Personal notes of a wartime child on democracy

When you’ve known darkness and complete devastation, there’s a burning drive inside you that keeps you going as you hope for better, brighter, more promising days.

Unfortunately, in every era, democracy has been tested by the forces of tyranny and oppression and by those who seek to undermine its transformative power.

Yet, democracy always endures. It becomes more resilient and robust because at its core, democracy is about the spirit of the people. It’s about their dreams, their aspirations.

One of the youngest democracies in the world, the Republic of Kosovo, recently marked 16 years of independence. Young yet resilient, Kosovo continues to demonstrate how a people’s fortune can be transformed when they are afforded a path to independence, freedom and democracy.

From 1989, when the Milosevic regime abolished all of the constitutional rights of the people of Kosovo, we faced unimaginable violations of our basic human rights. All our freedoms, from our right to education to our right to work, were stripped away, in an attempt to destroy us as a people. I was only 7 years old when this started, and just like all of the other kids in Kosovo, had to live through these difficult times, including the horrors of a genocidal war waged against my people in 1998-1999 by the Milosevic regime. Democracy seemed like a distant dream then, but certainly one that was worth fighting for with every fiber of our being.

As I’d try hard to navigate through this harsh reality, I would always remember the expression that defined my upbringing: “Remember, times might not always be easy, but as long as you carry on, democracy will carry on too. Democracy lives in you.” With this in mind, I always felt personally responsible to carry on and to make sure that I encourage everyone around me to do the same. Today, I am the President of Kosovo, the second woman in history to hold that office.

But back then, we knew too well what the opposite of democracy brings. From a young age, our experience of living under the Milosevic regime, where your day to day rights were continuously undermined, taught me the value of democracy and the pain of its absence. Democracy meant freedom. You wanted to be a part of it. You wanted to contribute to it. You certainly wanted to make sure it carries on. If you stood up for democracy, you stood up for what you thought was right. For us, there was no halfway house to democracy and freedom.

Emerging from the ashes of a war, Kosovo’s journey was indeed challenging. However, our path was always illuminated by the unwavering aspiration and commitment to peace, equality and prosperity.

Being nothing short of the most existential ingredient to a successful, thriving and evolving society, democracy stands firmly as the antidote to tyranny, the bulwark against oppression, and the guarantor of our most cherished and valuable freedoms.

It is not merely the best system of governance that humanity has known, but it embodies the very essence of who we are as a people. It is a way of life—a way of life that empowers us to shape our own destiny and to build a better future for all.

It is therefore that, to the people of Kosovo, democracy was always the sole answer and the only choice. Even in our darkest times, it was in the pursuit of democratic values that we found solace. There is no chapter of our modern history that is not defined by the relentless pursuit for more democracy. Stronger democracy. Resilient democracy.

The history of Kosovo also teaches us the importance of alliances in defending democracy. In fact, it is precisely because the world’s democracies did not stand still while the people of Kosovo were facing unimaginable horrors, that today we can enjoy the results that democracy yields. My country’s success is a testament to what democracies achieve when they stand together in the face of tyranny and oppression.

At the forefront of this transformative endeavor stand the women of Kosovo, who are not just active participants in state building, but are also vigorously contributing to reshaping it. While history tends to minimize or even erase the role of women – this is an ode to all of our women who were central to our peaceful resistance and liberation struggle. And equally so today, to all the women who remain central to our day-after-day progress.

The history of our country and the history of our women evolved hand in hand. The role of women in shaping Kosovo’s young democracy has been vital. Yet, as we’ve come to understand, democracy isn’t a given. It is a responsibility, a responsibility to protect, to uplift, to defend, to support, but most importantly, a responsibility to act.

Fortunately, our women never shied away from acting. From the halls of public institutions to the streets where history is made, the contributions of women in Kosovo’s journey are both profound and undeniable. They understood too well that where there is consistency, persistence, unity and ambition, democracy always wins.

Whether through seeking justice, breaking barriers, leading community transformation, or innovating for social good, the women of Kosovo know that democracy is not just an ideal: it is an action.

So, they are organizing, they are mobilizing, they are protesting and they are raising their voices not just for gender equality, but also for climate justice, for economic equity, and for a world where every individual, regardless of their background, can reach their potential. These young women are not waiting for an invitation to take the lead; they lead by setting an example in every way that they can. Their energy and vision are exactly what our democracy needs in order to face the challenges of the 21st century.

I meet these strong women, bold women, courageous women, unstoppable women, every single day. Amazed by their determination to stop at nothing, I can’t stop but wonder what would this world have looked like had it not been for the limitations imposed by patriarchy or the socially built norms. It is liberating to see them work, succeed, walk historic paths – to witness their success and the outcomes of their unwavering commitment and the unparalleled eagerness to walk new miles of success.

Their resilience is inspiring, and at the same time, so familiar to me. I’ve been raised with it. I’ve seen it in the eyes of my grandmothers and my mother, in the determination of my teacher, in the strength of the survivors of wartime sexual violence, in the tearful eyes of the mothers of the forcefully disappeared, in the echoing voice of the women of our liberation struggle, and equally so in the unparalleled determination of our young women to continuously shatter glass ceilings.

In all these women I see the true colors of democracy, as for democracy is everything but monochrome. And, certainly, democracy is not a one-way street, nor an isolated endeavor.

As I reflect on the state of democracy around the world, the story of Kosovo and its pioneering women serves as a powerful testament to the strength of the human spirit. It is a call to action to embrace the contributions of women in shaping a democratic, equitable, and vibrant present, and equally so a promising and a better future.

In pursuit for more growth and prosperity, the importance of women and indeed young women in forming and preserving a healthy democracy is unparalleled. When women step forward, they ignite change that resonates from the corridors of power to the streets of our communities.

We must never take democracy for granted, and we must relentlessly protect it. A country and a democracy are not stronger because of any one individual or leader, or any single reform. A country’s strength comes from the collective strength of its people. In recognizing and uplifting the role of women, and particularly young women, we acknowledge that our democracies are only as strong as the participation and representation that they foster.

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