The socio-economic situation of women in the conditions of capitalist restoration

New Communist Party of Yugoslavia

"Those who have promised liberation to humanity vouching for it with their honour must not allow one half of the human race to be condemned to enslavement due to financial and social dependence. Those who would allow the oppression of workers by the capitalists would also allow the oppression of women by men".

Clara Zetkin

"The issue of women's liberation is inextricably linked to the social transformation as a whole, with the liberation of mankind from all evil, disillusions, tyranny, and slavery."

Svetozar Marković

The beginnings of the workers’ movement and the struggle for women’s rights

The workers’ movement developed with different speed among the Yugoslav nations depending on the industrialization process and on which state they previously belonged to (something that also influenced divisions within the workers' movement itself). Demands for full social and economic equality of women were heard in Yugoslavia, same as in the rest of Europe, simultaneously with the acceptance of scientific socialism of Marx and Engels as the theoretical basis for the political struggle of the working class. There were quite a few factors that played a role in introducing this issue to the Yugoslav peoples. Great women and labour rights activist John Stuart Mill’s essay "The Subjection of Women" was translated by Svetozar Marković and published in Serbia in 1871, as well as August Bebel’s "Woman and Socialism". In addition, the activism of Klara Cetkin, Lenin's works and speeches, as well as the achievement of equality for women in the Soviet Union after the victory of the October Revolution were of great importance for clarifying the issue of women’s rights.

With the breakthrough of socialist ideas and the development of the workers' movement, women’s rights were increasingly recognized as a social issue of general importance. Within the organized struggle of all workers, besides fighting against capitalist exploitation, women workers began their parallel struggle for equality with men. In labour organizations, strikes and other activist actions, they demanded equal rights to work, equal pay and better working conditions for all workers. However, the Marxist notions and their theoretical and practical implications regarding the position of women workers and future of the society were not always and everywhere smoothly and quickly accepted, even within the workers' movement itself. In this context, Svetozar Marković, the great visionary of the workers' movement who spread socialist ideas in economically underdeveloped Serbia of the 1870s and 1880s, played a very important role with his ideas and his activism. He was trying to raise awareness about poor treatment of women in families and the negative impact of patriarchal mentality, not only on women from the bourgeois classes and on the upbringing of future generations, but also on relations in the society as a whole. He advocated for the solution of this problem and claimed (in 1871) that "the issue of women's liberation is inextricably linked to the social transformation as a whole, with the liberation of mankind from all evil, disillusions, tyranny, and slavery" and that "not only is it not too early for us to deal with the rights of women, but this should be the first thing on our agenda".

First women workers' unions emerged within the socialist workers’ unions. The women workers emphasized that they did not belong to the civil feminist movement, due to the fact that its manifesto did not contain the demands for the abolition of exploitation of workers. One of the prominent leaders of the Serbian Social Democratic Party Dimitrije Tucović, returning from the International Women's Conference in Copenhagen (which he attended as a delegate at the General Meeting of the Socialist Second International), reported on the conference at the Great Socialist Women’s Assembly in Belgrade in late 1910. He spoke about the importance of the women's movement, about Clara Zetkin’s speech and about the decision to celebrate International Women's Day. That is also when the Central Secretariat of Women Socialists was established. Immediately after the establishment of the 8th of March as International Women's Day, in 1911, many cities in Serbia saw mass demonstrations of women workers against exploitation and demanding political equality for women.

The editorial of the first issue of the periodical “Jednakost” ("Equality"), written by the Central Secretariat of Women Social Democrats (October 1, 1910) states the following: "We, the working women, cannot reduce our demands to the agenda of those ladies from the bourgeois circles who want more rights for women as long as the current social order is preserved – the order which gives only rights to ones, and only duties to others. Our struggle is only one part of the social democratic struggle to which we belong, since better future for all mankind will be born, not from the struggle of women against men, but from the energetic and persistent struggle of the oppressed social classes against their oppressors."

