Domestic violence in Albania: Once a whispered topic, now a national priority

Nestled on a leafy street with no name, just minutes from the heart of Albania’s capital, Tirana, the non-descript National Shelter for Abused Women and Girls is easy to miss. That’s the point.

Inside, women who are victims of extreme domestic abuse, wander the sunny halls in peace and safety.  “I feel tranquil here,” says 36-year-old, Adelina. She had been abused by her husband “since day one” of her 12-year marriage to a violent, alcoholic gambler.

 “The women here learn to live life independently,” says Ms. Fatbardha Hoxhalliu, Director of the National Shelter. The women, ranging from ages 18 to 76, stay on average six to eight months.

While shelters are present throughout the country, this is the only National Shelter run by the Albanian Government, with the United Nations as an integral lifeline that helped establish it in 2011.

UN-funded professionals currently train the women for jobs that build on their existing skills like tailoring, catering, hairdressing, or professional cleaning. Some learn computer literacy. A “reintegration” expert determines when the women are ready to care for themselves. They get psychological help and legal support. 

More than 55 percent of domestic violence victims in the National Shelter received employment, social housing and legal support in 2016, compared with 38 percent in 2014.

Domestic violence against women is in Albania has cultural roots, deep-seated in traditions and customs such as strict gender identities and roles, patriarchal authority, adherence to an honour-and-shame system, and customs of hierarchal ordering within the family. A recent survey found that more than 59 percent of women in the country experienced some form of domestic violence in their lifetime.

For those reasons, UN agencies in Albania – mainly, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women -- banded together under a ‘Delivering Results Together Fund’ with additional support from Sweden, to advise on policies, improve the legislative framework, develop coordinated multi-disciplinary response and referral mechanisms, and promote public awareness on violence against women. The idea is that no single agency can go it alone, but together they can make a difference.

At the heart of improved legislative and policy frameworks on combatting gender-based violence is a strengthened Coordinated Community Response system (CCR) which manages cases of domestic violence in 31 of the country’s 61 municipalities. They are fast-acting, referral mechanisms that involve local government, law enforcement agencies, health care providers, judges and prosecutors, and specialized CSOs who come to the aid of domestic violence survivors. More than 2,213 cases of domestic violence were registered through a CCR tracking system from July 2014 till end of 2016, compared with only 400 in 2013.

“The CCR has shown realistic potential to be scaled-up nationally,” says Brian Williams, the UN Resident Coordinator in Albania.

The UN provides continuous support to the Albanian Government in drafting new amendments to the law on measures against violence in family relations, and other related laws pertaining to gender-based violent so that they are compliant with international standards, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

“The UN gave civil society groups and NGOs the skills and means to pull together for a stronger voice and be heard by the government,” says Fabiola Laco, Executive Director of the community center, Today for the Future.

Her organization receives UN support for creative national campaigns that use volunteers, including men and boys, to promote messages on ways to end gender-based violence. A summer camp encourages young people to help end domestic violence.

Free hotlines, with psychologists available around the clock, handle distress calls at the local level and national levels. Victims of domestic violence reported 4,000 cases to state police in 2015, compared with 94 reported cases in 2005. Behind the statistics are attitudinal changes.

“Police now take action when they are called to a domestic violence case,” says Evis Garunja, a lawyer from the Center for Legal Civic Initiatives. “It used to be a hidden, family issue, but now it’s more out in the open,” she says.

Over 120 police officers and 300 magistrates and legal professional received training on procedures and protocols for domestic violence cases in 2016.

While the National Shelter is hidden in plain sight, gender-based violence in Albania is now out in the open, and the political will exists to prevent it, and one day, perhaps even eradicate it.