Introducing a Rural Hero
On Saturday, February 25, Eli Gashi, 32, was invited to share her story as a part of the worship and celebration of Ecumenical Women at the 56th Commission on the Status of Women. However, instead of talking about herself, Ms. Gashi chose to tell the story of “a community leader, women’s activist, colleague and friend,” Ms. Marta Prekpalaj from Has, Kosovo.
Ms. Prekpalaj’s advocacy for women and education took place before, during and after the repressive regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Miloševic and the war and conflicts in Kosovo in 1998 to 1999.
“At a time when the Serbian regime was burning Albanian books, Marta was leading her community in opening secret underground libraries and teaching people how to read. When authorities in Belgrade were expelling Albanian students from schools, she was fundraising among the Albanian Diaspora in Croatia and secretly transporting funds back to Has at great personal risk, so that the community could build a school,” Ms. Gashi said.
Ms. Gashi, a sociologist, has joined Ms. Prekpalaj in supporting the literacy of rural women through the Kosovo Women’s Network, a network of 85 grassroots groups whose goal is to promote human development, political participation, world development, and membership in the grassroots groups.
The women of Kosovo have sought education and women’s networks out of economic necessity. “Most men were killed in the war. Most women don’t have education,” explained Ms. Gashi. “Most women, when they start their own business, it’s agriculture.”
Ms. Gashi admired Ms. Prekpalaj, for “her dedication, courage, creativity, and energy never cease to amaze me.” Many of the women attending this week’s meeting of the 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women are likewise dedicated, courageous, creative, energetic, and amazing, including Ms. Gashi.
Ms. Gashi’s entire remarks from the Ecumenical Women’s and United Methodist Women’s gathering include a story of how Ms. Prekpalaj drove a tractor across a river to rescue women and children. Read the transcript of Ms. Gashi's speech below.
We Did It Ourselves: A Rural Woman Leads Kosovo
By Eli Gashi
Go to the people, love them, live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have, and with the best leaders, when the work will be done, the people will say: “We did this ourselves!” – Lao Tzu
Thank you all for your participation. I am Eli Gashi and I am delighted to be here and share my story with you all. When I received the email to make this presentation, I thought a lot about it, and I still feel that I made the right decision in terms of not taking about myself, but talking about a woman who clearly had an impact in my life.
Today I am going to share a story of Marta Prekpalaj, age 41, from Has, Kosovo. I have known Marta for more than ten years as a community leader, women’s activist, colleague and friend.
Marta was born on 10 May 1967 in the small village of Zym, which is located in the Has region, an isolated, mountainous area, on the border with Albania. As a young, rural woman growing up in the 1970s Marta fought for the right to an education. There were no secondary schools in Has, and students had to walk two hours to and from school each day – a journey that girls were not permitted to make. After a struggle, Marta managed to convince her family to let her attend classes. She completed secondary school and went on to get her teaching degree in Biology and Chemistry.
In 1990, she became involved in a literacy campaign for women. Empowered by this experience and motivated by the changes she saw in her community, she became active in establishing the Association for the Education of Women Motrat Qiriazi, along with two other women (Igballe and Safete Rogova). In 1995, Marta became the first female director of a school in the entire Prizren region.
Today, Marta contributes to her community in multiple ways – she is the Director of a school in Has, remaining one of the few female school directors in Kosovo, even today; she is the Director of Motrat Qiriazi, ensuring that her communities’ voice is heard in decision-making and that their needs are met; and, she coaches a girls’ volleyball team.
Personally, I worked closely with Marta when I was writing History is Herstory Too: The History of Women in Civil Society in Kosovo (1980 – 2010). I continue to follow Marta’s work at Motrat Qiriazi and as an activist within her community. Her dedication, courage, creativity, and energy never cease to amaze me. The Has region is very different place today, thanks to Marta’s activism.
In the early 1980s, people in Has were living as if it were fifty years earlier. Women still rose at five in the morning to collect firewood for stoves, which they used for cooking and warmth. Even in the 1990s, most villages in Has lacked access to drinking water. Electricity was scarce, and there were no asphalt roads. The community forbade women from attending secondary education because schools were so far away, and the illiteracy rate, especially among women, was more than 70 percent. Women had few opportunities to leave their homes and meet with each other. There were no cultural or sports activities.
A Community Approach
Marta’s approach to community development was unique. Other organizations had attempted to address illiteracy in Has, but failed due to their authoritarian approach. Marta believed strongly in the idea that activists were there, not to lecture the community, but rather to learn from them. Her approach is perhaps best illustrated by Lao Tzu:
Go to the people, love them, live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have, and with the best leaders, when the work will be done, the people will say: “We did this ourselves!”
