Deep Dive Recap: The Balkans and the Gender Perspective
On 17 January 2024, the NATO International Military Staff (IMS) Office of the Gender Advisor convened its fourth regional Deep Dive session, which discussed the Balkans and the Gender Perspective. It focused on the Balkan countries’ progress implementing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, as well as ongoing challenges. It also explored the significant advancements in regional WPS cooperation, and NATO KFOR mission’s efforts to advance the gender perspective.
Subject matter expertise was provided by Associate Professor (Assoc. Prof.) Aleksandar Grizhev of the Military Academy in Skopje; Dr Adelina Hasani of the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS); Dr Elisabeth Schleicher, Staff Officer Gender Advisor (SO GENAD) for NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR); and Captain Tanja Katnić, Gender Advisor to the Chief of Defence of the Montenegrin Armed Forces.
Assoc. Prof. Grizhev opened the session by highlighting the Balkans’ complexity, emphasising its rich history, cultural heritage and ethnic diversity. He underlined existing tensions in Balkan countries: tensions between cultural norms, values, beliefs, traditions and stereotypes versus Western values, as well as conflict between political and ethnic tensions versus political and economic stability. Furthermore, he emphasised the varying degrees of trust and cooperation among countries in the region, as well as the disparities in the influence and participation of civil society. He stated that these tensions could impede the progress of WPS in the region.
Drawing on a variety of quantitative sources, Assoc. Prof. Grizhev outlined the progress towards gender equality in the Western Balkans. For example, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia all have active National Action Plans (NAPs) on WPS. As a result, the representation of women in the defence system has improved significantly. For example, women made up 14.98% of the Albanian Armed Forces in 2023. This is followed by Montenegro (10.77%), North Macedonia (10.66%), Serbia (10.59%), and Bosnia and Herzegovina (8.2%).
Assoc. Prof. Grizhev concluded his presentation by discussing regional cooperation initiatives on WPS. He introduced the joint EU, Regional Cooperation Council and United Nations Development Project programme “Strengthening of Regional Cooperation on Gender Mainstreaming in Security Sector Reform in the Western Balkans” with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. Over the last ten years, this project has aimed to combat gender-based discrimination, enhance gender-responsive leadership, and strengthen mechanisms for gender equality, such as introducing focal points within the Ministries of Defence and Armed Forces. He explained that it addresses the root causes of gender inequality in the military by raising awareness through education and training. Assoc. Prof. Grizhev cited the project’s results and outcomes, which include regional networking and cooperation on WPS, as well as increased security in the Western Balkans through confidence building and the sharing of knowledge, information and best practices.
Despite the regional progress made over the last decade, Assoc. Prof. Grizhev explained that challenges persist. Political tensions and the legacy of conflict continue to impede regional cooperation, and he argued that overcoming stereotypes is critical to raising awareness of WPS. Furthermore, it is difficult to monitor challenges and progress due to the lack of comprehensive data on gender-specific issues. Finally, he noted that capacity-building initiatives are still limited, largely because of insufficient funding.
Dr Hasani took the floor next, explaining how the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent conflicts have had a significant influence on the contemporary situation of women and girls in the Balkans. The war resulted in widespread human rights violations, as well as the weaponisation of violence and conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) against women. She stressed that the rise of gender-based violence is an unfortunate manifestation of these wartime dynamics in the post-war period. Dr Hasani stated that as a result, Kosovo’s NAP includes comprehensive CRSV-related actions as well as a gender-sensitive approach to the country’s post-conflict recovery process for CRSV survivors. In addition, she noted that female activists contribute significantly to regional peace and security by demanding justice and challenging established social norms.
Dr Hasani continued by discussing the KCSS’s Security Sector Reform project in Kosovo, which focuses on the Kosovo Police and the Security Forces. Although the number of women working in the security sector has increased, their research found that they do not assume leadership positions. She highlighted that the security sector is still widely seen as male-dominated, contributing to women's reluctance in reporting instances of bullying, harassment, and discrimination, demonstrating how patriarchal norms continue to shape their behaviour. Consequently, Dr Hasani stressed that while women’s increased participation in public and social life should remain a priority, it is also important to increase their responsibility in the security sector through managerial and decision-making roles.
