Illiteracy, poverty and unemployment are major causes of social inequality

Trgovina ljudima NVO Atina

Photograph: Marija Piroški

Illiteracy, poverty and unemployment are major causes of social inequality

Employment Strategy of the Republic of Serbia for period 2014-2020, recognizes women as the biggest vulnerable group on labour market which is difficult to target with special employment programs owing to the group’s heterogeneity. Nevertheless, the Strategy recognizes the shortage of adequate employment programs for women in general, as well as the shortage of programs specially designed for women facing multiple discrimination. Besides women, the strategy defines some other vulnerable groups on labor market such as human trafficking victims and among them members of Roma minority, refugees and internally displaced persons, young women, the illiterate, persons who live in rural areas but do not own any land, etc. It is important to stress that many of these groups overlap, so in reality we have cases where many human trafficking victims who survived specific and traumatic exploitation experience are at the same time young, uneducated, and can be members of Roma population, come from rural areas, and have previously experienced domestic violence.  All these things confirm the fact that majority of these persons, in particular women, face multiple discrimination on a daily basis.  

Gender discrimination and lack of support for solving gender based violence in Serbia, and improvement of women’s position, are also recognized in Indicative strategic document for Serbia (2014-2020), adopted on August 19, 2014, which clearly reads: “Existing gender stereotypes and discrimination help with keeping structural gender gap in economic, political and social areas, while gender-based violence is still a concerning issue.” In other words, due to gender stereotypes and interrelated gender gap, women suffer multiple negative socio-economic aftermath.

According to the Strategy, as well as other numerous strategic documents and various research, the youth are the second biggest vulnerable group, while Serbia has the highest unemployment youth rate in Europe. Among them, particularly vulnerable group is the youth without qualifications, i.e. the ones who dropped out of school. Moreover, specialized trainings are recognized in the Strategy as one of the solutions to this issue.

One of the important questions for understanding overall gender inequality context, and the position of different vulnerable groups, is the poverty question. Poverty is the issue that Serbia, as a country with a long standing and painful experience with economic transition, hasn’t still tackled in an adequate manner, as a huge number of citizens still live below poverty threshold. On the other hand, poverty is tightly related to education level: in Serbia, the poverty level has been clearly decreasing as the education level of the head of the household has been increasing: from 20,2% for persons who haven’t even completed basic education, to only 1,0% to ones with Bachelor’s degree.  The ones with complete or even incomplete basic education were predominant among the poor: they constituted 61,5% of all the poor, while their share in the total number of citizens was 29,5 percent. Even though the poverty level of those with medium level education was under national average, their number was still high – they constituted 36,3% of all the poor, which is certainly the consequence of their high share in the total number of citizens (54,2% citizens of Serbia). This strong connection between education and poverty clearly shows that enhancing an employee’s qualification level, especially those with lower position, is a direct and efficient way toward reducing poverty in Serbia.

These results reflect what Citizens’ Association Atina has encountered through its experience – despite overarching attitude of the activists in the area of combating human trafficking, that all citizens can become victims of human trafficking, practice in this area shows that human trafficking victims in majority of cases (even 98%) are persons who are victims of multiple discrimination, persons from socially deprived environments (poor families, families with enduring domestic violence, incest, families where parents are illiterate or uneducated, these are refugees, displaced persons, repatriates according to the Agreement on Readmission, foster families, etc). Therefore, the causes of ending up in a human trafficking situation, having in mind the recent practice in the Republic of Serbia, can be related to all the aspects of social exclusion - from material poverty, over unavailability of health and education system, to gender-based violence and discriminatory and oppressive social practices. Most of the users of the social inclusion program that has been implemented by the Citizens’ Association Atina do not have completed basic education.  Because of traumas and other consequences of experienced violence, as well as all the other, above mentioned aspects of social exclusion, that majority of these women have personally experienced, they are hard-to-employ social category. However, recovery program is difficult to achieve if the persons are not enabled to regain control over their lives, i.e. to find a steady job, become financially independent, and get their freedom back. That is why economic empowerment has to be one of essential elements of overall support system. Nevertheless, one of the consequences of economic crisis was dramatically decreased capacity of existing systems to, by using its interventions, enable the process of social inclusion of victims, and above all – their sustainable reintegration and empowerment by their complete inclusion in education system and labour market. It is their inclusion in systems that presents an important guarantee for reintegration of victims of human trafficking and exploitation, and since we live in a permanent transition, so far this process hasn’t been smooth at all, and it will continue being a challenge in the future too.

Having in mind that illiteracy, poverty and unemployment are among major causes of social inequality, Atina’s work with victims of human trafficking and violence against women is deeply grounded on the belief that every person should be given support to regain the feeling of human dignity so that she can be(come) an equal society member. Therefore, our program starts from a comprehensive individual approach focused on a user, where every user fully participates and makes a decision about her future. This approach not only has a positive effect on a user, but on her family and environment. In order to financially support such approach, in 2015 Atina founded socially responsible enterprise Bagel Begel shop, aiming at empowering and educating victims and potential victims of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation, mostly women and girls. Citizens’ Association Atina is the sole owner of this social enterprise and it invests its entire profit into support to recovery services for human trafficking victims who are users of this program, which enables partial sustainability of this program. It is important to emphasize that this program still largely depends on international funds, despite clear obligations and responsibilities of the Republic of Serbia in that respect, which are sadly persistently neglected.

In order to enhance capacities of Atina’s users, mostly women who are hard-to-employ, eager to see them engaged in labour market, and thus enable their complete social reintegration, Citizens’ Association Atina has been working on the implementation of the training program for enhancing users’ capacities for future employment, to include the period of practical work, and networking with other companies for job search. Simultaneously, Atina has been working on further growth of its social enterprise Bagel Bejgl as the major tool for our sustainability. Socially responsible business, improvement of position of the vulnerable social groups and reduction of gender inequality are values added to our work, but they are not and they shouldn’t be immanent only to us, but to all who care about building a more just society.


This text was produced in the framework of the project "Support to Priority Actions for Gender Equality in Serbia", implemented by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) with funding from the European Union. The views contained in the text are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations. The project is part of the initiative for supporting women entrepreneurship, women in rural areas, decreasing labor market and employment discrimination, encouraging dialogue on the importance of economic empowerment of women and exchange of knowledge and information among women entrepreneurs.