Problems and hope collide, as International Human Rights Day celebrated

13 Dec 2019

Problems and hope collide, as International Human Rights Day celebrated

“I mostly paint women from my community, Roma women, and their faces are sad. I try to depict this sadness that has many reasons,” painter Farija Mehmeti says.

The talented artist spoke to an audience of dozens of people through a live painting at the Living Library events in Pristina and Mitrovica. The events, jointly organized by UNMIK and the Council of Europe on International Human Rights Day, invited human rights activists from different communities across Kosovo to become their own ‘books’ – and share their own stories with the audience. Both Farija and her brother Bajram Mehmeti chose to bring their stories to life through painting.  

“Roma women are sad because of arranged and early marriages, dire living conditions, lack of opportunities to develop, educate and find employment. We are the most disadvantaged and marginalized community in Kosovo,” Farija said.

Although the imaginary faces on her portraits wear colourful scarfs, oversized jewellery and picturesque clothing, sadness is the prevailing emotion. Bajram echoed his sister’s thoughts. “I portray everyday life of my community; hardship Roma people are exposed to. Poverty is hard, and it is even harder if you are discriminated against almost daily.”

The Living Library invites participants, or readers, to interact with human rights activists, the books in this case, who share their stories and describe how they challenge prejudice and discrimination in their respective fields of work.

This year, Living Library events, organised on December 9 and 10, brought together prominent human rights activists, journalists, civil society, artists and musicians to share their personal stories in pursuit of a more inclusive and respectful society – their struggles and their triumphs.

“We use music to bridge the divide between young people living north and south of the Ibar River. This is more about process, not results. The process where you must feel safe, open and able to speak up,” Emir Hasani, a rock musician from Mitrovica North, said. He added that ethnic, national or religious background make no difference to him.

“We do realistic things; we do music. We are not into artificial stuff like roundtables and conferences. We felt most connected when we started to play our own music. Then, everybody could speak based on personal experience. It helped us better understand each other,” he said.

There are still many challenges in Kosovo, affecting the full enjoyment of human rights. While Kosovo has developed a strong human rights framework, the full implementation of human rights standards is lacking.

Kaltrina Rexhepi is a young journalist for public broadcaster RTK, focusing on children’s rights, poverty and disabilities.

“Children with disabilities are often discriminated against. There are even schools in Kosovo where classrooms that children with disabilities attend are physically separated from the rest of the classrooms. And this must change,” Rexhepi said.

She also spoke about children being abused and misused by their own parents for the sake of obtaining material benefits. She has covered stories on child beggars on Kosovo’s streets, their difficult living conditions and early and arranged marriages affecting mainly Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. She explained that sometimes young girls accept early marriage as a way to ease financial pressures on their family members.

Is there a solution?

Living Library participants voiced hope, highlighting that the situation in Kosovo could improve if all actors doubled their commitment and increased their actions to promote and protect human rights. According to human rights activist Sakibe Jashari, the focus should be on empowering local authorities and marginalised groups.

“Often local authorities do not see members of marginalised communities, such as Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian, as their own citizens. They think someone else, donors perhaps, should take care of them. But this is not right, and that is why I try to bring marginalised communities and local authorities to work together, to bridge the gap,” she said.

“I also try to empower members of marginalised communities to stand up for their rights. To go to the municipality directly, submit their claims and ask that their rights are respected, and the needs fulfilled.

Rexhepi also believes institutions should - and can – do more.

“Society needs to pursue a policy of integration, rather than that of segregation,” she concluded.