After the prohibition of the work of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) in 1921, following its great success in the Yugoslav elections, bans of many progressive organizations and trade unions started, including women's unions close to the CPY. During the period when the CPY worked illegally, many women provided material assistance to the party and helped the communists with organizing party meetings. The goal of the CPY was to attract as many women as possible, and it, therefore, openly promoted economic, social and political equality between the sexes. The other political parties at the time neither offered opportunities for women to be politically active, nor included the rights of women in their programs. The CPY was the only one that offered entirely new possibilities to women.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was a society pervaded by deep internal political, social and inter-ethnic tensions. It can be stated that this society was dynamic only in the demographic sense. However, if we take the position of women in a society as a criterion of one country’s emancipation and modernization, the results are disastrous. At the time of its establishment, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia had six different regions with different laws within its framework. During the entire existence of this state, no harmonization of civil law was ever carried out. Thus, Serbian Civil Code from 1844 remained in force in the territories that belonged to the Kingdom of Serbia before the war. This law proscribed husband's authority over wife. Marital law recognized the husband as the head of the house. The wife was obliged to obey the husband's orders, to help her husband, maintain order and cleanliness in the house, and care for the children. In case of a divorce, she had the right to keep male children until the age of four, and the female children until the age of seven. After that, she was obliged to hand over the children to the father for care. The privileged position of a man as per Serbian Civil Code is also reflected in the fact that the legislator forbade paternity tests at birth of extra-marital children.

The husband was, therefore, allowed extramarital life, unlike his wife, which indicated the existence of dual morality. Within the property law, the inability of a married woman to work is particularly highlighted. An unmarried woman was granted the same working rights as a man while a married woman was equated with minors and mentally challenged. The subjection of women was particularly obvious in the field of the inheritance law. The matrilineal inheritance principle was considered only after all the heirs from the father’s side up to the sixth cousins were exhausted. The right to inheritance belonged firstly to male descendants and their descendants and only then to daughters.

The involvement of women in the social and political life of Yugoslavia met with great resistance. One of the most prominent examples is the case of Ksenija Atanasijević. She was the first woman to get a PhD at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade in 1922. She was also the first woman to be appointed as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade in 1924, only to be removed from her position in 1936. Her position at the university was never restored to her, and she spent the rest of her working life, until 1941, as a teaching inspector for the Ministry of Education.

Until 1945, women, who made up more than half of the total population of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, had minor participation in political, economic and cultural life.

National liberation war and the role of women

Plagued by internal contradictions and under external pressures, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia did not resist the fascist aggression in April 1941 and was occupied and fragmented without any significant resistance.

The Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which had been persecuted for twenty years and operated illegally, stayed close to the people and called for organized resistance to fascist aggressors. It succeeded in bringing together democratic and patriotic forces into one unified huge national liberation movement.

Young people of all classes and both sexes joined the fight with greatest enthusiasm. They could see their future only in a country liberated from foreign occupation, from the hegemony of foreign and domestic capital, capitalist exploitation, discrimination and humiliation. Their future was in a country where all people and nations would be equal and where they could develop their creative abilities. Prepared to sacrifice their lives for freedom during the bloody war, young men and women already lived in a new way and created new moral codes through mutual relations of equality and camaraderie.

The mass inclusion of women in the fight, side by side with men, was of particular importance, since the occupiers and quislings counted on their passivity and conservatism. Far-sighted commitment of the CPY and the leadership of the National Liberation Front to participation of women in the liberation war in all its aspects stemmed from their awareness of the fact that the success of the struggle depended on the participation of all people in it. Moreover, they understood that participation of women, in addition to being an indispensable contribution, also added an extraordinary humane dimension, revolutionary depth and conviction in victory to the fight. All of this led to a remarkable response among girls and women.

Millions of working women, countrywomen, housewives, students and intellectuals actively engaged in the great fight for liberation and new social order in which they would be equal with men. Women were fighters in armed units, they participated in communist attacks in cities and in sabotages, they were illegal political activists in occupied territories, couriers and intelligence, they were collecting and hiding weapons and medical supplies. Their houses were meeting points, hospitals and workshops. They also joined military units or partisan hospitals as nurses, nursing wounded, taking care of the children of the fighters, illegal activists and victims of terror and provided clothing and food for the liberation army. Under the harshest conditions, women were working on the fields and hid the harvest from the occupiers. They did all of this in spite of the unprecedented terror that the fascist occupiers and their domestic accomplices imposed on people, regardless of their sex and age. It was a time of mass killings and arrests, public hangings, burnings and robberies, a time when children were being killed, women and girls raped and people sent into concentration camps and prisons. There are countless examples of the heroic acts of women in combat, in concentration camps, prisons, and at gunpoints. The leadership of the national liberation fight could rely on women in all tasks performed by men, and in particular when it came to those traditionally performed by women only. Thus, women carried out all political and military tasks in the national liberation struggle, side by side with men.

Women's anti-fascist organizations, which were established both in occupied and liberated territories as part of the People's Liberation Front, played a major role in mobilizing women for the national liberation struggle. In December 1942, the First Conference of the Women’s Antifascist Front of Yugoslavia (WAFY) was held in the liberated town of Bosanski Petrovac. It was attended by 166 women delegated from armed units, as well as from villages and cities from liberated and occupied territories from all over Yugoslavia. On that occasion, the Commander in Chief of the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia and the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, underlined the inseverable link between participation of women in the national war and revolution on one side and the future development of the society and the new position of women in that society on the other.

