Supporting women survivors of violence with socio-economic reintegration in Albania
“Every night I prayed for this nightmare to be over. I felt hopeless... I thought violence was my fate,” says Besa Cuko*, a 30-year-old survivor of domestic violence and a mother of two who bravely saved herself and her children from a life of physical and emotional pain.
Cuko was married at a young age, giving birth to her first child before the age of 18. She was frequently abused, especially during pregnancy, by her often inebriated husband. Despite her desire to escape the cycle of violence, she was not aware of any services that could help her. He often locked her inside the house, kept her isolated from family members and physically abused her and the children who attempted to protect their mother.
Cuko gathered the courage to report her husband to the police and he was charged with domestic violence and incarcerated. After his release, he promised to change. Cuko was having financial difficulties so she reunited with her husband. However, physical violence resumed, even more aggressively this time. “The hardest part was when I felt weak and could not even get up to help my children as he beat them too,” Cuko says.
She decided to report her husband a second time, and he is currently in prison. Although the worst seemed to be over, Cuko had to face a life with no income, made even worse by the pandemic, as jobs became even scarcer.
To help her get back on her feet, the Local Domestic Violence Coordinator at the Municipality of Tirana referred her case to Different and Equal, one of the most experienced women’s organizations in Albania providing support to survivors of violence for their socio-economic reintegration. UN Women is currently supporting the organization to provide direct services to women and to institutionalize socio-economic reintegration plans at the local level in four municipalities. The intervention is carried out in the framework of the regional programme “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” funded by the European Union. Since June 2021, Different and Equal has supported 67 women and their 137 children through socio-economic reintegration plans, including counselling, legal aid, housing, and employment.
One of the challenges the organization faces is women’s reluctance to report violence. “Women are often afraid to report due to social stigma, their economic situation and the challenge of living alone,” says Stela Tanellari, Project Coordinator at Different and Equal. “In addition, women are not sure they will receive proper protection if they take the step to report. That’s why it’s important to guarantee quality and accessible services that put survivors at the center,” argues Tanellari.
This is the motto of ‘Different and Equal,’ and they often fill a major gap in providing reintegration support to women and girls all over Albania.
Since its onset, the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted the socio-economic situation of people and communities around the country. A rapid gender assessment, conducted by UN Women Albania, revealed that 76 per cent of women versus 66 per cent of men in the country spent more time on unpaid domestic work during the lockdown period. Most significantly, a great portion of women (57 per cent) reported that their psychological and mental health was affected during this period, with experiences of psychological distress experienced by 72 per cent of Albanian women.
Violence against women and girls and feelings of insecurity inside the home not only came to light but also increased during the height of the pandemic. An assessment of the impact of the pandemic on violence against women and girls in Albania revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a noticeable rise in specific indicators associated with violence against women and exacerbated existing tensions and safety issues for many women.
During the lockdown period, the number of calls to the national hotline increased sixfold, even though cases reported to police decreased. Moreover, a rapid assessment on the impact of the pandemic on specialized services conducted with women’s civil society organizations across the Western Balkans and Turkey unveiled weak spots in the system for prevention and response, which require concerted efforts to improve direct socio-economic, legal, psycho-social support to those subjected to domestic and gender-based violence.
Immediate services offered to Cuko revolved around psychological counselling, health checks and meeting the basic needs of herself and her children. Legal counselling was offered to prepare her divorce proceedings. The children have been enrolled in school and provided with the necessary equipment and materials to attend all classes. For a longer-term solution, the organization is providing Cuko with housing, as well as helping her obtain housing bonuses offered by the government for people facing different vulnerabilities and social problems. She is also undergoing continuous trauma-centered counselling so she can recover and live a normal life free from violence. Finally, with the support provided by Different and Equal to register at the local employment office, Cuko is now employed.
“Reintegration is a long and arduous path. Women often must leave their families, move away from their cities, and start from scratch. The most important task is to guarantee their safety and security, as they feel threatened by their abuser. Despite being a challenging job, when we see survivors of violence get back on their feet after incredibly difficult experiences with abuse and violence, there is no greater pleasure for us as professionals,” says Tanellari.
Cuko has a message for all the women and girls experiencing something similar to what she went through: “I would like to say to all women and girls, I understand you very well; I am a mother myself and I have suffered violence too. Now that I am free from my abuser, I am no longer afraid that I cannot make it on my own. Without him, I can take much better care of myself and my children. If I escaped from him, who was a burden in my life, you can do it, too!”
* Survivor’s name has been changed to protect her identity.