Women in the Balkans have to know that they are important and capable of taking care of themselves


In the Balkans, the implementation of adopted laws is a burning issue, with human rights violations and institutional discrimination still happening. The fighter for women's rights Maja Raičević.

Portrait Maja Raičević

This piece is part of our dossier "No Women - No Peace: 20th Anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security".

Maja Raičević, the executive director of the Women’s Rights Center in Montenegro, has been actively engaged in the fight for women’s rights for more than twenty years. As she recalls: ‘We should never forget the standards we fought for. Sometimes when we don’t achieve what we intended, we tend to neglect all our previous achievements. We have tools now, we have mechanisms, and we should be aware of them and use them all the time.’

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sofija Todorović had a very interesting inspiring talk with Raičević online.

Anti-Fascism: the best set of values people in the region can stick to

In the Balkan region, with memories of the war still fresh, the fight for women’s rights and safety has always had strong links with anti-war activism and the anti-fascist tradition. I always have this strong need to remind myself of the things that happened not so long ago in this region, says Maja, when rising nationalism and bloody conflicts took so many lives, but also caused a backlash against women’s rights and additionally damaged the already bad position of women in the region. She recalled how, in Montenegro in 2000, there wasn’t any kind of legal framework of law which guaranteed that women couldn't be discriminated against or treated unequally. The consequences of this period are still here, and what frightens me, when I look at the situation today, is that the same could happen to us again, in a flash. According to Raičević, for those looking from a distance, it might seem as though circumstances have changed a lot, that the emancipation process for women in the region has been very successful.

The women who established the first women’s shelters and NGOs that provided services for victims of violence in Montenegro were anti-war activists. In a more distant period of the past, Raičević’s grandmothers were also part of the revolutionary generation that fought against fascism in Montenegro.

The past was full of conflict, and it has taught us that true anti-fascism contains the best set of values people in the region can stick to – that’s why we need to fight fascism all the time. But Raičević is not only thinking of those who are open nationalists, disrespectful towards other people, or feel ethnically superior; she is also thinking of people who see themselves as civic activists but tend to neglect the fact that there is a diversity in beliefs, class, social position and access to resources.

Every action we took was something society didn’t expect

When Raičević recalls her beginnings in the field of women’s rights, she talks about how the problems women were facing were not well received in society. Montenegrin society upheld some very negative traditions and cultural norms which were depriving women of some basic rights and freedoms. The fact is that all countries in the Balkans are still very polarized and patriarchal.

She sees her work as part of a long-term process, but she always mentions how everything her organisation did or has achieved was based on the efforts of other women who worked hard before us – they gave us knowledge and helped us frame our values and beliefs.

The first shelter for women and children in Montenegro, Women’s Safe House, was founded by Raičević’s mother-in-law. In the shelter, she learned a lot about violence, how widespread it is and what these women were going through. At the time, the commonly held opinion in Montenegro was that violence against women in the country didn't exist; the public opinion was that the Montenegrin women were well respected and safe from violence. Unfortunately, the number of women coming to the shelter showed something quite different.

With a lot of work, they succeeded in putting the matter of violence and discrimination against women on the public agenda. In the Balkans, the implementation of adopted laws is a burning issue, with human rights violations and institutional discrimination still happening. Women’s organisations and movements always have to think one step ahead and to ask for more. In spite of everything that has been accomplished, the quest for more has to be omnipresent.

Sometimes you need to improvise

There is no magical, unique approach for success when we talk about dealing with violence against women or trafficking in the region. Every situation demands its own approach.

Improvisation techniques are very important, especially if we get back to the time when there were no laws that guaranteed the protection of women. In 2001, Montenegro adopted its first law concerning female trafficking, while sixty women who were victims of human trafficking were being cared for in the shelter where Raičević worked.

Once, a woman from the shelter – a victim of human trafficking – received a judicial order that required her to be examined at the hospital, and the police were in charge of protecting her; but still, the woman felt frightened. The victim said she didn’t feel safe in the hospital and that she wanted to be returned to the shelter – the only place where she felt peaceful and secure. At that moment, the founder of the shelter, Raičević’s mother-in-law, took her hand and brought her back to the shelter despite the fact she was ignoring the judicial order. One always needs to put the safety of a person first.

Security includes the freedom to express your own beliefs without fear

For Raičević, the matter of security is far more complex than just feeling safe. It means you have to be safe from any kind of violence or mistreatment. As someone who has been working with women for almost twenty years, Raičević became familiar with all kinds of violence and discrimination women faced, including in the home, where most femicides happen worldwide. A woman needs to feel safe from her own family, and not to feel threatened by somebody who is close to her and who she loves, which is sometimes far more complicated than it sounds.

Montenegrin society is still very conservative and doesn’t tolerate different views or beliefs. Those who tend to think differently or publicly express their views can often be subjected to different types of violence. That’s why it’s extremely important, explains Raičević, to start looking at women as having the right to be outspoken and as persons with opinions that matter.

I wish to see empathic women leaders participating in decision-making processes

In the Western Balkans there is a lack of women’s voices in key decision-making positions, but Raičević chooses to emphasise the good cooperation between the women in the region.

Women activists from the Western Balkans region hear each other, and we have an impressively good relationship. Even during war times female activists maintained their connections. Political leaders could learn so much from us, which is but one reason we deserve to be part of all formal negotiations among the leaders in the region. That’s also the key requirement of Resolution 1325, and so an obligation of our state. Instead, we have men sitting around the table, talking without women being present and excluding women’s voices and experiences from any decision-making processes.’

There are some extremely positive examples of women leaders who present such a nice change, says Raičević, like the prime ministers of New Zealand and Iceland. These women show how capable and empathetic women can make a difference.

As her wish for the twentieth birthday of UNSC Resolution 1325, Raičević said she would love to see more empathetic women leaders running the Balkan region. ‘Let’s celebrate women who are taking care of other people rather than those who are competing for power.’