"I am proud to lead an army with so many women in it," Tito said, pointing out: "The women of Yugoslavia, who participate in this struggle with such self-sacrifice and who sacrificed so much, they who are so decidedly standing on the first lines of the national liberation struggle, have the right to be guaranteed one thing here today once and for all: this struggle must be fruitful for the women of Yugoslavia and it must give them rights that nobody can take away from their hands ever again – the rights that they dearly paid for. Our National Liberation Army and all the women who are in the forefront of the great struggle will vouch for this. Perhaps someone abroad has illusions that after the war everything will go back to the old practices in Yugoslavia and that women will go back to the kitchen and will not decide on anything. This will not happen, because women passed a maturity test: they proved that they are able for more than just being housewives, they proved they can also fight with a rifle in their hand and that they can be in charge and hold power in their hands."

During the war, the Women’s Antifascist Front of Yugoslavia grew to have around two million members. Establishing and organizing the WAFY was an important motivator for mobilization of women everywhere, but it was of particular importance for women in rural areas and in the most underdeveloped parts of the country. The Women’s Antifascist Front contributed to their mobilization in the war and to their general education and political activism. In addition to youth organizations, the WAFY was a true school for women cadres that prepared them for all functions.

Socialist period in Yugoslavia and the affirmation of women

After the victory of the Partisan movement led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, the post-war period marked the beginning of all-encompassing and deep social, political and economic reconstruction. The transformation focused on eradicating the legacy of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – in the political and ideological, as well as in the social sphere – but also on urbanization and emancipation of rural Yugoslav communities and its population, industrialization and general rebuilding of the society and country devastated by the war.

The changes that followed after the Second World War greatly affected women, their position and rights in the newly born state. The new rights that Yugoslav women gained during the socialist times were actually won on their own, primarily by their equal participation in the National Liberation War. After the war, these rights were introduced into legislation, thus creating a formal state incentive and encouragement for emancipation of women and their equality with men. As Lenin himself pointed out: "There can be no socialist revolution unless great many working women take a big part in it (...) We need working women to achieve not only legal equality, but also factual equality with working men. It is therefore necessary that working women take more and more part in managing enterprises and in governing the state."

In the first years after the war, a great number of major and more important positions in the Women’s Antifascist Front of Yugoslavia was given to former partisan women who, after the war, served as models for the emancipation of other women, especially those from rural areas. The WAFY's policy was to motivate, encourage and empower women for independent work and for being independent in general and to encourage them to approach work in a different way. The WAFY also stressed that marriage should not be the sole thing to give meaning to a woman's life. The WAFY was the pillar organization that attracted many women and it actively worked on involving them in the social and political sphere, and on motivating and encouraging them to step out of the previous stereotypes typical of patriarchal traditional cultures. The WAFY had three important emancipatory roles: 1) mobilizing women for the reconstruction, 2) education and enlightenment of women, and 3) the incentive to build kindergartens, which would make it possible for women to work and thus gain financial independence essential for gaining equality.

In the first Constitution of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia (FNRY) in 1946, women formally got suffrage. It was the official confirmation of the right to vote that they used already back in 1941 in the elections for the national committees. The legislation that followed created a firm basis for women’s rights in personal, family and political life.

The Marital Law of 1946 proscribed equal status of men and women in marriage. The Family Law of 1947 introduced equal rights of marital and extra-marital children. The Law on Social Insurance introduced insurance for all risks, which included paid maternity leave and exercising the right to a pension under the same conditions for both women and men, although women would retire earlier. The right to abortion was laid down in the 1951 law, the 1974 Constitution guaranteed women full right to decide on giving birth, and from 1977 abortion was allowed without any restrictions up to ten weeks of age of the foetus. All the international conventions on women rights were transposed into Yugoslav legislation of that time. In 1979, the SFRY signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted at the General Assembly of the United Nations and which came into force in 1981.

The new government after the Second World War was also focused on altering previously adopted social practices and on transforming the society. Particular attention was paid to eradicating rural practices and to modernization of the society. The stress was therefore on the improvement of hygienic practices of the population, eradication of infectious diseases that were widely spread, and on educating the people. One of the legal acts passed in the Socialist Yugoslavia forbade headscarves or hijabs with the aim of liberating Muslim women. The Islamic community itself reacted positively to the act and it was confirmed that, from the religious standpoint, there was no obstacle for the removal of headscarves and that covering of women was more of a custom than a religious order.

