By Elizabeth Endara
One of the greatest privileges of my life has been hearing stories from women and girls all over the world. Being female comes with challenges no matter where in the world you were born, but in places like Kosovo it can be particularly hard. One girl who has inspired me greatly is my friend Venera, a tiny powerhouse 17-year-old, who is overflowing with vision and passion for changing her country for the better. I am honored to know her and share her story.
“Every family in Kosovo must have a boy.” A female Kosovar colleague said this to me once.
I responded, “But what if they can’t have a boy?”
“They always have a boy,” She said.
“But what if they don’t?”
“They always do.”
It’s stated as a fact. There is no alternative. Every family has a boy, and that’s it. When I thought of all the Kosovar families I knew, I couldn’t think of a single family that had only girls. In fact, many families I knew seemed to have to have three or four female children and then the youngest child was a boy, as if to say, ‘Finally we got what we wanted. Now we can stop having children.’ In Kosovo and too many other places in the world, to be born a girl is to start off your life being the second choice. This attitude and treatment of the girl child leads to things like abortions of female babies and stories of infant girls abandoned in dumpsters.
“I was in America reading through some news articles from Kosovo when I saw an article about a baby girl who was killed and then found the trash.” Venera says this to me over coffee on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Suhareke, Kosovo. “It’s like a law to have a boy. It’s not written anywhere but still everyone believes that.”
I first met Venera last summer when she came to my organization’s summer camp, but I really got know her when she came to America through the exchange program I led. We went to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA and I stood next to her in front an exhibit about global gender inequality and the rate of infanticide among female babies.
“That was almost me,” Venera says. Venera was born in the autumn of 1998. This was the climax of Kosovo’s war for independence from Serbia, a war that would see an attempted ethnic cleansing of the majority Albanian population, thousands of women raped, and around 250,000 Albanians forced to flee as refugees. Venera has three older sisters, so when her mother became pregnant and they found out it was a fourth girl, the extended family told her to have an abortion. It was such a bad time to have a girl, they told her. It was bad luck to have so many girls. The extended family pressured Venera’s parents to abort, but they didn’t. Instead, Venera was born in the middle of a war, adding a fourth girl to their family.
“I have never been normal,” she says, smiling. It’s true Venera isn’t “normal” by her culture’s standards. She’s passionate about traveling and volunteer work and changing the world. She doesn’t think very much about dating. Her aspirations for her life extend beyond the usual marriage and kids. She wants to start her own organization to help children who have been abused.
“Kids have a very hard time in Kosovo,” Venera says, “They have no rights and no voice. I want to speak up for them.” This desire to give children a voice comes from her own experience feeling voiceless.
“I was very shy as a child already, and I just didn’t feel like anyone would care what I said.” This all changed for Venera last summer when her teacher nominated her to be part of an international youth leadership summit in Prishtina. “Everyone was exactly like me. They had the same things they were passionate about, and they had amazing stories. It was like I wasn’t alone.” She was voted the leader of the week and was nominated to go as a leader for the same summit in Austria later this year. She feels very blessed to have all this encouragement, but she says it’s very hard to be a girl in Kosovo who has the goals and dreams that she has.
“None of my friends really have these same ideas about things. Most of my friends have boyfriends.” She rolls her eyes and laughs. “I think the hardest thing about being a girl in Kosovo is actually dating. When you have a boyfriend he doesn’t let you go anywhere without him. He controls your life. It’s so stupid, but these are the rules in Kosovo.”
That sentiment gets at the heart of the problem of gender inequality here in Kosovo and in many other places in the world, the rules of a patriarchal culture. Women are not seen as having the ability to be independent. They go from their father’s house to their husband’s house. In villages here, it’s common for girls to be married right after high school. And then of course they need to become mothers of sons. This is changing though. “Slowly,” says Venera.
This year on International Women’s Day people gathered in the capital city of Prishtina to protest about the treatment women in Kosovo. There is much discussion about the oppressive stigma surrounding victims of rape, especially in regards to those raped during the Kosovo War. An amazing organization called Girls Coding Kosova just developed an app that people can use to report sexual harassment, which is a very real problem in Kosovo. It’s good that these conversations and movements are starting, but it’s hard to change culture.
Luckily, Kosovo has girls like Venera. She is determined to change the world she lives in and make it better, to speak up for those who don’t have rights, and to be herself no matter what anyone else says. I believe in her. She is living proof of the amazing power of girls. Her life matters and the lives of millions of ‘unwanted’ girls around the world matter. They are not unwanted. We want them. We need them. Because these girls will change the world.
“I almost didn’t exist because I am a girl, but here I am.” Venera is here and the world is a much better place because she is.