As poverty remains a serious plague throughout South Eastern Europe and the Balkans, especially Albania, rural women who have migrated to urban areas are one of the most vulnerable groups facing hardship and abuse. This is especially true in regions where advocacy programs for women who live at the very bottom of society are few as social services and legal programs are in short supply.
As a rural mother in Albania who was forced to flee from an abusive husband, Zana Xheka knows too well how the social protection system in Albania needs improvement. Her tragedy involves the untimely loss of her four children.
Fleeing with her children from Northern Albania to Sukth, a town 17.07 km (approximately 10.5 miles) east of Tirana, the capital of Albania, Zana Xheka left her marriage after years of struggle under the stress of severe and mounting domestic violence.
Thrown quickly into being a new 'single-head-of-household' after divorcing her husband, Xheka left her home facing little access to career training, housing or financial support. Without money from her husband Zana was left with dwindling resources, no home and a mounting desperation with the responsibility of raising her four children alone.
Her options were low. She was working as a singer in a bar, one of two jobs, when she came home on a cold night in November 2010 discovering her four children had died in a fire; a fire that was caused by the flame from one burning candle. It is not known exactly why the candle was burning, but it is guessed it may have been to give the children some form of heat.
"According to a national sample survey on gender based violence produced by the National Statistics Agency, with UN support, of 2,590 families surveyed, it was found that: 50.6 percent of women have suffered emotional abuse; 39.1 percent of women have suffered psychological abuse; 31.2 percent of women have suffered physical abuse and 12.7 percent of women have suffered sexual abuse," said a March 2010 report from United Nations Albania.
In fleeing from her husband Xheka had to face many obstacles. It wasn't the first time she faced hardship.
"I was an orphan," she said. Growing up as an orphan, and later as a woman who suffered under severe abuse from her husband, Zana knew how poverty and abuse causes isolation and how isolation keeps women from seeking help.
Even with divorce laws that strive to bring equality to both spouses, Albania is a nation where discrimination against women is high and the history of women's participation in decision-making has been low.
In spite of this, a show of public support of women during election voting can be seen in a March 2009 survey by United Nations Albania. 74.4 percent of people in the survey supported the increased presence of women in "Albanian public life."
The loss of Zana's children Robert, Vilson, Kasandra and Nertila, in November 2010, aged thirteen, eleven, nine and six years old respectively, provoked a bitter reaction and debate among the public in Albania. Discussions highlighted the new role of mothers and the greater needs for the rural women of Albania.
Because her income was so low, Zana could only afford to live with her children in a one room hut. "Despite the economy's growth in recent years, almost 24 per cent of the population lives below the poverty level of USD 2 a day," says the IFRC – International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The rented home had deplorable conditions; conditions that eventually lead to the death of her children.
Asphyxiated during a fire from poisonous gases, the sleeping children died quickly. The small one room structure had no heat and no electricity as the night air temperature began to drop in November on the night of the children’s death.
Since Zana had gotten behind in the payment of her utility bills, the heat and electricity for her hut in Sukth had been completely turned off.
But the most important question remains: As the bills piled up who could Zana Xheka go to for help?
"Gender-based discrimination is prevalent in Albania," says a June 2010 EEAS – European (Union) External Action Service report. "Women face discrimination in a number of areas, which translate into higher unemployment, early school drop-out of girls, limited access to land and property, and lower level of representation in high-level elected and appointed bodies," continues the EEAS.
The deaths of the Xheka children brought an immediate reaction by the Children's Human Rights Centre of Albania. "The death of Robert, Wilson, Kassandra and Nertila in Sukth of Durres rings the bell for the inadequate social protection system of children in Albania!" said Director Altin Hazizaj.
Before the death of her children, Zana had tried to get economic assistance from local authorities as a single 'mother-in-need' raising four children alone, but her search for assistance fell through the cracks. It was only after her childrens' deaths that local authorities mobilized to cover the costs to bury her children.
"The case in question raises serious doubts on local authorities endeavor to protect and ensure the welfare of children, and at the same time they should be more concerned about the shortcomings of the social institutions in the country," continued Hazizaj.
As one of the poorest countries in Europe, Albania's surge with internal migration in the 1990s brought rural farm families to live and seek jobs in urban cities. With it came many urban-based problems, including run-down ghettos located in city suburbs where severe forms of poverty has been rampant.
"The poorest of the poor, who comprise about 5 per cent of the population, struggle to put adequate food on the table each day," says the IFRC.
Many of Albania's resettled families are large, with seven or more family members, where husbands tell their wives they must stay at home without career training or advanced school to care for their children. The home climate that creates this kind of dominance can also create domestic abuse.
Over the past few years though the government of Albania, along with international partners, has moved to improve conditions. On June 1, 2007 the "On Measures Against Violence in Family Relations" Law in Albania has brought some relief encouraging many more women to make legal claims to protect themselves and their children from domestic abuse, but numerous claims for missing child support have never been fully brought to court as women fear reprisals from violent husbands.
In spite of gains much more legal protection and justice for women is still needed in Albania. "This incident (with Zana Xheka) calls for more legal changes in order to provide social services that would protect children," said Director Hazizaj.
"The Ministry of Justice, for example, has failed to secure lawyers trained in domestic violence issues to provide free legal aid; in 2009 no victims were defended by a court appointed lawyer, and the 2008 law on legal aid is not yet in force." said Amnesty International in March 2010.
According to the annual Mother's Index report on women's and children's well being, Albania is still ranked among the bottom of the list by the United Nations latest HDI – Human Development Index report for Europe. Only one nation, the nation of Mondolva is listed below Albania at the very bottom.
Over the last few years, statistics point to the fact that conditions for women and children in Albania have not yet seen the degree of improvement that was hoped for and expected. At the very least the progress has been stagnant.
The problem lies in identifying families who should benefit from social assistance programs. Those in the greatest need are often also those who isolate the most and are hardest to access.
"Isolation is an incredible problem for the advancement or empowerment of rural women," says Julie Vullnetari from Albania's Sussez Migration Research Centre. "Development efforts need to come physically closer to the rural woman and her community. Most importantly, it has to give her the chance to express herself and identify what her needs are," continued Vullnetari.
Tracking internal migration is part of the challenge. Numerous rural women migrating into urban regions go uncounted and without aide while others simultaneously, and wrongfully, benefit in two different regions. Lengthy procedures with numerous documents and certificates that need to be filled out to receive aid also contributes to problems.
In March 2010, Amnesty International formally asked the Albanian government to "provide adequate resources to programmes to ensure the economic independence of victims of domestic violence, including access to training and employment." They also asked authorities to "ensure their eligibility for social assistance and social housing."
Because many women in need do not receive free government sponsored legal-aid or adequate housing from any state sponsored program, Zana Xheka, and countless other women, have been left out of legal rights protections under the law. Many women are still reluctant to challenge their husbands in court. Other women cannot pay for even the basic fees involving their court process.
"Women who want to escape violence cannot afford the tax payable to the court to dissolve the marriage," said the Counseling Centre at the Women's Forum Elbasan, a counseling, shelter and legal advocacy center for women suffering from domestic violence.
"They even have to pay out of their own pockets for the psychologist who asks the children which parent they want to stay with," continued the Women's Counseling Centre at Elbasan. "Most of the time men do not pay the alimony set by the court."
In spite of ongoing needs and challenges for rural women, like Zana Xheka, who have migrated for work to suburbs outside the cities of Albania, "The rural woman is the invisible pillar of Albanian Society," says Julie Vullnetari.
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