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SERBIA: Women Farmers Doubly Disadvantaged

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Oct 8 2008 (IPS) - Among disadvantaged women in Serbia, none seem worse off than farmers, a new study shows.

Research carried out in 50 villages across Serbia indicates that two out of three women farmers work seven days a week, and more hours than the usual working day of seven or eight hours.

And at the same time, they almost never own the land they work on. That is owned mostly by male members of the family, traditional heirs of family property.

Only seven percent of women farmers have some kind of health insurance. Some 93 percent do not invest in pension insurance funds. But still three-quarters never try to find a job outside the fields. The women farmers continue to take responsibility for looking after children and also the wider family, but with little independent access to the financial resources of the family. And they are almost never included in decision-making.

The study on ‘Improvement of Position of Women Farmers, as Helping Members of Households’ was prepared jointly by the ministry for social affairs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Agency for Reconstruction (EAR). There are an estimated 120,000 women living in more than 1,500 villages across Serbia whose only occupation is agriculture. Serbia has a population of 7.5 million.

The study presented last month in Belgrade is the first on women farmers in Serbia. “The social status of this part of the female population has been targeted for the first time,” Marija Babovic from the SeConS non-governmental organisaton told IPS. “The idea of this study was to show their double marginalisation. It is not enough to be a woman, there is something worse – being a woman that lives and works at a farm.”

Babovic says “it is impossible to improve the lives of these women without improving the status of farming households in general, which is one of the hardest tasks for Serbia in the years of transition.”

Serbia set out on the road to the market economy in 2000 after more than five decades of crypto-communism, and the complete collapse of its economy and social values in the decade of wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

“But some traditional patterns remained firm,” sociologist Nela Jovicevic told IPS. “In villages, women marry into households. In such manner, they practically have no property and do not make any. They are simply viewed as a necessary tool for childbearing, farm work and care of elders.”

On the other hand, a state official has recently launched a novel proposal to ‘improve’ farmers’ lives. Zeljko Vasiljevic, state secretary at the ministry of social affairs, has suggested that more than 200,000 women should be “imported” from Eastern European nations such as Belarus or Moldova, and also from Asia.

“They are modest, know how to work hard, and do want to have children, unlike Serb young women who run to the cities in search of better lives,” he told Serbian media. The call led to outrage among women NGOs and the broader public.

The population of an ageing Serbia is shrinking by about 50,000 a year. More than 200,000 men aged 25-40, who live solely on farming, remain unmarried.

Together with the report on women farmers, came another on Roma women. A study in five municipalities in the northern province Vojvodina with a large Roma population showed that Roma women are among the most segregated section of the population.

“Roma women are described as dirty and thieves by the Serb population,” Jelena Jovanovic, coordinator of the project by five Roma NGOs on ‘Improvement of Status of Roma Women’ told IPS. “On the other hand, they are forced to marry as minors, leave school, and bring their children up as completely immature persons.

“Family violence is an everyday thing. The saddest part is that most of them do not recognise any of these as discrimination or violation of their basic human rights.”

Serbia has a population of at least 330,000 Roma and is currently presiding over the Roma Decade project, aimed at improving the lives of Roma in the Balkans. “So far, we have seen little being done in that direction,” Jovanovic said.

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