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The British Ambassador Ruairí O'Connell writes about importance of gender equality in Kosovo

On International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate the success of the women who make our countries proud.

The British Ambassador Ruairi O'Connell

I am a feminist.

That’s a phrase one hears rather too rarely, sadly, in 2017. Around the world, one can see a rejection of the word, and with it, a rejection in the advances made over the last century in supporting women, advances which are surely welcome, but not enough. But how could I not have been a feminist? When I was ten, I asked my mother if a boy could be a ruler; I was so used to the example of our then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and of course HM The Queen, as well as being brought up by a strong mother, that it was natural to me to think of leaders as women.

The Foreign Secretary wrote last week about a simple truth, that if we want to increase prosperity; stabilise population growth around the world; improve child nutrition, still sadly a problem in many communities in Kosovo; reduce child marriage; then the single most effective course of action is to ensure that all girls go to school.

It’s a rare policy that, with an idea so simple, can help tackle so many problems. But it’s obvious. Leaving half of humanity in a secondary position is clearly going to cause problems.

And that’s the heart of feminism. For me, it’s an ideology that has equality at its heart. By asking if an idea, an institution, a law, a rule, a tradition or a policy works for women as well as men, one is not ‘favourising women’ or just dealing with ‘women’s issues’. If something doesn’t work for half the population, then I would suspect that it is a bad idea. A society that does not have liberty for all is not free. A society that discriminates against half its members cannot claim to have equality. That’s why this week the Foreign Secretary appointed Joanna Roper as the UK’s first ever Special Envoy for Gender Equality.

Those facts are made clear for me today, even more than on other days. Around the world, the successes and achievements of women will be celebrated. In Kosovo perhaps even more than in other countries, people rightly take great pride in those groundbreaking women, like Majlinda Kelmendi, who do so much to represent Kosovo to the world. But we should, and do, take pride in these every day. Perhaps today is a better day to think about what we can all do to make sure that every girl now growing up has the same opportunities as the boys to make her mark in the world.

I was lucky enough this week to meet Vllaznim Xhiha, the founder of the extraordinary Bonevet. By giving young people in Kosovo the chance to explore engineering, robotics, technology and science in in a practical environment, managing their own projects and making their own creations. It’s an extraordinary idea. But what fills me with joy, is that each activity is split: 50% girls, 50% boys.

This hasn’t been easy; families seem more willing to find the fees for their sons to attend, but not for their daughters. But Vllaznim has stuck to his principles, and fought to find the fees for girls; but no activity starts without a 50/50 split.

This is great for the now hundreds of Kosovo girls who have had access to a world of science and technology that might have remained closed to them. Who knows: one of these girls may go on to be a great engineer, inventor or leader. The message that it sends is even more powerful: that a strong, modern society is built, at its very foundation, between equality between the sexes. One person, sticking to their principles, can make a huge difference. They may go on to inspire a new generation of girls to see leaders as women.

I think also of the work of The Ideas Partnership. They have for years now been providing access to education for the Ashkali community, who for years had been excluded, for a range of reasons, from education. They are challenging the awful stereotype that Ashkali families are not interested in education; I have visited their centre, and I can tell you that I have never seen children so committed and dedicated to their learning. The Ideas Partnership, a great organisation based in the ideals of volunteerism and community activism, has, just like Bonevet, stuck to its principles: that all children, girls and boys, have an equal right to a childhood and to education. We are proud to support their efforts. They are making a difference, but it is families, the community and the local authorities who need to see this through.

I do not need to tell the people of Kosovo how vital an education is; we saw how people fought for that right through the 1990s. We will continue to be on the side of those people in Kosovo who are committed to providing an education for all. On International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate the success of the women who make our countries proud. But let’s also commit to doing all we can to helping a new generation of emerge. Education is the best place to start.

Published 8 March 2017