It was clear that the reconstruction and rebuilding of the country, as well as the creation of a new socialist society, could not happen without major active participation of women, and this is where the Women’s Antifascist Front of Yugoslavia played an undeniably important role. Women in socialism fought for and managed to gain the rights to actively participate in the creation of new gender relations and in achieving equality with men. The WAFY was the organization that provided mechanisms that could activate the majority of women.

Considering family responsibilities of working women, primarily keeping the household and upbringing of children, the Socialist Government tried to make it easier for them to remain dedicated to their activities in the public sphere and to make it easier for women to perform demanding manual jobs, regardless of starting a family, by adopting a number of decrees that regulated children and maternity issues. By the Decree on women workers at the time of pregnancy or menstruation, women were exempted from work that required them to spend long hours standing. There was also a Regulation on the opening of nurseries within enterprises.

When it comes to women workers' rights, it is important to note that women were successful and competent at work and that they did not feel they were hindered when it came to career advancement. Their attitude is due to the fact that their right to work was hard-won, that they had genuine belief in the new system and that they mostly came from patriarchal families. The new socialist order nominally equated women and men workers when it came to salaries.

We should also mention the newly gained right to divorce, which is another aspect which indicates the level of equality between women and men. After the Second World War, the equality of men and women, undoubtedly a great achievement of the Revolution, became one of the basic principles of the Constitution, marital law and other laws. It was necessary to change the old patriarchal views on the subordinate position of women shaped for centuries and still present in the mentality of people.

From this brief overview of the position of women in the SFRY, it is impossible not to conclude that women did achieve a higher level of emancipation and equality from the one they previously had. It is also important to underline that women, by their struggle, determined self-sacrifice and dedication, won the rights that the law gave them after the Second World War on their own. Their struggle and socialist postulates led to public and political promotion of equal rights for women and men.

Restoration of Capitalism and accelerated repatriarchialization

The processes of restoration of capitalism and the civil war on the territory of the SFRY had dire consequences for women’s rights in Yugoslavia, putting them back into the frame of their biological role (mother) and into the private sphere (home). Women lost their political significance. In addition, the economic crisis and political turmoil led to mass unemployment that affected men and women differently – unemployment of men was seen as the source of instability that required working on, whereas unemployment of women became more and more acceptable. Emancipation and advocacy for the equality of men and women has been replaced by political and social advocacy for the return of the woman into the private sphere and reaffirmation of her role as a mother.

Poor economic circumstances, wars, insufficient support from the state and the society, inadequate activity of trade unions, as well as many other factors, primarily the inefficient implementation of laws by state authorities such as labour inspections, contributed to the fact that the status of women at the time of establishing of market economy and cruel competition on the labour market has, in many aspects, been reduced to that prior to the Second World War.

The rights that women won in socialism are ignored, and women are put back into the private sphere. Men became active subjects, warriors and women became passive objects and victims. Decades of women's work and activism for a better society have been erased in a very short period, and patriarchy has been restored securing positions of power for men.

Although, formally speaking, women and men in Serbia have equal rights, studies show that the overall socio-economic status of women is significantly worse than that of men, and that there is a deep gap between proclaimed principles and concrete policy implementation practices.

More women than men in Serbia have completed primary, secondary or higher education, but they earn less than men, and more than half of them are dependents, according to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia. We have 114 women workers to 100 men workers with university degrees. Within the same group, men earn on average 5.1% more than women.

Studies have also shown that 95% of women perform unpaid jobs 5 hours a day as compared to 77% of men 3 hours a day. Also 85% of Serbian citizens consider that domestic violence is spread widely (42%) or to a certain extent (43%) and 33% of citizens know about a case of sexual harassment at work that a women experienced.

Women make up 50 percent of all old-age pension beneficiaries, whereas two-thirds of disability pension beneficiaries are men. In both cases, women on average have a lower pension – 20% lower old-age pension and 16% lower disability pension. On average, women who worked have two years shorter life expectancy than men.

The results of a survey on the attitudes of Serbian citizens towards gender equality show that more than half of them agree that women and men in Serbia are not equal (55%). Considerably more women believe that there is no equality (66% of women, 44 % of men). 55% of men, compared to 33% of women, state that there is equality between the sexes.

A large proportion of the population of Serbia, states that, according to their previous experience, women applying for jobs were more often rejected than men with a justification that the job was not for their sex (71%) or for their age (65%).