With Marta’s leading example, this became Motrat Qiriazi’s working motto. I believe it is simultaneously the true story of Marta’s involvement in Has.
From the very beginning, Marta organized meetings where all members of the community could come together to identify development priorities. A patriarchal culture meant that women did not speak much in these meetings, so she decided to start organizing separate meetings for women and men. Over the course of months, Marta worked closely with women to help them start to identify their needs, and not only the needs of their husbands and sons.
With time, women began coming forth with proposals – a water system would save them two hours of hauling water every day, an electric stove would lessen the hours they spent collecting wood. When the whole community came together again for a meeting to discuss community priorities, women could now make their own voices heard in the decision-making process.
Somewhat unique among women activists, Marta never left men out of her work; she realized that in order to establish gender equality in her community, men needed to be involved. She met with male members of the community one-on-one, at first, just for friendly conversations. Later on, once she had established a trusting relationship, she began discussing issues related to gender equality, but in a very simple and easily understandable way that tangibly affected the community.
For example, knowing how hard she had struggled for her education, Marta worked with the community so that they began to support higher education for women. Through the aforementioned community meetings, Marta knew that fear for their daughters’ safety prevented parents from sending girls to school. Therefore, she encouraged and supported the community in raising funds and securing permits to build schools in their community, so that girls and boys would not have to travel so far to receive an education.
Marta’s activism was done with much bravery, under the oppressive Serbian government led by Slobodan Miloševi?. At a time when the Serbian regime was burning Albanian books, Marta was leading her community in opening secret underground libraries and teaching people how to read. When authorities in Belgrade were expelling Albanian students from schools, she was fundraising among the Albanian Diaspora in Croatia and secretly transporting funds back to Has at great personal risk, so that the community could build a school.
Today, 50 percent of the teachers in Has are women whom Motrat Qiriazi supported in continuing their education. All of the medical centers in Has have women and men working there who were educated in Has. As Marta often says, “Nowadays there is no discussion whether girls should continue their secondary education, but rather how to find ways to support them financially so they can continue on to university.”
Through Motrat Qiriazi, Marta also brought informal education to women in regards to health, pregnancy, menstruation hygiene, prevention and treatment of water related diseases, and other issues. She helped organize transport to the far away city of Prizren and free medical check-ups for women.
When the war began in the villages of Kosovo in 1998, Marta was a pillar of strength within her community. In 1999, the people of Has watched from the hillside across the river from Krusha e Vogel village as the Serbian military collected and killed all the men of the village. The military threatened the women with two choices: go to Albania or drown yourselves in the river.
Marta courageously took her tractor, drove it across the river, and took the women and children of Krushe back across the river to safety. When the others from her village saw this, they joined her, bringing many more women and children to safety. Soon after, she left with the people of Krushe and her own community, escaping across the Albanian border to safety from the Serbian regime. While in Albania, she continued working with refugees, supporting women and children in dealing with trauma.
After returning to Kosovo, Marta continued to support women from Krushe who had lost nearly every male member of their family – talking through their experiences, mourning with them, assisting them with rebuilding their community, teaching them to drive cars and tractors, and helping them learn to sustain themselves. Simultaneously, she continued to work on rebuilding her own community of Has after the war.
In 2004, she gained support from the community and municipality – no simple task – to pave all of the roads in Has. Now, a trip into town is 20 minutes rather than an hour and a half, which has great implications for women and men and their access to healthcare, education and the outside world.
Throughout all of her activism, Marta creatively utilized the media as a useful tool in educating the public about key issues. She established a relationship with the local television station, Opinion, where she broadcast a monthly show dealing with issues related to gender equality, such as education, participation in politics and decision-making, health, and violence against women.
As of 2004, Marta had found ways to successfully involve citizens and sometimes the government in working together to raise funds and meet community needs. She gained citizens’ trust and made Motrat Qiriazi completely self-sustainable within the community, as a voice of the people. Currently, it is perhaps the only non-governmental organization in Kosovo that does not rely on international funding for its activities, but rather receives full support from the community.
Over the short span of a decade, Marta has worked with her community to identify citizens' needs and then established 10 local health clinics, trained local medical experts, built two community centers, constructed three secondary schools, installed water pipes to connect the villages and supply water in every home, opened 11 local libraries, paved roads, hosted Balkan-wide cultural dance competitions, organized volleyball and basketball sports teams for girls, and taught hundreds of women to read and write. For five years, all this was done just beneath the watchful eyes of the Serbian Regime.
Marta Prekpalaj’s activism is exemplary not only for women’s NGOs in Kosovo, but for rural and urban women’s activists around the world. For more than a decade, often at great personal risk, Marta has shown her commitment to improving the quality of life in the rural region of Has. And, with her dedication, creativity, and courage, she has led her community to say: “We did this ourselves!”