Artisanal Food Shop Helps Kosovo War-Rape Survivors Earn Income — And Heal

Every morning, B. wakes up at dawn to begin her day in a rural farming village in western Kosovo. She starts the fire, bakes fresh bread for the home, feeds her cow, then tends to her homemade dairy products that she prepares from a small room.

"I'm restless, I have to do something," B., 51, says. "I feel like my brain is more quiet when I do this in my own house."

Later in the day, she packages her different types of fresh cheese and yogurt and gets them ready to be picked up and sold at a new shop in Gjakova — a bustling city around 30 minutes away from her home.

B. is one of the estimated 20,000 women and men who were raped and tortured by Serbian police and the Yugoslav army during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war against Serbia. The exact number is difficult to determine, given the sensitivities surrounding the topic of wartime rape in this nation of 1.8 million people. In Kosovo's conservative and traditional society, wartime rape victims continue to be stigmatized, shamed and isolated not only by society, but also by their families, from whom many survivors have kept the rape a secret. That's why survivors are not using their names in this story.

"In general, in cases of sexual violence, the shame and guilt is unfortunately usually put on the victim and not on the perpetrator. In Kosovo, the case is the same," says Rozafa Kelmendi, project manager with the Women, Peace and Security sector at U.N. Women in Kosovo. She notes that it was only in 2008 that the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning sexual violence as a tool of war.

"So if it took this long for the [United Nations] to recognize this as a crime, then it takes much longer for the society to see conflicted-related sexual violence as a weapon of war and a crime committed on the victims — and not something that should be considered as a [source of] shame," Kelmendi says.

What's more, many survivors have had a hard time earning an income because of the trauma they suffered after the war and the lack of job opportunities in Kosovo. But now, 20 years after the end of the conflict, a new store in Kosovo aims to change that.

Medica Gjakova, one of four NGOs in Kosovo working with survivors of sexual violence, opened an artisanal food shop last December, with the help of the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), some of the main international donors involved in supporting NGOs in Kosovo.

The shop sells a variety of organic products sourced from around two dozen survivors' farms and homes in surrounding villages. Items include different types of fresh cheese, creamy yogurt, three varieties of honey, apple, apricot, raspberry and blackberry jams, bright red pepper spreads, shelled walnuts and eggs. The shop is part of Medica Gjakova's economic empowerment project, which helps survivors become entrepreneurs and earn an income – in some cases, for the first time in their lives.

It is the first shop of its kind in Kosovo and is a big step towards helping these women to lead more independent lives from the comfort and safety of their homes, which makes it more convenient for them to work. Medica Gjakova is in the process of registering the shop as a social enterprise and is training other survivors on entrepreneurship and developing their catering and culinary skills.

"We saw that economic empowerment is very important for the women because they are much more self-confident. And when it comes to the family, they are able to bring some money to the family and [thus] they are much stronger within the family," says Mirlinda Sada, executive director of NGO Medica Gjakova. "We are trying to prepare the women to be the leaders of these enterprises," Sada says.

The ancient city of Gjakova was nearly destroyed during the war. Many war crimes took place in this city and surrounding villages, especially during the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999. That campaign eventually ended the war and drove the forces of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo.

The artisanal shop is located on a busy street in the city center. The window display shows an assortment of neatly arranged fresh farm eggs, walnuts, pumpkins and apples. Since its opening, the store has had to constantly restock its supply of spicy pickled vegetables, nuts and dairy products, thanks to demand from customers who come here looking for fresh, homemade traditional food.

"People are writing [messages] to Medica, asking where they can buy these products and [saying] that they are really good," Sada says.

Medica Gjakova — the NGO — has provided counseling to approximately 400 survivors of sexual violence since the end of the war. Though many survivors continue to receive treatment and aren't working, others feel ready to move forward with their lives.

"This is very important because after they were empowered [through counseling and other services], they needed something more," Sada says. "Having a job and working is a kind of therapy."

This is especially true for survivors like M.

"[Working with food] helps me with my peace and with my health," says M. from her home in a rural village near Gjakova, where heavy fighting took place during the war. "Time goes by and I forget the past."

M. now spends her days listening to music from a small radio in her work space outside her home, still on her family compound. There, she makes jars of homemade ajvar, a traditional Balkan red pepper spread, and tangy pickled vegetables known as torshi, which are popular accompaniments to Persian, Middle Eastern and Balkan dishes. "This is where I feel the best," M., 57, says about her work space.

"I receive a lot of compliments from my clients, which is satisfying," M. says about her products. "I gain pleasure from that — when I feel like I can do good for others, too. At the same time, my finances are better. I've helped my children a lot with their education. And I help my husband and the family."

She earns around $275 per month – nearly equivalent to the average salary earned by women in Kosovo, according to Amnesty International.

Medica Gjakova is planning on opening one more shop in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, at the end of April, as well as an online shop.

"So this is really the cherry on the cake, because we now know the women really are able to ... have a profit, earn money, and to be stronger and to have the voice in the family," Sada says.

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