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Education, employment, solidarity with each other and good communication are crucial for the status of women, whose empowerment must be in focus in the future, noted Serbia Women's Day Coffee Jamming participants. This event, organised by UN Serbia (UNHCR, UNFPA, UNV, OHCHR) was inspired by the International Women’s Day 2021 theme – “ Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”.

The event gathered women who demonstrated leadership in their communities within UN agencies projects and whose activism, involvement in different socially engaged projects or entrepreneurship raises major issues, promotes equality and inclusion, while at the same time underscoring the importance of respecting human rights.

Their stories are about challenges, and also about the strength we feel when we share experiences and insights and support each other by looking not only at what we lack, but also at what we have – a wealth of experiences as invaluable resources to spark important change in society.

Marija Ratkovic: At some point, I realised that, if I finished my PhD, I would be even less likely to get a job.

Marija Ratkovic is an art theorist, activist and co-founder of the Biopolis Centre for Biopolitical Education, launched after years of advocating the right to health, especially with regard to women and girls. Among other goals, she advocates making the HPV vaccine available to all women and girls, as well as ensuring universal access to preventive examinations. For her, this is both a personal and a political issue, as she is a cervical cancer survivor herself.

She has written articles for different media, and is active and recognised in social media as well. “When I started writing, I wrote about architecture, then politics, then gender, then activism, only to see that they were inseparable.” 

She obtained a degree in architecture and enrolled in doctoral studies, but soon realised that it would only hamper her employment prospects; hence, she stresses the importance of women's education and labour market status. “In my job applications, I have often had to delete half of my résumé – to avoid being overqualified. That is why I want to bring the education/labour market mismatch into focus. Until then, I have put my doctoral thesis on hold, just as many other women, waiting for a better time when I can be paid in line with my qualifications.”

Francoise Jacob, UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia: We need advocacies like yours. We need you.

Much has been said about the importance of support, but not about the openness in this process that both sides need to show – both the recipient and the provider of support. Françoise Jacob, UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia, demonstrates how more support can be provided where it is needed; in that respect, she emphasised the importance of sharing.

However, in order for experiences to be shared, it is essential to reach out to men and women with different life experiences: “I want UN to reach out to people who think differently, who have different experiences”. In this process of learning about experiences and needs, advocacy plays a prominent role: “Advocacy is extremely important and that is why we need this. We need advocacies like yours. We need you.”

Anica Spasov, Director of Our House association: Youth in Serbia, especially youth with disabilities, face problems in the field of employment.

The importance of support is witnessed by the experience of Anica Spasov, Director of Our House association, established in 2007 at the initiative of parents of children with disabilities, aiming to ensure dignified life for teenagers and youth from this population. Through individual support plans, they are offered opportunities to learn, enhance their skills and gain work experience. Several manufacturing businesses, including paper bags and cardboard packaging production, and catering businesses have been started. The main goal of their manufacturing businesses is to provide employment opportunities for young people with disabilities, because “in Serbia, youth face problems in employment as it is, especially those with disabilities”. 

Environmental concerns and a responsible attitude to nature have encouraged them to include recycling in their working and manufacturing processes. In addition to packaging from recycled paper and catering services, they have started manufacturing recycled paper from cigarette packs. During the pandemic, the paper recycling business has thrived, says Anica, “since these young people have been able to perform the first phase of preparing paper for recycling – from home”.

She highlights the importance of the SOFA project, aimed at developing ties between people of different generations and sharing knowledge, including digital skills, especially relevant in the context of the pandemic, when any new form of communication becomes invaluable. She participated in the SOFA project together with Mirjana, which resulted both in sharing knowledge and in forging a wonderful intergenerational friendship. 

Mirjana: In my view, there should be more programmes to empower youth, as well as to promote intergenerational ties.

On the other hand, under the SOFA project, Mirjana got a great deal of empowerment and inspiration from Anica, who, as a mother of a child with autism, was compelled to take on many responsibilities early, owing to complex life circumstances. Thus, what resonated with Mirjana, says she, was Anica' s insistence that girls should be told how strong they were, that they really could achieve anything, because then it would be much easier to tackle any problem they encountered in life.

“Anica inspired me with her life story; I think there should be more programmes to empower youth, as well as to promote intergenerational dialogue.”

Farnus: In my experience, the most important thing is for women to get education, that leads to freedom.

Creative work has come to the fore during the pandemic, with regard to preserving not only mental health, but also overall wellbeing. This is acknowledged by Farnus, a painter who arrived in Serbia from Iran somewhat over 3 years ago and is living at the Asylum Centre in Krnjača, together with her mother and two young sons. Her paintings abound in bright, intense colours, and she expresses her creativity not only on canvas, but also by painting on different objects.

Thinking about the future, she envisages opening her own art gallery and talks about it very passionately. However, through her experience, Farnus has realised that teaching is as important as learning and creation, and plans to convey her knowledge to girls and young women. Hence, she emphasises education as a major issue, in particular the question of certificates and formal recognition of achievement, as she has not had such opportunities herself. “In my experience, the most important thing is for women to get education. That leads to freedom.” 

To her, it is equally important not to leave behind women who have little or no access and opportunity to enjoy their rights, not only the right to education, but also the right to work: “For me, it is really important to know other women are thinking about them.”

Farnus was quickly encouraged by Francesca Bonelli, who said: “In recognition of the refugee women to continue their education, UNHCR has been organizing lessons and workshops. And these are yielding amazing results that could be further strengthened with a larger network of women groups in Serbia.”

Lana Nikolic: Some experiences require new ways of communicating

How we communicate is as important as what we communicate.

How to convey messages of support and togetherness was a question touched upon by the UN team while preparing for this event, stressed Lana Nikolic, event moderator and an UNV who recently joined to the UN Human Rights Team in Serbia: “The need to be understood is ever-present.” 

She especially thanked Farnus for reminding the participants of a particularly important form of communication: painting or art – an international language. “It is important not just what we share but how we do it. Some experiences require new ways of communicating.”

Francesca Bonelli: Women together, with their various background,  are the best advocates for their rights and equal opportunities in the society

The idea of seeking new ways of communicating, especially in the context of the pandemic, was welcomed as all participants recognised the need for it, to a greater or lesser extent. 

“Sharing experiences, knowledge and building networks between women from various backgrounds, including also refugee women, is precious and powerful to advance with women rights. The situation of refugee women in Serbia and around the world is further aggravated by COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, they have shown us that they are resilient, creative and resourceful. Farnus and many other displaced women have turned to arts, teaching, studying as the best coping mechanisms, helping their community and the community they live in”, said Francesca Bonelli, Representative of UNHCR Serbia.

“Sharing also means asking questions and listening actively”, stressed Borka Jeremic, UNFPA Head of Office in Serbia, demonstrating authentic interest through her own example.

This is why events like this one are crucial – they provide opportunities to share ideas and experiences, leading to new, shared solutions. 

Launching dialogue to share experiences builds a sound foundation for true solidarity, support and equality among all women. 



Story by Džejlana Prušević and Lana Nikolić.