More than ever, concerned citizens in Kosovo—which recently marked its 13th anniversary of independence—are raising a storm on social media and in the streets against harassment and sexual assault.
After the widespread circulation of a video earlier this month that appeared to show two seventh-grade boys forcing their genitals into the mouth of a girl in first grade, Shpresa Shala—education director for the municipality of Prishtinë, Kosovo’s capital—brushed off the incident as “games kids play.” That led even more people to join the street protests under the banner: “It’s not a game, it’s trauma.”
Although Prishtina has seen similar protests before, this issue will continue to fester without systemic changes.
Kosovo has made rapid progress in some areas, even though it lags behind in others. The country has already had two female presidents since 2008, when it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. In addition, 40% of members in the National Assembly are women—and the current government boasts five female ministers, the most ever. Yet women comprise only 13.7% of Kosovo’s workforce, according to the GAP Institute.
Barely two years ago, the New York Times reported on the repeated sexual abuse of a teenager from a small village in Kosovo. Raped by a man she knew, and then again by the police officer to whom she reported the case, the girl was failed by our system twice.
Many protesters and social activists have called for sex education classes, which would be a great way to educate students about harassment, family planning and sexually transmitted diseases. However, such classes are taboo in Kosovo’s traditional culture. At any rate, sex education is worthless once sexual abuse has occurred.
Clearly, our school system faces a serious obstacle: Students don’t have a designated place to report harassment and abuse. All they can do is tell their teachers, most of whom lack formal training or even basic knowledge about sexual abuse. Sometimes, teachers are themselves the abusers.
In her 2018 article about sexual harassment of women at the University of Prishtina, Dafina Halili highlights the enormous, often unbearable challenges of students who come forward, and the resistance they often face from faculty. This time it wasn’t “games kids play.” Rather, the students’ clothing was to blame.
As pressure mounted on university officials to investigate allegations of sexual harassment by professors, the vice-rector appealed to women on TV not to dress provocatively. She later resigned, but that didn’t resolve the problem at hand: In the era of #MeToo, Kosovo’s largest public educational institution has no independent commission to investigate allegations of sexual harassment.
According to Halili, the university’s Ethical Code for Academic Staff doesn’t mention sexual harassment even once. A simple, mandatory sexual harassment training video would also go a long way towards improvement.
Unpunished problematic behavior in childhood and early adulthood creates a society in which adults who were never held accountable bring their predatory behavior into the workplace. In a country where women make up only 11% of leadership positions in civil service—and where outlets to report harassment are almost non-existent—many suffer in silence on a daily basis.
Day after day, women deal with off-color remarks, unwanted advances, mistreatment, abuse and discrimination. These strong women keep going because they have responsibilities. After all, giving up is not an option for them. They want a better future for themselves and future generations.
As Oprah Winfrey said upon accepting a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award in 2018: “I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault, because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know.”
The reactions and protests are crucial because they bring attention to this issue and demand change. We must start listening to their anger now and implement the changes required to prevent more abuse and build a more equitable society.
We have a moral obligation to improve our community by reforming our homes, schools and institutions. Every woman deserves to feel safe in the street, in school, and at work. Without a safer environment for women everywhere in Kosovo, our society will never be truly free.
Rinora Jelliqi, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at Iowa’s Drake University, works for the Consulate of Kosovo in Des Moines.