Here’s something I never thought I would say. I have been to a women’s prison in Albania. And before you ask, no, I wasn’t there for crimes against the state. I was accompanying a local organization that ministers to the social and religious needs of the prisoners. On first impression, the prison is more like summer camp. Women sleep eight to a room on four sets of bunk beds in small housing structures. The women are allowed to wear their own clothes (not because the state believes in freedom of expression, but because they can’t afford to issue them prison uniforms), they have televisions and food in their houses, they wash their own laundry, and they can basically move about freely within the compound. I have been in prisons in the UK and the US and there is something that is so crushing to the human spirit to be locked inside of a room and you don’t need to spend a long time inside of a prison to feel the walls closing in on you. At least these women have freedom of movement within the compound. Classes are offered to enhance the women’s skills, such as hairdressing and language instruction, in Italian and English, as well as sewing.
Women were eager to ask me questions and many also joked that they wanted me to ask George Bush (or “Bushie” as they called him), who recently visited Albania, to free them. One particularly animated woman, with a grill even Nelly would envy, blew Bushie a kiss and wanted to find out if he was available, especially if he liked older women. What was surprising to me was the amount of women who were older and still incarcerated. The majority of women were incarcerated for killing their husbands. In the Albanian system, women have little recourse if their husband beats them. They can go to the police but, as a colleague told me, the police can’t hold them long and, when they are released, it only serves to make them angrier. She went on to tell me that many men here believe it is their right, even their duty, to beat their wives to keep them “in line.” After years of abuse and injustice from the system, some of these women snap and kill their husbands. Most of the prisoners were shocked to learn my age, most guessed that I was 20 or less. In another time and place, a woman that could have been my grandmother told me that suffering has made them old and ugly.
While I was in the prison, I met a woman who, in her late twenties, had seen a life time of tragedy. Beth* was the middle child of three sisters. Her eldest sister, Sara, married an alcoholic man who beat her and also raped Beth and her little sister. To escape from this man, Beth married an Albanian and they moved to Greece together. While in Greece, she had a son. Concerned about Sara’s deteriorating health and ongoing abuse, she decided to visit Sara with her family. Sara’s husband managed to rape Beth again while she was visiting so she shot and killed him. Tragically, Sara’s daughter was also killed by a stray bullet while she was outside playing with Beth’s son. Beth was incarcerated and sentenced to seventeen years in prison. Her husband then divorced her. When she was a few years into her sentence, her son contracted an incurable illness and later died. Despite all of this misery and heartache, Beth was friendly and relaxed, making jokes and carrying her head high. But Beth didn’t see in herself the incredibly strong-willed and capable survivor that I saw in her. She had learned to be a seamstress while in the prison and I asked her what she thought her future was once she got out of prison. She seemed almost puzzled by the question, as if no one had ever though to ask before. After a moment she replied, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t have a future.”
So why bother to relate this story when I am supposed to be here working on anti-trafficking? Because these same conditions of gender inequality and mistreatment of women increase the vulnerability of girls and women to trafficking. Albania has made some progress in prosecuting and incarcerating pimps and traffickers, but not the women they have forced into prostitution. A colleague of mine recently related to me that they had not seen a new arrest for prostitution in the prison for three months. However, unless we can put into practice social change that will help prevent the trafficking cycle from starting, prosecution alone will not end trafficking.
Traffickers are crafty and adaptable. As Michelle Lanspa, an AP Peace Fellow with TAMPEP, noted in her recent blog about trafficking in Italy, traffickers in Albania have also gotten wiser about using women. Whereas women used to get nothing but abuse and beatings, traffickers that exploit women for sex work now give them some money, perhaps buy them some designer clothes. In some cases, women are allowed to send money home to their families, which is so dangerous because, even though they still don’t want to engage in sex work, they are reassured by the knowledge that they are at least supporting their family. These women should not believe that their only value is as cash cows for their family while their traffickers continue to sell their health and self worth to the highest bidder. Until we can rectify serious gender inequality and the abuse of girls and women, trafficking will persist.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Posted By Jennifer Hollinger
Posted Jul 16th, 2007