Malina Stanojevic: The “Dragon Lady” breathes new life into rural Serbia
As president of the Save the Village Association, Malina Stanojevic stimulates the equal development of rural women's entrepreneurship and provides employment for local families.
In a rural area of south-western Serbia, in Priboj, a small town near the borders with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, Malina Stanojevic was once an electrical technician at the local car factory. She loved her job. Retiring after 35 years, she continued to undertake projects as a business contractor.
And then she found a new passion. “I felt some strength, a desire – I had a feeling that I should help the village,” Malina recalls. So, she started the “Save the Village” (Spasimo selo) Association, which nurtures agricultural production and keeps village traditions alive.
Keep families together, save the village
When Malina founded the association in 2012, she had a clear purpose but did not know how to achieve it. The association aimed to reduce poverty among rural women, ensure that they were satisfied with their work in the village, and keep families together, capping migration to urban areas.
“Keeping families together is extremely important,” Malina explains. “Families who leave for the big cities with kids are torn apart. Kids stay at the kindergarten all day long, parents work from dusk ’til dawn – they practically don’t see their children growing up, and the children don’t develop any feelings towards their parents.”
In the first year of its work, the association brought together 40 members from three rural communities who received training in project writing, business plans, starting their own businesses and mastering new technologies.
Their activities resulted in successful projects, such as the construction of two picnic sites to replace illegal landfills. “I think that then it mostly became clear that our joint work was our ticket to success,” Malina says. “We have created something that no one has ever achieved here.”
“Save the Village” has three sections now. One is focused on preserving cultural heritage, such as traditional singing. A second supports traditional handcrafts, while a third assists traditional food production.
The association has helped members build 14 greenhouses and acquire equipment to help with planting. Several unemployed families who planned to move to urban centres stayed and have slowly developed different forms of agricultural production.
Seeing increasing demand for healthy food, Malina started establishing teams for food production, specifically for processing bell peppers for the traditional Serbian sauce ajvar. The teams use old, local recipes, with no artificial ingredients. Every dinar earned goes to the nearly 100 women members of the association.
Another project is centred on rural tourism. Malina believes that many people are interested in getting out of the big cities and spending some time in a quiet and peaceful environment. “They will eat healthy food, see where the raw materials come from, and where and how everything is made,” she explains.
Together we started something
“I am happy that I have achieved this much with the women, but the credit goes to them more than to me, because they only trusted me, and together we started doing something,” Malina says.
Wide recognition of her work has come from the Government of Serbia, the diplomatic corps in Serbia, the European Union, UN Women, the United States Agency for International Development, GIZ, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the most successful companies in this part of Europe. The Association of Business Women in Serbia awarded Malina a “Success Flower” and recognized her as a “Dragon Lady” for her development of rural women's entrepreneurship.
At times, the members of Malina’s association have had difficulties distributing their products on the market. “The worst scenario is when I hear, ‘I produced this quantity and then had to throw it away’,” she says. “They did not know where to take it and what to do with it.”
She continues, “Following the recognition as a Dragon Lady, I have met such wonderful people, and women, who are willing to help us with the distribution of our products. After that, we sold so much ajvar that we do not have anything left!”
To bring more modern technologies to the village, she has proposed creating teams of experts to introduce the latest scientific developments. She envisions that teams knowledgeable in tourism, animal husbandry, veterinary medicine and fruit growing could visit every village and determine what is needed to ensure the best result.
All we do is empower women
Malina encourages all women to have a conversation with themselves to define their goals – and find a way to secure the assets that can guarantee their independence. “When women are independent, they can fight for their rights with greater strength,” she stresses.
“I know there are women more capable than me, I know there are people who may have gone through more projects, and then I think – what do I need with this? I'm retired, I have a husband and children, and grandchildren,” Malina says. “But something from within calls me, some inner pleasure to see others happy and satisfied, and just to make a difference, no matter how big. That’s what drives me to do something. Because all we do is empower women in this country.”
Something from within calls me, some inner pleasure to see others happy and satisfied, and just to make a difference, no matter how big.”
Let’s reimagine our world. Equality everywhere. How? Generation Equality has the answers! For the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, we asked 25 women to probe still hidden issues and share inspiring ideas on getting transformation going, for good.