Turn the lights on!  – or, do we really understand gender mainstreaming?

Few months into 2023, we can safely conclude that 2022 was not the best year for any of us – still confused from the COVID 19 restrictions, witnessed the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine and heard possibilities of food, gas and electricity deficits, while prices skyrocketed everywhere around us. So, it was expected from the national and local authorities to propose measures to prevent or at least mitigate any such crisis.

One such measure, initiated to prevent higher electricity bills, introduced in one municipality in Skopje was – to turn the street lights off after 01:00 AM every day. It immediately received a flurry of disapproving responses by the citizens, fearing for their safety – especially loud were the women who claimed that they did not feel safe walking on their own and fearing from catcalling and attacks even more. In 2019, women and girls used the social media to speak about gender-based violence and harassment[1] – it turned out that women and girls have experienced harassment and violence in many public places, especially parks, public transportations and parking lots, but hugely avoiding dark streets and places. They’ve shared that in order to feel safe they are pretending to talking over the phone, holding keys between fingers if they are attacked, etc.  The police blotter regularly shows attacks and thefts against older women on the streets, even during the day, when they are commuting around their homes. When the restrictions were ongoing in this municipality, there were registered 50% more crimes than in the same time last year.[2]

With this in mind, it felt almost surreal to hear that several local municipalities chose to save on electricity over the safety of their citizens, especially women. The explanation of one of the Majors increased the disbelief: since all the bars closed at 12:00, the municipality granted one more hour so that everybody could get home.[3] This exact explanation showed that the municipality failed to think over the consequences for their citizens from this measure, and reduced them only to people who have 9-5 jobs and occasionally hit the bars before coming home. The municipality failed to recognize the people working night shifts, youngsters going to night clubs and returning later than 1:00 AM, and basically everyone that wanted to wander around after the curfew.

Luckily, the numerous reactions made the municipalities think their decision over and realize that there are other solutions to saving: one decided to turn every second light on the street on, others decided to decrease the level of light or to change to LED lights which are recognized as electricity savers.[4]      

And this is what the gender mainstreaming would do for our local and national policies, even without the need for protesting against the first offered solutions: it will put the decision-makers into a position to evaluate and assess each and every measure against the needs, fears, opportunities and challenges of each categories of citizens: women, men or non-binary, but also bear in mind their other features, such as the age, disability, poverty, etc. It will mean that before reaching a decision to turn the lights off, they would have to use gender tools – at least to discuss it with all the different groups, understand their limits and obstacles, consult the statistics, conduct an analysis and find a solution that will work for everyone.

Of course, the most difficult part has always been (and unfortunately, still is)- the existence of gender stereotypes that feel impossible to change. What good is the principle of gender equality in the workplace if we still think that the women should be at home with sick children and elderly, and the men should advance on their positions since they do not have to worry about the things at home, except for bringing home the bacon? Or, even further – what good does the Law on protection and prevention against violence against women and domestic violence do, when the victims are still repeatedly asked by the officials what did they do to deserve violence, or, as it was in the last case dissected by the social media – what was a young girl doing outside at 4 AM in the morning and why did she need to use a cab?

The Law on Gender Equality, once adopted, will impose the obligations of using gender tools and gender mainstreaming when drafting policies at national and local level. But, this Law, just as the laws mentioned above, would mean nothing, if we as a society do not understand our role in achieving the gender equality.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy has provided one good example of changed opinions: the draft-Law on Employment Relations proposes non-transferrable parental leave for both the mother and the father and a third leave which can be divided amongst them. This measure is expected to change the perception of young women as “unworthy investments” due to possibilities of maternity leave, and the perception of men as the sole family breadwinner.

It is essential to understand that gender mainstreaming is not just about adding the word “gender” to policies and measures. It is about acknowledging the diverse needs, fears, and challenges of different groups and recognizing the impact of gender stereotypes on policy-making. As a society, we need to work towards breaking down these stereotypes and building officials who can recognize and address such obstacles. It is only then that we can truly achieve a society that is safe and equal for everyone, regardless of their gender. Let us continue to demand policies that consider gender perspectives and work towards a future where gender equality is not just a principle on paper, but a reality for all.

Maja Atanasova is an experienced lawyer who specializes in providing free legal aid to vulnerable individuals, including victims of discrimination, gender-based violence, and domestic violence. She has contributed to working groups focused on drafting and amending laws and has provided legal advice to civil society organizations on issues such as employment, ownership, and management. Maja is also a skilled trainer and facilitator, with expertise in human rights, free legal aid, gender issues, and discrimination. She has led training sessions for a diverse range of participants, including social workers, legal professionals, high school students, and trade union representatives.

[1] https://okno.mk/node/80506

[2] https://pina.mk/6134-ulichnoto-osvetluvane-delumno-nastrada-pri-shtedeneto-struja-vo-del-od-opshtinite/

[3] https://sdk.mk/index.php/dopisna-mrezha/od-1-do-5-chasot-nema-svetlo-vo-karposh-jakimovski-veli-mora-da-se-shtedi-ili-zhitelite-ke-plakaat-pogolemi-smetki/

[4] There were several municipalities that chose to apply this method of saving: https://pina.mk/6134-ulichnoto-osvetluvane-delumno-nastrada-pri-shtedeneto-struja-vo-del-od-opshtinite/