The Vlasina Lake Housewives : Building peace in South Serbia
The municipality of Crna Trava, in southeastern Serbia, is one of the country’s most impoverished. There is no doctor for the dwindling population, and jobs are scarce – 40 % of people here are unemployed.
Although just 10 kilometers from the popular Vlasina Lake destination, Crna Trava’s poor roads mean it is circumvented by visitors. Over the years, lack of opportunity has driven away many residents– today there are just 500 people living in the isolated hamlet.
But thanks to an initiative backed by the United Nations, 27 women from the municipalities of Crna Trava and nearby Vlasotince are building their livelihoods, after turning their family fruit-picking and baking activities into a collective business called the Vlasina Lake Housewives Association.
Armed with a $ 56,200 grant from a joint UN programme, local municipalities and the government of Norway, the women have opened a small production facility to prepare and package healthy food from natural forest products. The factory is equipped with nine stoves where the women produce juice, sweets and jam based on their grandmothers’ recipes.
The project is part of an effort launched last autumn by the Peacebuilding and Inclusive Local Development (PBILD) programme, backed by the MDG-Fund, to spur economic development in two of South Serbia’s most under‐developed municipalities. By closing the economic gap between ethnic groups and between South Serbia and the rest of the country, the programme hopes to reduce the risks of re-igniting conflict and to assist Serbia in reaching the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals.
PBILD Programme Manager Nicholas Hercules says the funds are helping the women to grow their business and expand to bigger markets, as well as keeping a greater portion of the proceeds from their sales which were previously lost to middlemen.
“What were trying to do is to help women build their great ideas so they can increase their revenue streams and build their income,” said Hercules. “We hope this provides an example to others, especially to those thinking of moving out of the region, that it is possible to stay at home and make a decent living to support your family.”
Employment and self-employment are essential peace-building tools. Many of the world’s conflicts are linked to questions of access to resources, including land and livelihoods. In post-crisis settings like Serbia, the MDG-F helps communities regain their access to resources, focusing particularly on the most marginalized and disadvantaged populations.
Projects like these can also begin to address the fact that women are under-represented in Serbian economic decision-making, a situation which means they have less power to influence policy making and the setting of political agendas.
“Vlasina Housewives is a good example of how women can be empowered to jointly transform their family activities into income generating businesses, creating sustainable livelihoods, leading towards more inclusive and sustainable development of the region of South Serbia, and ensuring equal participation of women in their communities’ political, economic and social life,” Hercules said.
With assistance from the PBILD programme, the Vlasina Housewives recently went on a study tour to learn how bigger producers package and market their products countrywide. They have also been trained in food safety and have taken part in several regional and Serbia‐wide food fairs, food forums and healthy food contests as a way to broaden into new markets.
Last November, the group of entrepreneurs won the Gold Medal at the Second Annual Regional Ethno Food Fair in Nis, the most prestigious food fair in southern Serbia, where some 40 participants from the region presented souvenirs, handicrafts and domestic food prepared in traditional ways.
"The gold medal from Nis is flattering," says Vlasina Housewife Slavica Cvetkovic, "Especially as we won a silver medal at the same fair in 2010. This shows that not only have we maintained our standards, but [we have] actually improved our quality, which is what we strive for. This was all possible thanks to PBILD and the funds we received, with which we managed to raise the knowledge and skills of our Housewives.”
Project manager Vesna Djordjevic said the Housewives’ biggest challenge is to widen the distribution and sale of their products, and to link their project with rural tourism and development. She said the project hopes to teach the women market analysis and marketing strategies in a future phase.
For now, though, the Housewives are providing solid role models to their communities. Said the mayor of Vlasotince, Srdjan Susulic: “The Vlasina Lake Housewives are a credit to our area. Their creativity is an example to all budding entrepreneurs in the south of Serbia.”
South Serbia is the poorest part of the country, with high unemployment rates and low incomes. The goal of the PBILD programme – a collaboration between the Serbian government and six UN agencies (UNDP, UN-HABITAT, UNICEF, UNHCR, IOM and ILO) – is to assist South Serbia in driving its own development, while reducing potential flash-points for conflict that come from unequal access to resources.
The programme is aimed at strengthening inter-ethnic understanding, increasing the overall economic prosperity of the region, and lessening the disparities in wealth and employment that exist between ethnic groups, and with other parts of Serbia. It is part the of the MDG-F’s work to help countries achieve the Millennium Development Goals of reducing poverty and improving livelihoods worldwide by the year 2015.
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