I knew when I arrived in Albania that this summer would be a unique experience when, as we drove down the highway from the airport, we passed a man guiding a horse and cart overloaded with freshly harvested green hay. When I arrived in the UK on my way back to the States, everyone asked me the same questions: Did you like Albania? Was it really bad? Did you meet traffickers? I do my best to answer their questions but, as one colleague of mine has aptly put it, how can you explain Albania to someone that has never been there? My answers certainly fall short of what the totality of this experience has been.
In that gap between words and reality, images and memories fill the space. I remember seeing Roma boys, about five and seven if I had to guess, in the main square in Tirana, barefoot and smoking cigarettes, right next to a policeman who was directing traffic. Gangs of children, maybe trafficked for begging and forced labor, attempting to sell my friends and I cheap necklaces in southern Albania. The trafficked girls and women that I have met along the way, their shy smiles, their heartbreaking youthfulness.
I have left behind so many stories, so many lives that will go on and I will never know how these women coped, how they survived; it’s like walking away from a conversation in mid-sentence. I am sure they will all forget me, all these girls and women that I have met, the survivors of trafficking. Even though I have used it in my own blog in deference to the accepted terminology within the field, I hate the term “victim,” it’s weak, passive – an imposition on a blank page. These women and, in many cases, children, have the spirits of survivors and wills of iron that get them out of bed every morning, that help them function day-to-day after surviving horrors that you and I will thankfully never experience. It takes the greatest of strength to go on when you have been rejected by your own family, ostracized by society and attempt to support yourself with few marketable skills in a society with rigidly defined gender roles.
One of the most resonant themes from my time in Albania are the amazing, pioneering women who are making a difference for trafficked women. I can not begin to enumerate all the astounding things they have achieved, particularly when you consider that these women are coming from a culture that teaches them they are “less than,” so I will stick to a few illuminating examples. In southern Albania, a woman is operating one of the largest shelters for trafficked and at-risk women in the country. She opened the shelter under her own initiative after judging there was a need in the community for the types of services and protection a shelter could offer to women. Even after the state withdrew police protection and she had to take on the additional burden of paying for private security, she persevered. Now she is undergoing expensive chemotherapy treatments abroad while spending much of her time attempting to secure increasingly scarce funding for the shelter. And yet, she perseveres. In another case, the director of a transit center sold her 17-year-old son’s car to cover the short fall in funding and keep the center running until the end of the month. Her son had died in an accident while at school earlier in the year and she held on to the car to remember him by but was willing to let it go in order to help women whom she felt were in need.
We need to do more to support and help these women. It is amazing that in a country where there is a national strategy to combat trafficking and development aid organizations from all over the world are becoming involved in the fight against trafficking, pioneering women with more heart than money are holding the system together with tenacity, courage and sticky tape.
In closing, this summer has clearly illustrated for me that human trafficking is a complex phenomenon that will require attack at various levels, institutions and nations. As a colleague informed me, all of the world is complicit in the crime of trafficking. It is not enough to address trafficking only in the source countries, we must also look at the markets that drive demand in destination countries and improve our legislation to protect these women.
Additionally, it is imperative that we critically evaluate aid that flows from developed countries into developing nations on this issue and make sure that it is getting to the people that really need it to help the survivors. After seeing how many of these programs operate on the ground, it is obvious that a lot of international aid money is, frankly, wasted and the real pioneers that desperately need money and fight so hard for these women and their rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration miss out.
There are also many social, economic and cultural changes that will need to take place in Albania to help end the phenomenon of human trafficking, including improved parenting, gender equity, education, and poverty reduction, among others, several of which are discussed in my previous blogs. We, the international community, have to come to terms with the fact that this will be a gradual change that will take place over generations and it is unreasonable to expect a “big push” that will solve human trafficking. What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference? Read as much as possible on the issue, let your representatives know that you find human trafficking unacceptable and pressure them for legislation that fights trafficking and punishes demand (not the women who are used), volunteer for local organizations that work on this issue, and tell your friends about human trafficking.
First and foremost, we have to highlight this issue. We can not pretend that it does not exist. It is everywhere, developed and developing countries alike, and even though it is horrible to accept, we must open our eyes. All around us there are women and children in human bondage and, though their chains are invisible, they exist. It is unacceptable that there are more people in bondage today than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. As the great Fredrick Douglas once said, “I expose slavery…because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death.”
Posted By Jennifer Hollinger
Posted Oct 4th, 2007