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Women in politics: The Serbia you have not heard of

July 29, 2013   ·   0 Comments

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Serbia, an aspiring European Union member, succeeded in increasing the percentage of women in its Parliament substantially within the last year. It is consequently ahead of the United States and many other developed countries and older democracies by several spots on a global female Parliamentarian leader list.

You may have heard a few things about the Southeastern European country already. Serbia is small, it is landlocked and is located in the Western Balkans. It was once a part of Yugoslavia under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, who some called a benevolent dictator. Its president during the 1990s was a man who, sadly, you may have heard a lot of—Slobodan Milosevic.

Yet, there is something you may have not heard about Serbia. Serbia has experienced tumultuous times but has recently, even under the new, somewhat novice and more conservative government, dedicated itself to bringing stability to its people and the region.  The tentative logistical agreement it reached with the break-away partially-recognized republic of Kosovo in June is a testament to this.

Ultimately, you may be asking why Serbia then has become so open to women leaders and you may also be asking how a struggling Balkan country with a history of political and social volatility managed to accomplish a crucial percentage increase when other countries unfortunately have not.

The why is clear; women make good leaders and societies need them. The how is quite interesting.

Many people I have spoken to in Serbia explained that the legacy of many positive socialist policies during the rule of Tito made it possible for women to attain high levels of education, professional degrees, work in non-traditional industries and sometimes become leaders in their fields. Maybe surprisingly to some, socialism left some uplifting components behind that created an educated, capable and ambitious female population. Now, the stage has been set for them to reach even higher. Education, relevant experience and promising careers all play a crucial part in this story.

Additionally, a few years ago, the European Union issued recommendations to Serbia that urged the country to reform its electoral laws in order to, among other things, increase women’s participation in politics. Recognizing the simple principle that in true participatory democracies women should be involved in political life, Europe pushed Serbia into improving gender equality in its society. Serbia willingly obliged.

Serbia’s Parliament successfully passed an election law in the Spring of 2011 that required every third candidate on a political party’s electoral list to be a woman. This is known internationally as a quota.

The quota worked rather efficiently. In the last session of the Serbian Parliament, women made up 55 members out of 250 total or roughly 22% of members in the Serbian National Assembly. This placed Serbia 56th on the Inter-Parliamentary Union global list, tying the Czech Republic. The new session of Parliament is comprised of 83 women; making Serbia’s percentage 33.2% and placing it 23rd on the IPU list. This is an impressive and important achievement for a transitioning and new democracy.

Where these facts then stand in a local and international context may be the resulting question.

For example, the United States Congress is made up of 19% women. The United Kingdom is now 56th on the IPU list and its Parliament consists of 22.5% women, Yet, these world powers are not alone in this regard. The global average is just above 20%. Clearly there is work to be done in this regard everywhere.

While implementing an obligatory, legal quota may not be possible in some places like in the United States, other measures such as soft quotas, or direct pledges made within political parties to encourage women to enter politics, may prove applicable in such settings. Training, workshops and scholarships for aspiring women leaders should be expanded across regions. In addition, encouraging our driven and capable female friends to run for office may be something we all can do.

In a changing and globalised world, the natural abilities women possess are needed. The inclusion of more women in decision-making realms may help politics become less volatile and confrontational –something our world can only benefit from. The political styles of women tend to be more open to compromise and dialogue, despite many unfair perceptions of them as leaders.

Women are also capable as heads of state. Salient examples come to mind. Women leaders, past and present, such as Michele Bachelet of Chile, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, Angela Merkel of Germany, Indira Gandhi of India and Mary Robinson of Ireland have proven to be highly competent and successful female heads of state. We need more of them. I believe the greater presence of women in the Balkans may help the region on its road to lasting peace and prosperity. Serbia’s specific success can serve as an example to countries that have similar aspirations and can implement similar reforms. Serbia has certainly come from a past full of struggle and difficulty, hopefully the new women leaders there, along with their male colleagues, will lead the country to renewed prosperity. Maybe then, the Serbia we all hear of will be a more peaceful and successful one.

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Anja Vojvodic

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