Social and political changes in Serbia, as well as economic transition, are having a huge impact on the role and position of women in the society. Women are the biggest "losers" in the new model of society and economy and this is even more extreme if they belong to one of the (additionally) marginalised groups (national minorities, especially the Roma, rural population, the disabled etc.).
(InfoNet - Katarina Popovic) According to many studies, three of the vulnerable groups in Serbia are minorities, the disabled and women. There are also numerous sociological studies showing that women are the first group to feel the consequences of crises, war and isolation. They suffer, for example, from an increased level of repression and violence in society in a way which is not always obvious or transparent. Serbia is a country that stands between paradigms of traditional and modern society in a very misbalanced and unstable relationship between patriarchalism and globalization, autarchy and integration, socialist ideals of equality and industrial fights on the free labour market.
In the area of education, the disparities are very obvious. Of all men over the age of 15, approximately 39% belong to the group that is illiterate, semiliterate or that have only finished compulsory elementary school (8 years). But among women over the age of 15, this percentage is around 52%. Regional differences are large. Belgrade as the capital, the northern province of Vojvodina and central Serbia differ in the level of educational achievement but in gender issues there are similar tendencies. Employment data shows similar tendencies. The unemployment rate of woman is around 27.4% and the unemployment rate of men is 17.6%. However, there are some indicators that in the reality the situation is even worse.
The response that society tries to give to these challenges is not really systematic and all-encompassing and this also applies to educational players. Nevertheless, some efforts have been made:
- Serbia has signed the declaration "Education for All" and several other relevant European and international documents where gender equality and access to education is one of the main tasks.
- There is a list of national documents, strategies and action plans focusing on gender issues (some of them directly, such as the "National action plan for improving the position of women and promoting gender equality (2007-2010)", some indirectly, such as the "Strategy for Poverty Reduction", several action plans for Roma etc.) where the education of women is seen as one of the most efficient tools for solving some of the global problems.
- In the implementation of the aspects related to education, the focus has been on primary and pre-primary education which should involve more and more girls.
- Special target groups among women were refugees, women suffering from family violence, Roma women etc. But all of the measures were devoted to other problems, trying to approach the issue of gender equality via a "by the way" model, as an additional benefit or added value.
- There was no systematic attempt to increase the enrolment of women into adult and further education due to the lack ob awareness of the importance, but also due to the fact that the whole philosophy and practice of lifelong learning was rather neglected and treated as inferior and less important than all other areas of educational system.
The most important attempt to address these problems and to overcome the gap between proclaimed goals and reality comes from the area of non-formal organising. The most important role is played by non-governmental organisations. Among the officially registered organizations there are more than 100 women´s organisations, but many others (registered as educational, cultural, humanitarian, professional…) are also very much engaged in educational work with women.
On the political and social scene, women are also very much organized in a non-formal but highly efficient way. There are numerous women´s organisations that are very well-known and have high degree of influence on political and social life (such as "Women in black", a pacifistic, anti-war group). There is even the Serbian "Women´s Government", a non-formal, non-profit, civic and expert group of popular women. It functions as a kind of shadow government with the goal of increasing the participation of women in political, social and economic life in Serbia, but still without significant political influence. On the other hand, some of the most influential and powerful non-governmental organizations in Serbia are run by women, but because of their political engagement, they are exposed to more public animosity than their male colleagues. Even in the economy there are women´s associations and societies.
All those groups and organisations have a wide range of educational programs for women in general or for some specific groups of women, for example women from certain minority groups, female entrepreneurs, female politicians, female refugees etc. There is a variety of educational forms including courses, training, seminars, study groups, public lectures, project groups and many others. The topics vary from raising awareness and lobbying for gender equality through to increasing soft skills and key competencies as well as purely vocational education courses aimed at improving the position of women on the labour market to increase their employability and quality of life.
It might seem a paradox, but there is a phenomenon of a high number of girls and women in the formal school system and at universities, and according to some estimates even in adult education (although there is no official data about participation in adult education programmes and courses), and the number of women in teaching and educational professions has increased. On the other hand, there are far less women among the top earners, leaders, policy makers and important positions in society. In spite some efforts made in formal and non-formal education, this tendency is obvious and raises the problem that some serious, systematic measures in political, social and economic life should accompany educational measures in order to achieve the goal of gender balance. Special attention should be given to the most vulnerable groups of women where a systematic, strategic approach is necessary, as well as harmonized action between both state authorities and non-governmental organisations.