Northern Albania is one of the most deprived regions of the country. Farming is difficult due to poor soil, education and government services are poor and patchy, and the area is infamous for the persistence of blood feuds. In northern Albania, you routinely see farmers with donkeys and carts taking watermelons to market, small vendors lining the streets selling roasted ears of corn, and villagers wearing traditional white and black dress. Parochial attitudes still predominate and arranged marriages are quite common, a project manager at an international development organization I spoke with estimated that, in the villages, up to 80% of the marriages were arranged, primarily to men that were living abroad (mostly illegally) for work.
During a conversation with a child protection specialist working for an international development agency in the north, we discussed the need to change attitudes regarding the raising of children and gender equality. He advocated eloquently for the increased rights of children and for an improvement in their treatment. When you ask a family in the north if they beat their children, they will say yes. When you ask them if they abuse their children, they will say of course not. Parents rarely consult children as to what their preferences are and he believed, rightly so, that all of this must change.
Later, the conversation turned to the topic of trafficking. This same man that had advocated for improved gender equity and treatment of children proceeded to tell me that he thought that trafficking was mostly the fault of the victims. I asked him why he thought this way. His response was that girls can not be forced to go somewhere that they do not want to go and the ones that want to go know what they will be doing, which is why some girls who are trafficked are not very attractive. I think I hid my shock at this moment by asking some other, unrelated questions about children. Even after discussing the high rates of arranged marriages, the low regard for the value of women, the archaic gender roles that place so high a burden on women, and the entrenched shame attached to victims of trafficking who return to the community, he thought trafficking was the fault of individual girls who “knew what they are getting into.”
Reflecting on what he said later that day, it depressed me to think that a university educated man who was working on child protection and gender equity still couldn’t see the connection between the phenomenon of trafficking and unequal gender roles and lack value for women. If we can’t get someone like that to take the next step, what chance do we have of changing behavior and attitudes with a villager that can not read or write? When we walked around the town that day, we asked several people on the street what they thought about trafficking and how they would treat a survivor. Various people that we spoke with, young and old, men and women, told us mostly the same things, to the effect of: trafficking was purely for profit, that it was the lowest thing a human being could do, and that not even animals should face such conditions. They would, of course, treat the girl with sympathy and respect but, sadly, society does not accept such people. I thought how interesting it was that everyone was so quick to show that they were compassionate and forgiving and that it was really other people that attached stigma to trafficking victims. Refusing to take responsibility for their own attitudes and passing the blame on to others are part of what make trafficking so difficult to fight here. If you won’t acknowledge that something is a problem in your own household or community, you can’t change or address it.
The following day, I visited a center for the protection and rehabilitation of trafficking survivors. We arrived during their daily group chat with social workers and a psychologist. The topic of the day was how to properly care for pets. Apparently, the discussion of the merits of dogs versus cats had been particularly heated. On the second floor, a painting by one of the girls caught my attention. While its execution was amateurish, the imagery was powerful. Against a black background, a torn heart contained the heavily made up face of a woman. Her eyes were shut and there were tears streaming down her face. Surrounding the heart was a chain, into which were linked a needle and a stack of cash. What a beautiful illustration of such a despicable crime against human dignity; all that was missing was a gun. Many traffickers are jacks-of-all-trades, trafficking guns, drugs, and/or women as and when the situation is most favorable for their respective “goods.”
I got a chance to speak with some of the girls and they told me about what they do during a normal day, chores, cleaning and a variety of vocational training. Two of the girls were on dinner duty that night and were charmingly attired in white aprons and little white hats. I asked what was for dinner and they told me it was pastiche (a sort of quiche made with pasta, cheese, and eggs and baked in the oven) and green salad. I jokingly told them that, in that case, I was staying! One of the girls gave a shy laugh and said okay. The other girl never looked up from the ground.
I wish the development specialist could have come with me to that shelter. I wish he could have seen how many of the girls were so shy and fearful that they could not look you in the eye. I wish he could have felt the palpable, but unspoken, sense of guilt and shame that hung over these girls, as if everything they suffered had been their own fault. I wish he could have seen how some of the girls tried to shrink into themselves as protection against the hurt inflicted by every person they encountered in their short lives. I wanted him to ask them if, at fourteen or even younger, they believed, when a practiced man (a trafficker) twice their age promised them love and a better life abroad or in the big city, that they were destined for a brothel. Then I would like to hear him tell me that these girls choose this life, that they know what they are getting into and that it’s their fault they are beaten, shamed, abused and have their dignity taken away from them while they are still children. I’d like to hear him explain why these women and girls then have to suffer the shame of being a victim of circumstance and stigma for the rest of their lives. The injustice of it all is staggering and I wish I could make him, and everyone like him, see it.
Posted By Jennifer Hollinger
Posted Jul 20th, 2007