OpEd by UN Albania Country Team: Stopping sexual violence requires investments and society-wide action

Date: Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Zero Tolerance for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse - Honouring our values

The recent cases of sexual abuse, including that of an adolescent in the capital city and in the Shkodra Police Commissariat, caused widespread indignation among Albanians. Any form of sexual abuse against a minor is a crime and a violation of fundamental human rights, with devastating consequences in terms of individual suffering. The rally that took place in Tirana and other cities last week gave voice to people’s disbelief in ways that was considered unprecedented by many. Thousands of mostly young protesters took the streets to say ‘Enough!’ with patriarchy, rejecting the notion to live in a society that perpetuates violence, abuse and discrimination, and justifies violence against women, girls and children. Albanian youth are asking for justice, accountability, and respect for human dignity. Those are the values they want to see their country shaped by for the years to come. They chanted ‘You are not alone!’, reaffirming their determination to be agents of change.

Last week’s events could mark a new beginning in the fight against sexual abuse and gender-based violence. But how can we make sure not to miss such opportunity? What is the direction to follow? According to recent data, at least one in two women in Albania have experienced some form of violence, including domestic or sexual violence, harassment, non-partner violence, forced marriage, and stalking. Data from INSTAT shows that 26% of women aged 18-74 believe a woman should be ashamed to talk to anyone if she is raped, while 21% believe that if a woman is raped, she probably did something careless to put herself in trouble.  60% of sexual crimes are committed against children, with nearly one in two suffering from physical or psychological aggression. Evidence also reveals a strong correlation between child sexual abuse and gender-based violence in adulthood.

Violence can be eliminated, but it requires systemic responses. To obtain long term gains, this ‘shadow pandemic’ should be addressed in its entirety and complexity, by prioritizing four strategic approaches.

First, securing leadership and accountability: the Parliament, the Government and the Judiciary must prioritize violence against children and gender-based violence; the overall ‘machinery’ to promote gender equality and children’s rights must be-sufficiently empowered and resourced to lead the response through coordinated action across sectors. Political leadership is important, including through the National Councils on Gender Equality and on Child Rights and Protection. National institutions should drive action, monitor progress and adjust course, learning from success and failure. This includes better coordination with local actors: mayors and local councils, the police and the courts, Coordinated Referral Mechanisms, school masters, and social workers. They all are at the front line of action and must be able to fulfill their responsibilities.

Second, greater investments are needed to secure full application of existing laws. Albania has made significant progress in bringing its legal framework in line with key international normative standards, although additional criminal and administrative amendments are still required in relation to sexual violence, sexual harassment and stalking. Moreover, this is the time to step up implementation and make the full menu of services readily accessible to all those in need. This includes legal aid for survivors, timely enforcement of protection orders, functioning emergency shelters, health and psychological counselling, social protection, housing and income opportunities, and more. Existing referral pathways are still largely underfunded and understaffed. Few municipalities can call on full time domestic violence coordinators, for example, civil society efforts are under-resourced, the LILIUM centre needs additional support, child protection workers often lack background and training, and support helplines are not fully funded. Poor implementation contributes to low levels of trust in the system, leading victims to remain in the shadows.

Third, there should be a redoubling of efforts to foster education, awareness and dialogue. ‘It is not your fault’ and ‘Educate your sons’ were some of the key messages of the recent youth protests. They are very revealing of the direction in which the country needs to prioritize its efforts. The system’s failure to protect children allowed those responsible to protect to become abusers. Albanian men and boys continue to uphold stereotyped gender roles, yielding a vicious cycle of aggressiveness. As feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it, ‘Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage’. In parallel to helping Albanian boys realize that true men are feminists, helping girls become fully aware of their worth is crucial to fight harmful stereotypes that prevent them from realizing their full potential in adulthood.  We need whole-of-society engagement. Schools can lead the way in fighting patriarchal values, mobilizing students, parents, care givers and community members in conversations around human rights, child protection, sexuality education, masculinity, girls empowerment and self-defense, and use of social media.

Fourth, public information and communication play a massive role in eradicating the culture of sexual violence and abuse. Media power should be channeled to support survivors, not perpetrators. The media can be part of the solution, providing space for public debate, giving voice to Albanian youth who are determined to challenge the status quo, while it continues to report on implementation of relevant laws and policies. At the same time, the application of existing norms and codes of conduct to protect the privacy of survivors cannot be stressed enough. Recently published information revealing personal details of victims should not be tolerated, especially in the case of children.

Discrimination and violence will not disappear overnight. But if action in the four areas indicated above is boosted, we can see meaningful change. The UN in Albania is supporting public institutions and civil society to promote a safe environment for women, boys and girls, at home, in schools, at work, in public and private places. The UN family will also continue to promote action and dialogue on issues that are central to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the EU integration. The forthcoming revision of important milestones of the national policy agenda, such as for example the National Strategy for Development and Integration, as well as the National Strategy for Gender Equality, and the National Agenda for Children’s rights, offers an opportunity to provide concrete meaning to such dialogue and exchange. There is much to do ahead of us. We stand ready to play our part.