Government of Serbia building; Photo: WIkimedia Commons

The issue of women’s participation in politics has been particularly important these days since it was announced that Kamala Harris will be the first female vice president of the United States after Joe Biden won the presidential election.

In Serbia, the topic of women’s representation in political bodies has been widely discussed especially since last month, when Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić announced that the new cabinet numbering 22 members, will have 11 female members.

The fact that this announcement, similar to the one about Kamala Harris, provoked stormy reactions, shows how the representation of women in political positions is perceived – as a deviation from the “norm”, i.e. an exception to the rule.

According to Bloomberg, the change in the gender composition of the Serbian government propels the country “to the brink of the global top 10 for gender equality”. While those who support the current ruling party, as well as those who perceive gender equality through quotas, see the new gender-balanced Government as a revolutionary step that shows that Serbia is on the right track to reach European standards, the question arises: To what extent does this decision affect the everyday life of women in Serbia? Additionally, does the gender composition of the new government tell us something about women’s decision-making power in politics?

Discursive instrumentalization of gender equality in Serbia

The issue of the representation of women in politics has been widely discussed in Serbia since 2017 when Ana Brnabić was declared the first female prime minister. After that, the international media started to report about Serbia as a progressive country that can compete with Western European countries when it comes to women’s rights.

In addition to that, Serbia was the first non-EU country to introduce the Gender Equality Index in 2016, which was developed by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The move was praised by the Head of Delegation of the EU to Serbia, Sem Fabrizi, and was described as an important step towards bringing Serbian policies in line with European standards. In 2018 the index for Serbia was at 55.8 points, with a difference compared to the European average amounting to 10.4 points. Although the difference between Serbia and the EU has narrowed since the previous Index results were published in 2016, it shows that real progress has only been made in terms of women’s political participation, while almost all other parameters point to the unequal position of women and men in Serbia.

In February 2020, the Serbian Parliament adopted amendments to the Law on the Election of Members of Parliament and the Law on Local Elections, both proposed by Gordana Čomić, which introduced a quota of 40% female candidates on the electoral lists for parliamentary and local elections.

Although the Serbian President stated that with the adoption of this quota Serbia would be “among the top five parliaments in Europe with the highest number of female MPs”, it must be stressed that there are numerous mechanisms to limit women’s participation and decision-making power in parliament.

According to the study entitled “Analysis of Gender Equality in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia” published as part of the “Open Parliament” initiative, once a woman elected MP loses her mandate, resigns, or goes on maternity leave, despite the gender quotas mentioned above, she does not automatically get replaced by another woman, but by the next candidate on the electoral list. Since the number of women on the electoral lists is almost always reduced to the legally required minimum, the next candidate on the electoral list is usually a man. This shows that, despite the quotas, there are still legal loopholes that can lead to the the under-representation of women in politics.

The changes to the electoral laws, much like the decision to appoint ten women ministers in the new government, seem to create more red tape and reduce women’s participation in politics to a numerical presence. Despite the high number of female MPs, women head only one of the seven parliamentary groups. The gender imbalance is even greater when it comes to the number of women in leading positions at local or municipal level.

According to Biljana Đorđević, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade, this is a structural problem that is difficult to solve, especially when it comes to the appointment of women to leading positions at local level.

“There were very few women in high political positions in local self-governments, and now, after the last elections, there are probably more of them, but this is obviously an attempt to compensate for the lack of opposition and political pluralism in parliament and local self-governments by offering a symbolic representation of social minorities”, argues Đorđević.

Gordana Čomić, newly appointed Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue, who proposed the aforementioned amendments to the electoral law, said that the problem of under-representation of women in political decision-making positions, including at local level, will be resolved once the new Gender Equality Law is adopted.

“We have seen how much effort it takes to have half the population represented and to decide together on the future because half of our future is female. Therefore, whenever possible, efforts are made to avoid the presence of women in the local executive”, Čomić emphasized.

What has the ruling party (not) done to improve women’s rights?

In addition to alarming data on gender-based violence in Serbia, the growing number of femicide, the gender pay gap, and sexual harassment in the workplace (even by government coalition officials), there are many examples of discrepancies between what the Serbian Progressive Party claims to stand for in terms of women’s rights, and what it actually practices. This difference is best illustrated by pointing out the issues that the ruling party has not done so far, even though it was anticipated.

First, the National Assembly of Serbia has failed to adopt a new Gender Equality Law, although experts have been working on the law since 2015.

According to the revised Chapter 23 Action Plan, the adoption of the Gender Equality Law and the new National Strategy and the Action Plan for the Prevention and Elimination of Violence against Women in the Family and Intimate Partner Relationship is one of the conditions for the provisional closure of Chapter 23 of the negotiation process.

According to the European Commission’s Serbia 2020 Report, the legislative and institutional framework for upholding human rights in Serbia is broadly in place, but in addition to strengthening human rights-related institutions, the implementation of laws and policies must be ensured. In the part of the report dealing with equality between women and men, it is stressed that the adoption of a new law on gender equality has been seriously delayed. Similarly, the report mentions that the adoption of the strategy and action plan for combating violence against women and domestic violence has also met the same fate.