Next, Dr Schleicher discussed the GENAD’s role in NATO’s KFOR. She noted that the GENAD reports directly to the KFOR commander, allowing for the integration of the Gender Perspective at the highest strategic level. Dr Schleicher emphasised the KFOR GENAD’s outward focus and described the office’s three core tasks:
- Provide advice and support to the commander.
- Contribute to the commander’s situational awareness and understanding of the varied security needs on the ground by monitoring the operational picture.
- Improve operational effectiveness by assisting Gender Focal Points (GFPs) and staff branches. Furthermore, the GENAD carefully coordinates all activities with Kosovo’s non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations (IOs).
Dr Schleicher explained why the Gender Perspective is vital for KFOR, referring to KFOR's mandate, UNSCR 1244. Based on UNSCR 1244, KFOR “provides a safe and secure environment. In order to provide a safe and secure environment, we need to consider the different security needs of the various groups in society. She clarified that this includes not just women, men, boys, and girls, but also different age or ethnic groups. A comprehensive approach based on the Gender Perspective provides access to new and more information, resulting in better-informed planning and decision-making processes.
Dr. Schleicher concluded her presentation by underscoring several internal and external projects conducted by the KFOR GENAD. Internally, she highlighted gender awareness training for troops, as well as monthly reports and workshops on the Gender Perspective. Externally, she noted the Domestic Violence Forum in June 2023, which was organised in close coordination with various Kosovan NGOs and IOs such as EULEX and the OSCE. This aimed to develop the capacities of the numerous actors involved in the fight against domestic violence. She also mentioned their collaboration with the University of Pristina, including a WPS Conference in March 2023, which aimed to strengthen the youth and empower female students. The establishment of Victim-Centred Interview Rooms has also provided a safe venue for victims of gender-based violence to share their experience and seek justice. Dr. Schleicher underlined the importance of locally engaged projects and empowering civil society to take the lead.
Captain Katnić concluded the session by sharing Montenegro’s experience with security sector reforms, which began with the country’s independence in 2006. She underlined that Gender, as one of the reform segments, has had an important role in creating a more efficient and sustainable system. She pointed out that although there is a solid national normative framework for the implementation of the gender perspective, women remain underrepresented. However, significant progress has been made, and women now account for 11.64% of the Montenegrin Armed Forces, compared to 3.3% in 2012.
Captain Katnić commended the aforementioned regional cooperation project for security sector reform, which has facilitated the implementation of the gender perspective within the Armed Forces, introducing gender mechanisms such as advisors, coordinators, trainers and GFPs, as well as increased representation of women in the Armed Forces and peacekeeping operations. She underlined the importance of the two regional studies on the position of the women in the Armed Forces of the Western Balkan countries (first published in 2014, the second in 2021) and a regional handbook, noting that the findings and recommendations have helped in defining and implementing follow-up activities. Captain Katnić then explained that the Ministries of Defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia signed a Joint Ministerial Declaration in December 2021, pledging their commitment to gender-responsive security in the Western Balkans.
The WPS agenda has made significant progress in the Western Balkans since Yugoslavia’s disintegration. This is demonstrated by increased female involvement in the security sector, availability of training modules, the implementation of gender advisors, and considerable efforts at regional cooperation on WPS. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia have adopted National Action Plans on the implementation of the Women for Peace and Security agenda. Kosovo has also adopted its National Action Plan. Having said that, difficulties remain, including cultural stereotypes, a lack of women in leadership roles, and the persistence of gender-based harassment and discrimination. Continued trust building and knowledge sharing among individuals and institutions at all levels of society is critical for deconstructing social norms and advancing WPS in the region.