Women’s Property Rights and Rule of Law in Kosovo
Religion & Liberty Online

Women’s Property Rights and Rule of Law in Kosovo

In its first five years as an independent country, Kosovo has not experienced the positive developments that were hoped for, and remains far behind most countries in terms of economic development and rule of law. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe, boasting a meager 2012 per capita GDP of $3,453. Partly accounting for this low statistic is the minimal involvement of women in the economy. A 2012 World Bank report measures the portion of working-age women employed to be only 11 percent.

Along with scarce economic engagement, Kosovo struggles with corruption. It remains among the countries with the highest corruption levels, receiving a Corruption Perceptions Index 2012 score of 105, a far worse ranking than most states in the region.

In her recent lecture at Calvin College, Sandra F. Joireman, Weinstein Chair of International Studies and professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond, touched on these topics in relation to another major issue in Kosovar society: private property. In her presentation she explained that, “only 8 percent of property in the country is owned by women.” This statistic is far below most all other countries, including Balkan states.

This may come as a surprise, considering the egalitarian law package Kosovo was forced to adopt and implement under the supervision of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in 2004. These laws included the Law on Gender Equality, the Inheritance Law, and Family Law and are consistent with European Union requirements. Adherence to egalitarian law has been customary in the region. As Joireman states in a working paper, “The law under the former Yugoslavian system was egalitarian and the law under the current regimes in both Serbia and Kosovo is egalitarian.”

Yet in Kosovo, there is a significant gap between law and practice. Moreover, the law is sometimes interpreted in a way contrary to the common understanding. The treatment of the Inheritance Law, which names spouses and children as the first “rank” of inheritors when a person dies intestate, is a perfect example of this. The right to renounce inheritance is a standard part of inheritance law, but is generally rarely used. But among Kosovar women, this is a common practice. Joireman explains in her paper:

In the case of Kosovo, renunciation of inheritance rights is frequently exercised and not for reasons of taxation or because of the onerous burden of particular properties. Instead, it is used by female inheritors to ‘refuse’ or ‘resign’ their inheritance rights so as to allow patrilineal secession of family resources and increase the percentage of resources left to their brothers and sons. It is also not customary for women to own property in their own names while married.

At least a few other factors may explain limited women’s property ownership in Kosovo. Among these, Joireman explains in her paper are, “the coercion of family members and a process of legal exclusion in the courts preventing women from claiming their property rights.”

Aside from cultural norms, a large factor hindering the establishment of clear property title results from the Kosovo War. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2012 Investment Climate Statement on Kosovo:

Most property records were destroyed or removed to Serbia by the Serbian government during the 1998-1999 conflict, making determination of rightful ownership for the majority of properties complex. There have been cases of up to 20 ownership claims on a single property, presenting a variety of ownership documents as proof.

Joireman believes improving women’s property rights in the country is the gateway to development and recognition of rule of law within Kosovo. As she states in her paper:

Women’s property rights are the low hanging fruit of property issues in Kosovo. The steps to achieving them are unambiguous. Yet there is little compliance with the law regarding women’s property rights and without the enforcement of their property rights there are significant barriers to women’s engagement in the economy.

She continues:

Women’s engagement in the economy is a key component of economic growth and legal recognition of their property rights is the path towards this goal. If social change cannot be effected on this issue then it will be much more difficult on issues such as the restoration of property rights to the minority Serbian community or the assertion of state control over construction.

While Kosovo strives for European Union membership status, agreements to comply with EU policies and laws have largely been ineffective and a sound rule of law system has not been established. The newly established country is having difficulty adjusting to the one-size fits all EU code of conduct and across-the-board regulations. In a politically-charged environment, with competing ethnic groups and deep-seated conflict, is this a realistic goal, and is foreign government policy the best strategy for effecting positive change?

Joireman believes the desire for order and a sound legal system must first come from the people. As she stated in her lecture, “A robust rule of law bubbles up from below.” This can be difficult to achieve when laws are not enforced by local officials, who sometimes accept bribes and actually subvert the legal process. Joireman explains that the Tobacco Law implemented by the Assembly of Kosovo in 2005 restricts smoking in public areas, but it is difficult to find any public space in which it is enforced. Her research uncovered Kosovars paying bribe money to the municipality in exchange for the right to smoke. In April 2013, the Assembly of Kosovo adopted another Tobacco Control Law which prohibits smoking in public areas entirely. It remains to be seen if this new stricter law will be enforced.

International agencies like the UN have also failed to halt corruption, and have even precipitated it. A recent study by Transparency International titled “Corruption and Peacekeeping,” details “discrimination against local staff employed in the UN mission in Kosovo, with many staff having to pay ‘kickbacks’ to UN staff to secure employment.”

As a prescription for reversing prevailing corruption and recognizing fundamental rights, Joireman recommends building constituencies around legal issues to initiate healthy dialogue and garner the attention of politicians who can shape policy that promotes the common good.

This method has borne some fruit in Uganda, a country that like Kosovo, struggles to recognize women’s property rights. Joireman credits the power of constituencies in educating about the importance of women’s property rights and beginning to reverse traditional cultural norms. Women’s rights groups in Uganda have actively lobbied for men and women to be listed as co-owners in title deeds. Though this right is still not protected under the law, the lobbyist groups were able to gain a small victory in the form of the “consent clause,” added as an amendment to the 2004 Land Tenure Act. According to a report by the CGIAR Systemwide Program on Collective Action and Property Rights of the International Food Policy Research Institute, the amendment requires “the consent of all family members be given before the sale or transfer of family land. Also significant for women is the fact that security of occupancy is granted to all family members inhabiting family land.”

Joireman’s research points to the reality that rule of law and clear property rights are essential for entrepreneurship and human flourishing. Fundamental property rights laws that recognize both men and women need to be worked out in order for business to develop. When corruption and illegal business practices are present, a culture of trust is absent. In regions of conflict, developing this trust is not an easy task, but one that is vitally important. First and foremost, it needs to be developed within the local culture; the policies of international organizations cannot serve as an effective substitute in developing this trust. As the goal of EU membership still rests on the horizon, perhaps a more important aim is internally developing sound legal structures which recognize basic human dignity and enable flourishing.

Matthea Brandenburg

Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.