In addition, the European Commission argues that the implementation of the existing Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence needs to be improved, with particular emphasis on vulnerable women, women with disabilities, and Roma women.

It seems that the high number of women in the government and National Assembly in Serbia is only a continuation of the “trend” of the ruling party to instrumentalize the issue of women’s rights for its own political goals, a trend dating back to 2017 when Ana Brnabić was appointed Prime Minister. Such abuse of gender equality has been used, on the one hand, to send a message to the international and Serbian public that Serbia is a country where democracy and human rights are respected, and where women have equal chances of success, and thus the country is a credible and trustworthy partner to the European Union.

This is particularly relevant in the context of EU integration, as all candidate countries are required to align their legislative and institutional framework with EU standards in the field of fundamental rights, equality, and non-discrimination, which are among the most important issues addressed in Chapter 23.

Apart from this, the appointment of ten women ministers is very important for the local electorate, considering that a large proportion of the supporters of the Serbian Progressive Party are women.

According to Tanja Ignjatović from the Autonomous Women’s Center, the decision to increase the number of women in the Serbian government is only part of a short-term plan.

“If it were an essential, but also principled commitment to women’s rights, we would have adopted a new Law on Gender Equality, Action Plan for the National Strategy for Gender Equality for the period 2019-2020, National Strategy for the prevention and protection of women from all forms of violence, which we have been waiting for since 2015. This inconsistency and the difference in the number of women in national and local bodies is an expected result of a policy that does not stand for the equal participation of women and women’s rights “, Ignjatović stressed.

On the other hand, women’ s rights were discursively used as an instrument of the ruling party’s populist rhetoric to discredit and humiliate its political opponents. Therefore, gender equality, much like the problem of discrimination, violence against women, sexism, and misogyny in the political sphere has been mentioned occasionally and selectively, seemingly to condemn misogyny and sexism in society, but in reality, to ostracize political opponents, by labeling them as violent, conservative and damaging to the society.

The fact that ruling party officials usually fail to publicly criticize their party or coalition colleagues for expressing sexist or discriminatory behavior or even brutally attacking women – both physically and verbally – shows another pattern of inconsistency in the ruling party’s gender equality agenda.

“A few days ago, after the sexist attack on the journalist Žaklina Tatalović, only two female ministers came forward, but neither the (female) minister in charge of human rights nor the (female) minister of information. We would have expected them to do so if the country really implemented its gender equality and women’s rights policies. Even if the number of women in parliament or government remains unchanged after April 2020 – in the current political and social context – this will not bring about any significant changes for women”, emphasized Ignjatović.

When discussing the topic of quotas for the participation of women in politics, it must be emphasized that quotas are indeed necessary in particularly conservative contexts, since, without quotas, women would most likely be excluded from politics and decision-making positions. On the other hand, quotas do not tell us much, apart from the numerical presence of women, and can, therefore, easily be used to create the illusion of a democratic and progressive society that supports the values of human and minority rights.

“The fact that quotas exist or that their introduction is necessary indicates that there are structural injustices that make it impossible for women (or other groups that have no social power) to be proportionally represented in these areas. Quotas that allow for the presence of women in politics show that, without this kind of temporary support in eliminating inequalities, there would be no women in politics, because there are significant inequalities in political participation between men and women. What the quotas tell us is that men still hold the highest positions of political and economic power”, explains Đorđević.

Minister Čomić emphasizes that the decision to introduce quotas for women’s participation in politics has already changed the composition of the parliaments, and the Serbian composition of the government and laying the foundations for a new and better reality for women and men. She believes that this composition will not change after the early elections which are scheduled to take place by April 2022 at the latest.

“If a society decides to repeal laws that defend human rights, improve the quality of life of the community as a whole, then such a society has much greater problems than the representation of women in the decision-making process, because it chooses injustices and the abolition of acquired rights. There is no reason for me to believe that women of Serbia will allow such a thing, they will defend their freedoms and rights,” stresses Čomić.

Talking about the possible long-term consequences that quotas for the participation of underrepresented groups in politics could have on Serbia’s political culture, Biljana Đorđević says she hopes that such decisions will lead other political actors to make their internal structures more democratic, so that they include more women in their work, but, she adds, this is very difficult.

“It is of symbolic importance to have women in decision-making positions in politics, but this is only the first step. Once this is normal, it is much more important to observe who stands for what policies, what they implement and whether they really listen to women’s demands and try to respond to their needs”, concludes Đorđević.

Despite the quotas used to increase the visibility and presence of women in politics, women in Serbia remain under-represented in leadership positions, especially at local level. In such a context, gender equality is used as a tool to achieve certain political goals, and the issue of women’s rights remains reduced to their numerical presence in decision-making positions. Importantly, issues such as discrimination, sexism, misogyny, and violence against women continue to be neglected.