Women’s CEO Summit: Plamena Halacheva – Bridging Serbia’s Equality Gap

As we prepare for the Women’s CEO Summit at Belgrade’s Madlena Art Palace on March 14, 2024, we turn our attention to Plamena Halacheva, Deputy Head of Delegation of the European Union to Serbia, whose insights promise to enlighten the event.


In her interview, Halacheva eloquently addresses the balance between Serbia’s traditions and the pursuit of gender equality, highlighting the EU’s commitment to women’s empowerment and the challenges and successes seen in Serbia. This conversation sets a compelling stage for the discussions that will unfold at the summit, highlighting the ongoing journey towards gender equality in the professional world and beyond.

Considering Serbia’s rich cultural heritage and traditional values, how do you envision the role of women evolving in Serbian society, particularly in balancing these traditions with the modern principles of gender equality promoted by the European Union?

Well, for a start, I do not necessarily agree that gender equality is a modern principle. Some archaeologists claim that gender equality can be traced back to the period of the agricultural revolution (ca.10,000 BC). Gender equality was made part of international human rights law by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was born more than 75 years ago. Gender equality is also one of the European Union’s founding values. It goes back to 1957 when the principle of equal pay for work of equal value became part of the Treaty of Rome. And it is not only one of our core values but also an imperative for economic growth, prosperity, good governance, peace and security.

In my view, it is not about balancing or juxtaposing different traditions, but acknowledging the basic principle that every individual, regardless of their gender, is entitled to the full enjoyment of human rights and equal access to resources and opportunities. The dichotomy of modern vs. old/established perpetrates the misconception of women rights against someone else’s rights or traditions. Or, women rights are everyone’s rights.

Social norms, gender stereotypes and sexism cause harm by perpetuating inequality. These are often deeply ingrained in our culture and are a root cause of gender inequalities. And when I say our culture, I do not mean only Serbian one. As someone who comes from the Balkans, I am the last one who is advocating for perpetrating prejudices about fellow Balkan nations or the region as a whole. Gender inequality is a global scourge, and the struggles women across the globe face have a lot in common. So this is really not about finger pointing or getting discouraged, but raising awareness and harnessing the power of 51% of Serbia, Europe and the global population to addressing these challenges together and achieving more just and gender-equal societies.

The European Union has been a strong advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. How do you see the EU’s influence in Serbia specifically in terms of advancing women’s rights and opportunities, particularly in areas where they have been historically underrepresented or faced systemic challenges?

The EU’s mission is clear: champion gender equality and empower women across policies. We aim at leading by example by dismantling stereotypes, promoting non-violence and economic empowerment, and advancing pioneering legislative work. We are also ‘walking the talk’ by establishing gender-responsive and gender-balanced leadership at top political and management levels. Among our most recent successes are the historic accession of the EU to the Istanbul Convention, the Women on Boards Directive and advancing our proposal on combating violence against women at EU level. With the Directive on pay transparency we have cast into law the basic principle that equal work deserves equal pay. All of these legislative initiatives will become part of the EU legislation that candidate countries such as Serbia need to transpose prior to accession.

We also have comprehensive policy framework – the EU’s new Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Action 2021–2025 (GAP III) – which makes the promotion of gender equality a priority of all external policies and actions. All our external assistance, including in Serbia and across all sectors, including infrastructure, digital, science, energy and agriculture, should integrate a gender perspective and support gender equality.

The EU has systematically supported gender equality in Serbia. So far, only through our cooperation with UN Women we have allocated more than EUR 4 million for projects aimed at advancing Serbia’s legislative and strategic framework, introducing gender perspective/ mainstreaming in public policies and EU projects, as well as at implementing local initiatives aimed at women’s economic empowerment, their inclusion in the labour market and combating gender stereotypes.

Furthermore, through our Human Rights and Democracy and Civil Society Facility national and regional programmes, we are continuously supporting civil society organisations, in particular women’s organisations and those working on gender equality and empowerment with women from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, including women and girls with disabilities, those belonging to minorities, migrant women and girls, LGBTIQ+ persons, who are often exposed to double discrimination and are a higher risk of violence.

We will continue to work closely with our national partners and UN Women. The EU Delegation has started preparations for the project EU4Gender Equality in Serbia – Moving Towards Sustainable Solutions, which aims at enhancing gender equality capacities in all stages of policy and project design and implementation at all levels of governance. The main aim of the project is to ensure the implementation of the Law on gender equality adopted in May 2021.

Reflecting on your tenure as the Deputy Head of Delegation of the European Union to Serbia, could you share your observations on the most significant challenges and successes in the empowerment of women in Serbia? How do these experiences compare with broader trends in women’s empowerment across the EU member states?

Serbia, and the region as a whole, is known for breeding strong women who have withstood innumerous challenges, violence, wars, systemic discrimination, women who have fiercely fought for freedom, independence and equality. And yet, numerous studies have shown that countries in the region have among the lowest female labour force participation in Europe. In the Western Balkans, the employment rate is on average only 45% for women, compared to 65% for men. Additionally, three in ten women work in the traditionally low-paying social, health and education sectors, while almost one-third of men are employed in the higher-paid sectors. This comes in sharp contrast with the fact that more women than men graduate from universities. At EU level, encouraging trends are the higher number of women in the labour market and their progress in securing better education and training. However, gender gaps remain and in the labour market, women are still over-represented in lower paid sectors and under-represented in decision-making positions. The same is valid for Serbia, and the region as a whole, and is among the contributing factors to delays in the implementation of laws that empower and protect women.

Together, we have to do so much more to ensure the protection of women from poverty and all forms of violence. There can be no true equality without freedom from violence. Or, we know that two-thirds of women in the Balkans have experienced at least one form of gender violence or abuse. As I said at the beginning, this is not about finger pointing or getting discouraged, but raising awareness and addressing these challenges together.

To finish on a positive note, let me mention a concrete affirmative example from my previous posting in Montenegro. At a time of a parliamentary boycott and deep political polarisation, a Women’s Political Network, gathering women across the political spectrum took upon themselves to challenge the opinion of their (male) party leaders and launch cross-party advocacy initiatives to change electoral legislation aimed at ensuring greater representation of women in politics. This is just one of many examples, which remind us again that women and girls are important agents of change and must be included in the design and implementation of all laws and policies.

You can register for the Women’s CEO Summit here.

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