I have been in Skopje for about a week now, and am really enjoying the city. The people are extremely friendly – whenever I order or ask something in English, everyone within earshot wants to know where I’m from, what I’m doing in Macedonia, how I like the country, and so on. Everyone is eager to hear that I’m having a good time here, that I like the food/people/city/etc. Since we’re inundated daily with stories of rising anti-Americanism, so it’s a nice—and humbling—change to be in a place where the U.S. is seen as a good guy.
Skopje feels like a city where everyone knows each other – it’s smaller (and safer) than any place I’ve lived in years. It’s developing, but from a low base. Macedonia was the poorest region of the former Yugoslavia, and its economy was further damaged by the nearby wars in the 1990s. But there’s an atmosphere of energy and optimism here that’s exciting. At all hours the streets are full of couples, families and teenagers enjoying the beginning of summer – shopping, eating, playing, strolling along the river.
However, the economic situation is much tougher in rural areas. There is also a large Roma population here which is extremely poor and faces pervasive discrimination. And tensions between the Macedonian/Orthodox majority and Albanian/Muslim minority, which nearly led to civil war in 2001, certainly haven’t gone away. Many people I’ve spoken to quickly work into a conversation the fact that [insert name of ethnic group] are ignorant/corrupt/violent/etc. Some older people seem more tolerant and younger people (especially men) less so, so despite progress on the political front, I’m not sure if things are really changing in society.
I’m really impressed by the staff and operations at ESE. In addition to programs to promote women’s health and encourage women to participate in politics and community activism, ESE has undertaken a major campaign against domestic violence. A report by ESE in 2000—actually the first-ever empirical study of domestic violence in Macedonia—indicated that more than half of Macedonian women have been victims of psychological violence, while almost 25% have been physically abused.
Today I’ll go to one of ESE’s legal aid centers in Stip, a town about fifty miles southeast of Skopje. The legal aid centers provide assistance, advice and representation to women who are victims of domestic violence. Especially in rural areas many women don’t have the resources or information to take action against abusive partners, and social and cultural norms still prevent many abused women from seeking protection. Although I probably won’t understand much, it will be interesting to see ESE’s operations outside of Skopje, and to meet some of the women ESE is helping.
Posted By Stephanie Gilbert
Posted Jun 14th, 2007