Sanela Shkrijelj
Sanela Shkrijelj
Member of Parliament
North Macedonia

I never thought I would enter politics. Since my days at university, I have always been part of the civil society, whether as an activist or a member of a formal NGO, working on issues around women’s participation in decision-making, gender mainstreaming, and gender budgeting. I considered this my main role, an active member of civil society. However, under the authoritarian Gruevski regime in the country, many changes started taking place. Unwarranted financial inspections of civil society groups, slurs against CSOs, and heightened ethnic tensions contributed to an environment wherein civil society faced backlash from the authorities. When the government changed in 2017 and I was asked to join the cabinet of the Minister of Labour and Social Policy, I saw this as part of my civic responsibility to rebuild our country after the crisis. It’s one of the decisions I am most proud of.

I am now a Member of Parliament, where I sit as a citizen representative on the Committees of Foreign Affairs, European Integration, Education, and Labour and Social Policy. In my capacity as a Member of Parliament, as we both prepare and supervise the implementation of laws, I have been able to advocate for and actually realize the changes I was working towards in civil society. My approach to resolving issues and gathering ideas is different from career politicians. I am often called “you from the NGOs”, but I don’t see this as an insult. I believe that politicians coming from civil society bring openness and inclusive participatory approaches, and work hard to make sure that the legislative process is not something that happens behind closed doors. Our knowledge of civil society actors also helps us to engage with the right stakeholders in consultative processes. I think all politicians should learn from civil society about political participation and giving voice to the underprivileged.

Before I joined the Parliament, I was President of the National Network to end Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. We worked hard to advocate for victims and survivors of violence, and to lobby for women’s rights across all political parties, but at the time it wasn’t difficult to discuss domestic violence at all - the government would only refer to it as “family violence”. We were accused of attacking traditional values. We persevered, pushing to recognize all other forms of violence in legislation.

There was a major advance in 2017, when under the new government, North Macedonia finally ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as Istanbul Convention). Speaking about domestic violence is no longer a challenge, and it is no longer a controversial opinion to say that violence against women is a real problem that should not be considered an internal family issue. While a lack of services for survivors of domestic violence and violence against women remain a challenge, especially in rural areas, this has also improved in the past decade. However, our society is still a conservative one, and women face gender-based barriers no matter what we do. Whether in civil society or government roles, we are facing chauvinism, hate speech - especially these days on social media - and institutional sexism. Political parties themselves remain dominated by men. Often, as a woman entering a political meeting or discussion where a decision needs to be made, it feels like an uphill battle fighting constantly against this men-dominated field that wants to push you out.

But still, we are making strides. In numbers, we are getting there; our parliament now has a 40 percent gender quota, put into place by the Women’s Parliamentarian Bloc, where women from all political parties came together to demand better representation. But equal participation doesn’t mean automatic equality. Every time a woman does something “different”, she faces pushback. Quotas also aren’t automatically enough. Even though they are a useful, albeit temporary, tool that should still be promoted, it’s also a question of how active women who enter politics are. The first step is representation. Without women in these roles, we cannot talk about anything else. But once we have that, then we can work on strengthening each other through cooperation, and do something more to achieve gender equality in our country. Solidarity among women is key, regardless of party. Even in times of polarization, women in North Macedonia’s Parliament have been able to join together to push for key reforms. In this bloc, we successfully passed our new law against gender-based violence, and just recently we aligned our criminal code with the Istanbul Convention. 

Parliament is not the only place where numbers and action matter. Elevating more women in the executive branch of the government, and at local levels, like mayors, is also key to achieving equality in action, not just name. Having women in “non-traditional” ministerial positions, such as the Minister of Defense, has been a positive achievement, but wherever quotas do not reach, our numbers remain low.

I know that coming from a civil society perspective, entering politics can be a controversial decision - almost a betrayal of those values. But despite the polarization that occurs between civil society and government, especially in times of crisis, I am a firm believer that they should be partners. Civil society should always be following the work of government institutions, and providing feedback as the ones working on the ground. We have the same goals: improving people’s lives. It’s up to the institutions to provide a setting for an inclusive process and partnership. This includes making space for feedback and ideas, as well as financing public work. Government and Parliament should see civil society as being at the forefront of people’s needs, and if we are smart enough, we’ll realize that partnering is the best choice we can make for supporting our people.

It’s a very personal decision, whether to enter politics or stay in civil society. But politics is where the decisions are made, and where the power lies. As more women enter the political sphere, we are showing that politics can be done differently; and being a politician doesn’t have to have a negative connotation for the general public. We need to build a culture and atmosphere where politicians – and especially women - are perceived as active partners, across the aisle of political parties, and across the aisle of government and civil society. We as women must be more active, more vocal, more present. We must be brave - stop questioning whether you are good enough, whether you know enough. By embracing women’s solidarity, and our own capacities, we can break down men-dominated structures and rebuild them in a positive, equal, and supportive way.