By Paola Totaro
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kosovo is to revolutionize its land laws and will, for the first time, clearly define formal ownership and encourage women to inherit and own land in their own right.
Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuci said on Friday that the government wanted to modernize its property system to "bring Kosovo society fully into the Western world" and foster greater equality and prosperity in the Balkan country.
Writing for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, he said informality in the land sector was holding back progress in Kosovo - a former province of Serbia which declared its independence eight years ago.
Women in particular had been unfairly excluded from property ownership because of traditional patrilineal values, added Kuci, a former justice minister.
He said only 18 percent of women owned property and cited research by the U.S. government's development agency USAID showing just 3.8 percent inherited property.
"The fact that most women do not own property means that a significant portion of the population is unable to freely engage in economic activity, start their own businesses, create jobs and contribute fully to Kosovo's economic growth," Kuci added.
Experts say the country's turbulent political history has led to Kosovars relying on informal relations in every aspect of society, creating unique challenges for lawmakers.
Land has been bought and sold for decades without documentation and families often do not bother with inheritance procedures.
Despite the Constitution's recognition of gender equality, Kuci said women were often excluded when property was divided among heirs, or were expected to renounce their inheritance in favor of their brothers.
Patrilineal customs likely evolved in the past as a survival strategy to protect families, he said, but could now become an impediment to their wellbeing.
"It is our duty to explain to our citizens the benefits that equal exercise of property rights brings to our own families," he said.
"When a woman owns property, for example, she can use that property as collateral for a loan to develop her business, allowing her to become self-reliant and independent. When girls are independent, they are more likely to resist domestic violence. This is good for everyone."
A public campaign to encourage citizens to change their attitudes to women's property rights and to formalize ownership is already under way with USAID support.
Kuci said Kosovo - which has Europe's youngest population with three-quarters of its people under the age of 35 - was "very open to modern ideas and ways of thinking".
Many Kosovars lived as refugees in European countries during repression and war with Serbia in the late 1990s and are in contact with relatives in Kosovar diaspora across Europe and the United States.
Kuci said Kosovo was also being held back by a complex and contradictory legal framework built over 60 years by numerous different governments, including discriminatory laws introduced in the 1990s by the socialist regime led by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
This prohibited the sale of land and buildings between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, which in practice did not stop transactions but meant they remained informal.
Land experts say the lack of accurate legal and economic information has impeded foreign investment as well as the development of a healthy and productive land market.
"Addressing informality in the land sector is key to lifting people out of poverty and instituting a sustainable model of economic growth that fosters equality and prosperity for all," Kuci said.
(Reporting by Paola Totaro, Editing by Emma Batha; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)