Violeta Mulaj meticulously flipped through her portfolio booklet of handicrafts and tailoring works. An old sewing table and machine sat in the corner, and its creations hung from every spare space and ledge.
The store is small in stature, but mighty in economic opportunity. Its gray walls are the anything but barren, breathing life into the modest space. Stone steps are all that can be seen from street level in the Ulpiana neighborhood. But down these steps, and beneath the sounds of racing cars and chaos of city life sits her newborn shop barren of a sign.
Mulaj, 42, is a self-made woman. The high school graduate and mother of four has always had a love for handicrafts, but she never thought that her hobby would turn into something economically prosperous.
Her dark hair was swooped into a ponytail, in order to prevent pieces from falling into her eyes. Her outstretched hand showed the only signs of age, a clue to the hours of work she puts into her craft. Her eyes glinted with pride as she went about her work, using the skills she had honed through sessions at Women for Women International.
Mulaj heard about the organization from her aunt and her interest was sparked.
“She told me to join her in class to see what she was doing. Before I was accepted in the program I went with her, and took part in her economic training and handicraft course,” she said, “I saw what the women were doing there, their confidence and strength, I immediately wanted to be part of the program.”
In 1999, Women for Women International opened its doors in Kosovo. Since then, the organization has supported more than 31,000 women with the intention of improving economic independence and gender equality in the region. It is grounded in the belief that education and economic independence is enough to transform lives. It’s 12 month program includes vocational training, personal health information, decision making and business skills classes aimed at making each of the 25 students become well-rounded women.
For Mulaj, her classes became deeper than lectures and rhetoric.
“I came for myself, for the education, but in the end I was also able to give courage to many other women and inspire them to come and experience this training.”
Mulaj smiled as she let herself get lost in her fond memories. But this lasted only for a second before she snapped back into reality.
“We are all women with different problems, but this program gave us the space to work together and connect with one another. I felt that I was so strong, and that I could make change.”
Agnesa Berisha, an architecture student at the University of Business and Technology in Pristina, sees similar progress being made but also believes that Kosovo has much more to accomplish before economic equality has been reached.
“There are still some villages where women aren’t allowed to work, or even go to school because of their fathers or their husbands views. We still have a long road towards equality, but we’re working on it,”
With a grin slowly stretching across her face she continued.
“I mean, we do have a female president.”
According to Edita Veseli, the Social Empowerment Manager for Women to Women International, times are changing as Kosovo continues to make strides to bridge the gender gap in the workforce.
“Before the war, women did not work as police. After the war, so many internationals came into Kosova and the mentality started to change. They started to train women, and more and more began to apply,” she described “Soon what was once unacceptable, became a norm.”
Kosovo’s 2013 Labor Force Survey by the Agency of Statistics found that one in five (21.1 percent) of working age women are active in the labor market compared to the three in five (61.2 percent) of working age men.
To help improve these numbers, Women for Women International Kosovo piloted a job placement program for its graduates in 2012. To date, 327 graduates have been placed in jobs and 500 are seeking jobs using Kosovo Job Placement Office.
Berisha identified with the slow closing of the gender gap, and argued that jobs are only thought of as gender specific because women haven’t yet been given the chance to prove themselves.
“There are still a few jobs in Kosova that people think women can’t do, construction for example. But here I am studying architecture and construction, so this thought is slowly fading away. Women can do any job if given the opportunity, and we can do it better than men,” Berisha said.
Berisha credited her views to her upbringing and family life. Her mother and father constantly stressing the importance of her education.
“I grew up in a family that was pro-equality, and my mum used to work and told to finish school and work for myself, so someday I can be somebody.”
Mulaj’s daughter, Traditë, is a student at Pristina University studying English. She has fond memories of her mom going through the Women for Women International training courses, and her mother’s strides have affected her view on gender equality and what success means.
“We are now all grown, and have started to make plans for our future. It is a very nice feeling to see our mother succeed.” She said, “My mom is the best example in my life that it is never too late to meet your dreams and be successful woman.”
When raising her four children, Mulaj ensures that they understand the importance of education. Her two daughters, ages 21 and 18, have the skills of tailoring, but their education come first.
“The most important thing should be school and finishing education,” said Mulaj, “Handicrafts are good but if you only have your handicrafts, you are giving yourself a lot of responsibility. I like my daughters to come in and help me if they have time, but their education is the most important to build them a foundation.”
Education has created a ripple effect in the community. According to Women for Women, program participants are more likely talk with other females about their rights and changing their role in society.
“My advice to women is that if you have a skill, pursue it,” said Mulaj, “Don’t give up, because you could end up inspiring someone just like you.”
(Jainie Winter is a reporting intern at KosovaLive this summer in collaboration with Miami University in the United States.)