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Kosovar children
Kosovar children in Lubishte. Photo: ESI

Kosovo households are the largest in Europe. In the countryside, where two thirds of the population lives, the average household has more than 6 members – compared to the average EU household size of 2.5 members. One has to go to South East Anatolia today to find families of similar size. This also explains why even poor villagers in Kosovo usually have very large houses. In the rest of the Balkans, where the same traditions existed until two generations ago, the traditional patriarchal family has long since disappeared.

Kosovo households are often multi-family households, with several brothers staying together with their parents even after marriage. The expression "patriarchal" denotes that all men of the household remain in the family home after marriage and create large, multi-family household economies:

"The basic principle of the zadruga [the Slavic term for such families] was that the male members never leave the common home. Sons and their descendents remain within it, and only daughters leave it – to marry and become members of the zadrugas of their husbands. The zadruga was governed by a hierarchical system, every member having a definite rank within it. Rank was determined by age and sex, the sex criterion being stronger than the age criterion: all males were superior to any of the womenfolk …"

(Vera Ehrlich)

In a pre-industrial society, large families made sense both economically and socially. Half a century ago, land was plentiful in Kosovo. Without mechanisation, the scarce resource was manpower. Having many men in one household meant greater wealth and influence, allowing more land to be cultivated and more livestock to be tended. Households were self-sufficient in most respects, from food and clothing to construction and furniture making, and participated only marginally in the cash economy. High mortality rates also kept population growth low, preventing households from becoming unmanageably large.

As an economic unit, the patriarchal family acts like a true collective. All property is held collectively. All major decisions – from when to plant the crops or slaughter an animal, to what constitutes 'a proper way of life' – are taken by the head of the household (zoti i shpise). The authority of the male head of the household persists in rural families to this day.

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The father decides how remittances from family members abroad should be spent, how much schooling the children should receive or how to invest the family resources. The pre-capitalistic character of the collective is stressed by the rule that each adult male is considered to contribute an equal share to the family income – regardless of his actual labour contribution and the actual revenue earned. Income is pooled, and family members are entitled to equal provision for their basic needs. When households split up, all property. including the land, is divided equally among the brothers.

Women, on the other hand, hardly ever stay within the same village. Since wives always come from other villages, and daughters are expected to join another familyupon marriage, investment into the female members of each family stays minimal. Consequently, women do not inherit any share of family property and occupy only a subordinate role within the household. Perhaps one of the most critical products of this tradition is the prevailing attitude that "educating females does not pay off".

The greatest importance is assigned to the birth of a male heir – the crucial task of every married woman. Without a male heir, it is the husband’s brothers – and not his wife or his sisters – who inherit his property The widow, in such a scenario, becomes dependent on the husband's brothers – or is forced to return to her parents' household. Even today in Kosovo's villages almost all women over 30 are married. Divorce is rare.

Faruk Kelmendi, a respected journalist born in the western part of Kosovo, cites one more argument for the survival of the traditional multi-family household.

"This was also a form of resistance against the system and its politics. […] It was a sort of instrument of war for the Albanians, because they had no weapons, no  equipment, no army, no education. 90 percent of Albanians were illiterate, because children were not sent to school. The big family was symbolic, metaphorical for a sort of army or military organisation."

Since the 1950s, an improved health system led to a rapid decline in child mortality, giving rise to spiralling population growth in large households. As late as the 1980s, population growth was over 2.5 percent, higher than in the 1940s, a rate at which the population doubles within 30-40 years.

Since the 1970s, Kosovo villages have been suffering from over-population. As the land has continued being split evenly among brothers, the average farm size has shrunk to less than 2 hectares per family. A growing number of rural households have no agricultural land at all. As a result, the pressures on rural Kosovo and its only functioning social security system – the patriarchal family – are increasing, with no solution in sight.

May 2008

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