to empower them. They need to learn how to improve their health and well-being, what their rights and possibilities are, and why it is important for them to become decision-makers and create a support network in their communities. They also learn technical skills linked to specific market needs, such as horticulture, sowing or handcrafts.

During training we provide a small stipend that the women can save and invest at the end of the programme. Often this turns out to be the first step in their economic empowerment. Once they graduate from our programme, we also offer technical assistance by, for example, mentoring them in the process of creating a registered cooperative.

There are many beautiful stories I could tell. During our 15-year presence in Kosovo we’ve trained about 30,000 women. This year alone 2,200 women have been enrolled in our programme. However, big numbers are not all. They are proof that the programme works, but we are much more interested in each woman’s story than in numbers and statistics. So we’re proud that one of the five ‘2014 businesswomen in Kosovo’ is a graduate of our programme. And we’re proud that five cooperatives are about to be created as a result of our programme and of our graduates’ hard work.

The beauty of our programme is that we work with women who never received a formal education when they were girls, because at that time, before the war, they were excluded from school and had to take care of their families. Well, we give them a second chance. We’re opening a second door in their lives."

Is the programme really helping women to become breadwinners?
"In Kosovo, women account for just 27% of the labour force. We assist our graduates in the search for a job. 390 graduates found profitable employment thanks to our Job Placement Office, which has been actively engaged with employers to connect women to new opportunities since 2012. In addition to the Job Placement Office, we’re now inaugurating a new Career Development module to give women who already have a job the skills and resources to find better opportunities and further advance their careers.

A large part of our energy is dedicated to increasing self-employment opportunities. We work with women living in rural areas, training them how to cultivate their land, make it more productive and sell their products on the market. We train them in groups and often, when one of them starts a new business, she ends up employing the women who were with her during her training. Luckily enough, the legal framework to register new businesses has recently been simplified in the country and increased attention is being paid to gender, making it easier for women to become small entrepreneurs."

I am an MD by profession. For me, being a doctor means helping people in need. And this is what I do here. I help people in need. I do not heal them, but I give them opportunities to change their lives. This is what brought me here. And the number of women we’ve been able to assist makes this one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever achieved. When I go in the field and meet these women and see how their lives have changed or when I hear that they want to do more, this gives me an energy I could not easily find elsewhere. All this makes me think that I could not have a better job. -Iliriana Gashi, Country Director, Women For Women International Kosovo.

What is Women for Women International’s added value?
"I believe that what makes our programme particularly successful is that it combines the economic and social dimensions, not only increasing women’s skills by giving them resources, technical competences and incentives, but also by increasing their knowledge of their rights as individuals and as women. Time is also our added value: we spend a year with these women and plan to go even further with the Career Development training. Sometimes the small steps we take after the training make bigger steps possible in the future."

Could you tell us more about the social part of the training?
"The social dimension to the training has to be as comprehensive as possible. We start with a discussion about the value and opportunities women have. In Kosovo, women tend to think they have no value at all, that their work and contribution at home is worthless. So we try to calculate how much they are actually generating, even if they do not have a paid job. It is the first hint that helps them understand that they do have a role to play, that they are important to society.

Then they get to learn about health issues: breast cancer, disease prevention, reproductive health and environment protection. The third module is dedicated to decision-making. Violence and domestic violence are integrated in this module. (An estimated 20,000 women and girls were subjected to organized gang rapes by Serbian and Yugoslav forces during the 16-month Kosovo War).

The final training module looks at networking: we provide women with information and ideas on how to create associations and cooperatives. We have inspiring examples of women who started their own businesses after the training programme. However, we believe that this is not an option for everyone and that encouraging women to work in groups makes it easier for them to reach the market."

Lutfije’s fresh start

Lutfije Gashi, aged 35, successfully graduated from the Women for Women International programme in Kosovo in 2012-2013.

She lives in Kaqanik i Vjeter (Old Kaqanik), in south-east Kosovo, where over 95% of women are unemployed.

Lutfije learned about the programme during a presentation at the local village school. Before joining it, she used to grow food only for her own consumption.

She attended the Vocational Training course and chose to specialise in Horticulture. During the course she was encouraged to set up a small greenhouse to diversify production.

"The training helped me in so many ways. In the life skills classes, I learned why hygiene is extremely important and that I need to use detergent to kill germs." She also attended classes on domestic violence. "I learned that violence is not just about beating. Some women are not even allowed out of their houses, and suffer from psychological violence. After the training I talked to my cousin, who is a victim of such violence at home, and tried to give her help."

After graduating, Lutfije encouraged other women to work with her and became the vice president of an association that has recently been registered as a cooperative, a status that is required to start doing business and selling food products on the market.

The cooperative is called "Manushaqja", which means pansy flower. Manushaqja has 82 members today. Some but not all of these women are graduates, of the programme. Since the creation of the cooperative, WfWI staff members have regularly followed Lutfije and her group, assisting them with administrative issues and helping them identify new economic opportunities and make connections with established companies.

Lutfije grows medicinal herbs (the so-called "marshmallow", Althaea Officinalis) and blackberries for sale on the market, as well as vegetables for her own consumption. She now earns an average of €200 a month. Her husband, who works as a day labourer for the UN Force in Kosovo, recognizes that her income is very important for the family. Indeed, this money is financing the construction of the first floor of their house.

Lutfije has three children, one son and two daughters. Lutfije’s older daughter, Argjenda, is 8 years old. "I want to become a doctor", she declares enthusiastically. Argjenda reads and writes very well, and enjoys going to school. She even tries not to miss classes when she is ill. "We will do anything, even sell the house if we have to, to make sure Argjenda gets an education," Lutfije said.