Eight out of ten citizens of Serbia believe that women stand to lose their jobs more easily due to family obligations, and one quarter of citizens agree that women entrepreneurs are less successful than male entrepreneurs (2014: 25%; 2010: 12.8%).

Majority of citizens believe that women are more frequently victims of harassment at work (73%), while less than one fifth agrees that women and men face harassment at work in equal measure (18%). When it comes to discrimination against women for use of pregnancy or maternity leave, as many as 38% of citizens state that they know of a case where a woman was fired because she took pregnancy or maternity leave.

After 1990, when the multi-party system was introduced, the number of women elected to the republican assemblies was lower than the number of women elected in 1958.


As long as there is capitalism on the planet, it will never be saved. Because capitalism is contrary to life, ecology, human beings and women.

The reasons behind the overall more difficult position of women in the society lie in institutionalized and structuralized discrimination, i.e. in failure to recognize the increasingly difficult position of women and in lack of adequate public policy measures and institutions responsible for their application.

Ever since the counterrevolution took place on the territory of SFRY, the position of women in our society regressed to what it used to be almost a century ago. The role of a woman is reduced to that of “a mother and a housewife”, whereas her social status and condition are completely suppressed. The bourgeois media depict women only as sexual objects and cheap advertisements for their cover pages, while real problems of women are addressed only sporadically, or with deep cynicism and ridicule.

Today in Serbia, overall socioeconomic status of women is considerably worse compared to that of men. Women in Serbia receive 15-25% lower salaries than men do, more women are registered in public unemployment services, there are only few in influential positions, and they also receive smaller pensions. The number of women living in poverty is significantly higher than that of their male counterparts. Employment level of women in Serbia amounts to only 44%. Areas of life in which women are not discriminated, or at least those in which they are discriminated less than men, are rare, as various studies have shown. A woman usually has two full-time jobs – at home and at her workplace – and she faces major problems in regards to both. It is more difficult for her to land a job, she earns less for exactly the same position, she receives promotion after a longer period of time, and only 30% of women occupy management posts, while only 20% work as executive officers in companies and institutions. They are less likely to be included in making important decisions and they frequently have to choose between their job and giving birth, or at least to postpone having children if they wish to advance in any career. In Serbia, women who live in countryside are particularly marginalized, since they receive no remuneration or public acknowledgement for their work, even though they perform work which is important for upkeeping of rural households and survival of multi-generational families.

Women are also the most frequent victims of domestic violence. Studies indicate that one in every three women has been a victim of physical abuse, while one in every two women has been a victim of psychological abuse. This is another issue the competent institutions fail to solve.

The former Prime minister and the current President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, has attacked Serbian women, stating that they are giving birth in order to avoid working. At the same time, the Serbian Government advocates boosting the birth rate. In this regard, it is also important to underline the fact that the status of mothers and pregnant women is extremely bad and that they are one of the most vulnerable groups of population.

In Serbia, as well as in the rest of the world, the most vocal women movements are exactly those who still hold women in subordinate position, seeking rights only for the privileged social classes. Both theory and practice are in the hands of the privileged, while the awareness of any marginalized groups is questionable. That is why the most vulnerable and repressed women remain unprotected. The so-called feminist works are class-biased; they ignore the inextricable link between the class struggle and the struggle for rights of women. The equality between men and women is often insisted on, but many fail to specify the man in question – this is one of the many indicators which showcase that class and class struggle are being ignored, because many men are also victims of capitalism. Capitalism is adaptable and full of tricks which fool women into believing that they are being liberated, while it holds them in subordinate position through its very essence. In accordance with that, the Serbian Government measures the status of women through the statistics of the "Businesswomen club". They take into consideration the number of women in important jobs in the area of economy, disregarding the fact that it is completely irrelevant whether the equity holder is a man or a woman and that the gender of a capitalist does not influence the essence of exploitation, nor does it adorn it with a human face.

The economic independence of women is a prerequisite for their liberation from all forms of dependence and it is closely linked to the struggle of the working class. The liberation of women will be a result of the liberation of the proletariat from the capitalist exploitation. Thoughts of Clara Zetkin, a German communist who contributed to the establishment of the International Women’s Day, on this matter were very clear and also relevant today: "Those who have promised liberation to humanity, vouching for it with their honour, must not allow one half of the human race to be condemned to enslavement due to economic and financial dependence. Those who would allow the oppression of workers by the capitalists would also allow the oppression of women by men"

The solution to the question of women’s rights depends on economic and class relations in a society. In order to achieve liberation of women, capitalist exploitation in general must be abolished first, since that would render the need for subordination of women unnecessary. Such changes, however, have no effect unless women are educated at the same time and allowed to have an active role in all social processes.