My second week here in Albania has been nothing short of emotionally exhausting. On my way to work today I was caught off guard by a man who had some form of mental disability, most likely Down Syndrome, sitting and begging on the street. This is the third mentally disabled person that I have seen who is homeless and ignored by the rest of society. Not only am I learning about women's rights here during my stay, but my eyes have been opened to the problems involving minority rights such as those of the disabled.
Today, I visited the first government sponsored domestic violence center in Kamza. We stood and waited outside a large metal gate that blocked the entire center from public view, and when we were finally let in I was extremely overwhelmed.
First, I met with the director of the shelter who told me how much of a struggle is was to get the government to sponsor such a project. It has been a huge achievement here in Albania that the government is finally taking some form of action to help and protect their women and children. According to a national survey on gender based violence produced by the National Statistics Agency, with UN support, of 2590 families surveyed in the area, it found that: 50.6% of women have suffered emotional abuse; 40% have suffered psychological abuse; and 31% have suffered physical or sexual abuse. In retrospect, more than a third of the women in the city of Kamza have been abused by their partner in one way or another. The shelter currently has seventeen domestic violence victims along with 23 of their children living within its walls.
Last year, when the center opened it was run by another woman whose name slips my mind at the moment. However, sadly enough, this woman was fired a few months ago because she was caught on camera abusing these woman and children herself, and afforded them little protection. It is heart wrenching to think that even though the government here seemed to make a small amount of progress, giving these women some hope, that is was taken away when their safety and well being were jeopardized within the walls of this so-called "safe haven" by someone who was supposed to protect them.
After a tour of the shelter which includes a library, cooking area, playroom for the children, and a garden where the women and children can work, I was able to conduct an interview with one of the victims. Hyrie, is a mother of four children ranging from the age of 4 to 10. Hyrie wore sunglasses throughout the interview and tears consistently streamed down her cheeks as she told me her story.
Three months after marrying her husband in 2000, he started to abuse her physically, emotionally, economically, and sexually. Her abuse lasted eleven years and she sought help from the police and local government agencies on more than six different occasions, in which she was told that it was a personal problem, and that "he is your husband, you must learn to deal with him on your own." She started to shake and cry harder when she told me how her last straw was when her husband started to abuse her children and would make her sit there and watch. Her oldest son, who is now ten years old because of kidney damage inflicted by her husband has several medical as well as psychological problems. Before the Domestic Violence Law was implemented in 2007, the government provided no protection whatsoever for women who were victims of domestic violence or their children.
For seven years Hyrie sought protection and a way out for both her and her children. With the new law she was finally granted an Order of Protection for six months, and was moved to the new shelter. The previous director forced her to walk her children to and from school despite her knowing it was unsafe to leave the grounds of the shelter. Two weeks after finding refuge, Hyrie was walking her children to school when her husband bombarded her, and attacked her violently in the street. In front of her children, her husband cut out her left eye with a knife.
As she lifted her glasses to show me a sunken hole where her eye once was, I felt like I was going to pass out. Thinking of what her children saw and how this woman constantly lives in fear truly breaks my heart. Even though the interview was conducted through a translator, the pain in her voice truly hit home for me as she told me her story. Though her husband is in prison for assault for only three to five years here in Albania, Hyrie still constantly lives in fear for herself and her children because her husband's family has promised him that they will finish out his job. The government here does not provide any order of protection against her husband's family, whose brothers have vowed to seek vengeance on her, and promised to completely blind or kill her once she leaves the shelter.
In six months, Hyrie's Order of Protection is up, and her time at the shelter will be complete. My heart goes out to her and her beautiful children because I know once they leave the doors of the shelter they are going to be in constant danger. The government will provide them with a measly 300 Lek (32 dollars) a month to live on until she can find a job. However, it is evident that this will not be enough to support herself and her four children. I am filled with emotions of anger and sadness as I think about the life that women such as Hyrie endure here in Albania. Though I know that violence against women is a human rights issue all over the world, I can not reiterate how lucky we are to be afforded so much respect and protection back home in the states. I think of my mom, and how she would do anything to protect her children, and how mothers such as Hyrie strive in motherly instinct to protect their family with little success.
I am frustrated, and feel somewhat guilty that I have no way of helping these women or their familes. I question what my purpose is here. To hear the stories of these women and learn about them, simply to return to the U.S., and be grateful that I am not in their position? I know that Hyrie was grateful that someone cared enough to hear her story, and to show her and her family empathy, but I still feel as though that is not enough.
I can only hope that during my lifetime, I will be able to help in making a drastic change in the lives of women in this world such as Hyrie.
Until next week,
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