Aida Dervishi – WNN Features
(WNN) TIRANA, ALBANIA: As poverty remains a serious plague throughout South Eastern Europe and the Balkans, especially Albania, rural women who have migrated to urban areas are one of the most vulnerable groups facing hardship and abuse. This is especially true in regions where advocacy programs for women who live at the very bottom of society are few as social services and legal programs are in short supply.
As a rural mother in Albania who was forced to flee from an abusive husband, Zana Xheka knows too well how the social protection system in Albania needs improvement. Her tragedy involves the untimely loss of her four children.
Fleeing with her children from Northern Albania to Sukth, a town 17.07 km (approximately 10.5 miles) east of Tirana, the capital of Albania, Zana Xheka left her marriage after years of struggle under the stress of severe and mounting domestic violence.
Thrown quickly into being a new ‘single-head-of-household’ after divorcing her husband, Xheka left her home facing little access to career training, housing or financial support. Without money from her husband Zana was left with dwindling resources, no home and a mounting desperation with the responsibility of raising her four children alone.
Her options were low. She was working as a singer in a bar, one of two jobs, when she came home on a cold night in November 2010 discovering her four children had died in a fire; a fire that was caused by the flame from one burning candle. It is not known exactly why the candle was burning, but it is guessed it may have been to give the children some form of heat.
“According to a national sample survey on gender based violence produced by the National Statistics Agency, with UN support, of 2,590 families surveyed, it was found that: 50.6 percent of women have suffered emotional abuse; 39.1 percent of women have suffered psychological abuse; 31.2 percent of women have suffered physical abuse and 12.7 percent of women have suffered sexual abuse,” said a March 2010 report from United Nations Albania.
In fleeing from her husband Xheka had to face many obstacles. It wasn’t the first time she faced hardship.
“I was an orphan,” she said. Growing up as an orphan, and later as a woman who suffered under severe abuse from her husband, Zana knew how poverty and abuse causes isolation and how isolation keeps women from seeking help.
Even with divorce laws that strive to bring equality to both spouses, Albania is a nation where discrimination against women is high and the history of women’s participation in decision-making has been low.
In spite of this, a show of public support of women during election voting can be seen in a March 2009 survey by United Nations Albania. 74.4 percent of people in the survey supported the increased presence of women in “Albanian public life.”
The loss of Zana’s children Robert, Vilson, Kasandra and Nertila, in November 2010, aged thirteen, eleven, nine and six years old respectively, provoked a bitter reaction and debate among the public in Albania. Discussions highlighted the new role of mothers and the greater needs for the rural women of Albania.
Because her income was so low, Zana could only afford to live with her children in a one room hut. “Despite the economy’s growth in recent years, almost 24 per cent of the population lives below the poverty level of USD 2 a day,” says the IFRC – International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The rented home had deplorable conditions; conditions that eventually lead to the death of her children.
Asphyxiated during a fire from poisonous gases, the sleeping children died quickly. The small one room structure had no heat and no electricity as the night air temperature began to drop in November on the night of the children’s death.
Since Zana had gotten behind in the payment of her utility bills, the heat and electricity for her hut in Sukth had been completely turned off.
But the most important question remains: As the bills piled up who could Zana Xheka go to for help?
“Gender-based discrimination is prevalent in Albania,” says a June 2010 EEAS – European (Union) External Action Service report. “Women face discrimination in a number of areas, which translate into higher unemployment, early school drop-out of girls, limited access to land and property, and lower level of representation in high-level elected and appointed bodies,” continues the EEAS.
The deaths of the Xheka children brought an immediate reaction by the Children’s Human Rights Centre of Albania. “The death of Robert, Wilson, Kassandra and Nertila in Sukth of Durres rings the bell for the inadequate social protection system of children in Albania!” said Director Altin Hazizaj.
Before the death of her children, Zana had tried to get economic assistance from local authorities as a single ‘mother-in-need’ raising four children alone, but her search for assistance fell through the cracks. It was only after her childrens’ deaths that local authorities mobilized to cover the costs to bury her children.
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