Take Five: “Stereotypes shape our interactions with others and with the world”

Date: Thursday, February 6, 2020

Gertjana Hasalla
Photo courtesy of Gertjana Hasalla

Gertjana Hasalla is a project coordinator at Woman Forum Elbasan (WFE), an Albanian women’s rights organization. WFE is implementing an innovative behavioural change campaign in Elbasan, central Albania, aimed at ending violence against women as part of the Gender Lab, a regionwide initiative of the EU-UN Women regional programme on ending violence against women in the Western Balkans and Turkey, “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” funded by the European Union.  

During the project, you engaged significantly with representatives from different religious communities. How do you see their role in combating violence against women? 

During this project, we actively engaged with men and boys and women and girls from 5 religious communities (Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical and Bektas) in the region of Elbasan through public forums and awareness meetings on gender stereotyping and equality. Religious communities have proven to be a key actor in combating violence against women. Often, religious gatherings are also a place to talk about social issues, such as domestic violence or gender-based violence. 

In our experience, members of religious communities are open to discuss topics like gender stereotyping and gender equality and aren’t afraid to express their opinions. Nevertheless, they are not free from stereotypes. In their hope to preserve families in accordance with religious teachings, they may not report violence immediately but instead discuss the issue with religious leaders or other community members. Their more distinctive feature though, resides in the fact that they are open to change, diversity, and understanding human rights as belonging to all humans rather than certain genders.

What have been some of the lessons you learned during the intervention regarding more stubborn stereotypes that are difficult to uproot? What would be an efficient strategy to address them?

During our work we have learned that stereotypes are deeply connected to our perspective of life. They shape our interactions with other people and with the world. We build our expectations for ourselves and for others according to what we have been taught is acceptable for a person of that gender to do. So, whenever we go to a village and talk about domestic violence or gender-based violence, people are often reluctant to discuss such matters. In more than 90 percent of cases, people gathered for a meeting will say that there are no issues of domestic violence in their families. In more than 90 percent of cases as well, these statements change by the end of the meeting.

We have learned that reluctance to talk about violence is rooted in a lack of information and in the mentalities of both men and women. After each awareness meeting or community forum, we received an average of 2-3 cases of violence that required WFE services (psychological counselling, legal counselling for the emergency sheltering), amounting to more than 100 cases during the project implementation.

Also, when it comes to engagement, often men and boys see gender equality as an issue that regards only women and girls. In this frame, WFE carried out community forums only with men/boys especially in rural areas where mentalities are deeply rooted. We strongly believe that there is a need for a shift in approach regarding the involvement of men and boys. One of the best strategies we use is engaging ‘champions of change’ – men/boys who work in their communities to enhance gender equality. 

How do gender roles manifest themselves in Albanian society and how do they impact safety and wellbeing of women?

Women and girls in Albania are expected to behave according to the roles society has given them; they have to be obedient, responsible, caring, feminine, take care of children and families and choose a profession that allows them to meet these expectations. Although these gender roles are persistent, there has been progress in the situation of equality for women and girls, especially in recent years with the democratization of the country. Stereotyping exists, and it is most apparent in rural areas or areas with less access to information and services. Women and men are expected to behave according to the norms set by society or else they are stigmatized. Sex education, for example, is a forbidden topic in the vast majority of Albanian families, particularly those in rural areas, leaving a serious gap of information to young girls and boys who end up understanding sex as portrayed by the media or other questionable resources.

For the majority of women, there are no safe spaces, either outdoors or indoors. We live under the constant threat that our positions as human beings in a society might be overthrown because of a play of power and control. This can be a difficult perspective for men and boys to grasp. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to say that men/boys do not suffer from the effects of gender roles in their lives. It is much harder for them to acknowledge the negative impact and act upon it because societal expectations put an enormous strain upon men and boys.

What is your observation on youth perception of gender roles, norms and stereotypes? Is there an intergenerational difference in how women and girls are perceived inside and outside the family?

Young people in Albania are increasingly rejecting patriarchy and traditional mentalities in issues such as education and employment. There is an increase in the number of young girls who choose “non-traditional” fields of study, such as math and technology, compared to previous decades. Young couples demonstrate a changed mentality in sharing housework and caring for children compared to their parents or grandparents. Young boys are more prone to contribute to household chores or cooking than their fathers. During the awareness meetings, most of them agreed that contributing within the family is not something ‘shameful’ or something that ‘makes you less of a man’. Also, many believe that their lives should not be shaped by the expectations of the society but rather by their own decisions.

It is important to note that young people’s opinions on gender roles, norms and stereotypes differ according to their background. A greater percentage of boys and girls from rural or remote areas of Elbasan tend to support traditional gender roles, as this is what they were taught by their families. On the other hand, for young people from urban areas more often question and reject traditional gender roles and believe more strongly in an equal environment for women and girls due to greater access to information and increased participation in awareness campaigns, art activities or festivals.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the project?

Since the beginning of the project, WFE has faced reluctance from community members, especially from rural areas, to discuss and acknowledge violence against women and harmful gender stereotypes as happening within their communities. At the same time, especially in rural and urban areas where these stereotypes are even more emphasized, the awareness raising activities were accompanied also with more willingness to take part in discussions and bring down barriers related to this topic.

Discussing ‘taboo’ topics like rape, sexual violence or harassment has been and remains a challenge. While it is early to see changes in attitudes and behaviours, the fact that there has been an increase in the number of people that reach out to WFE about issues related to domestic violence, as well as the interest shown by participants after meetings, is a positive indication for changing behaviours and norms. The work done with religious communities and their openness to discuss issues of gender equality, gender norms and gender stereotyping has added value to the discussion and positively impacted the public opinion on these matters. Strengthening the capacities of grassroot organizations and supporting them to carry out awareness campaigns in their own communities has also proved to be fruitful in terms of achieving change.