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International Women's Day: A Serbian Perspective

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By Mirjana Popovic and Vesna Kostic

Mar. 8: Working Women’s Day or Jobless Women’s Day in Serbia?

By Mirjana Popovic, Online Communications Producer

In the former Yugoslavia, where I was born, International Women’s Day used to celebrate respect and appreciation for women in society: mothers, wives, female colleagues – in this order.


What is it like in today’s Serbia? The glory of the holiday has faded and new challenges have arisen.

When I was a schoolgirl, this holiday meant two things to me: activities at school, handing small gifts and flowers to our female teachers, recitals, essay competitions; and a more intimate affair back at home – with my mother at the center. I would give her a small gift and always write something for her – verses or a short essay. These were things that “money couldn’t buy” but would tell her how much she is loved and appreciated.

Today, in Serbia, this holiday has lost much of its old flavor. The void is now filled, to a certain degree, by Valentine’s Day. But the political and social aspects of March 8 – those that Clara Zetkin (an advocate of women’s rights who organized the first International Women’s Day) endorsed at the beginning of the last century and those that thousands of activists, politicians and intellectuals supported – are absent today.

While some prominent media have recognized the recent trend in the Balkans of women emerging as leaders during the ongoing economic crisis - taking top positions traditionally seen as reserved for men (prime ministers, for instance) – I myself can’t help but look around and think: how do women fare economically in Serbia?

Everything comes down to money these days - especially in a time of economic crisis. For most people anywhere, including Serbia, money comes from employment – from having a job. In Serbia, unemployment is very high – at about 23 percent. A World Bank paper from 2012 finds that the difficult labor market situation in Serbia translated into women being in a much more disadvantageous economic position than men.

Although one would think that education and skills would be a big factor in finding a job, the strange reality is that women in Serbia are less likely than men to get a job despite similar education levels, according to 2011 census and domestic study on men and women.

I have a friend who is 42 and has two beautiful young girls. This friend has worked in two medium-sized private companies which both fired her on the last day of the maternity leave she was guaranteed by law for each child. Three years after losing her second job, she continues to look for work.

Lack of motivation is seemingly not a factor either. Results from the 2011 census show that a gender gap exists in computer literacy among men and women over the age of 60 in Serbia. This brings to mind my mother - 65 and no fan of computers - who learned to use Skype the moment she realized that her own “busy” daughter, who lives and works across the border, is in more regular contact with her brother because of technology. Most women easily find motivation in their lives, if they have an opportunity.

This brings us back to the economic empowerment of women in the increasingly jobless landscape of Serbia: if women have the education, skills, and motivation to find gainful employment here, what is missing? Opportunities.


March the Eighth – Women’s Day

By Vesna Kostic, Senior Communications Officer

When I was growing up: One of the things I remember vividly about this day is that we gave red carnations to mothers, grandmothers, aunts, female teachers and any woman we appreciated. We wrote essays about women, mostly about our own mothers, or there would be a lecture about Clara Zetkin (an advocate of women’s rights who organized the first International Women’s Day). Sometimes, both. Mothers would return from work with more red carnations and stories about free lunches organized for women by their employers (sometimes they would cynically remark that men ate more). Every now and then, we would hear that some workers’ union association organized free trips for women. For many women, it was their first trip to Rome, Istanbul, Athens, Vienna or Budapest. President Tito would always congratulate us on Women’s Day and speak about the importance of women for development of Socialistic society (no one talked about “gender equality” at the time).

When I grew up: I was on the receiving end of red carnations from family and employers; there was occasionally free lunch and congratulations from male colleagues. Then, communism fell apart and almost no one remembered “March the Eighth.” We were out in the streets fighting for peace in Yugoslavia and for democracy in Serbia.

Today: If it were not for a few text messages from those who still remember, I would have missed the date altogether. I am not sure kids are writing essays about it like we did, and I doubt any of them have ever heard of Clara Zetkin. Occasionally, people write blogs about it, but it has changed from what I remember from my younger days.

Tomorrow: As our region undergoes continuing change, I hope the ideas behind International Women’s Day are not swept away in this change and that mothers, grandmothers, aunts, female teachers and all women get the recognition they deserve – on Mar. 8, and every other day of the year.

Also read Sarosh Sattar's post on Women's Day here.

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