A simple fact of Peace Corps life is that while some projects will never happen despite one’s best efforts, other projects require but a nudge of encouragement. Establishing a conversation group for women to talk about gender issues fell into the latter category. I came to learn that the woman who held the keys for the room we used for English conversation classes was the local city government’s head of the office of gender equality, a seemingly token office physically separated from the rest of city government. Mentioning to her the idea of some sort of women’s issues conversation hour was all it took to have a competent, enthusiastic Albanian counterpart for the endeavor. Before we knew it we had support from World Vision and were regularly having sessions.
Gender relations make up a large part of the “culture shock” of moving to a small town in northern Albania. The most obvious and immediate aspect of this may be the fact that women are seldom seen at coffee shops or spending time outside of their house besides school. On the main street, well over 90% of the people are men and boys. As I met more people and integrated into community life I would hear stories about women below the legal age, 18, becoming engaged which in Albania means that in practice you are married. Divorce is very rare (In fact the Albanian word for divorce ‘divorcuar’ is an obvious loan word) and the divorce stigma falls almost entirely on the women. Working with a rural women’s non-profit, I learned that many women are economically and socially trapped in abusive situations. The non-profit’s goal was to help them become economically self-sufficient and enable them to improve their lives with that autonomy.
Maintaining a young woman’s reputation and virtue and thus her “marriageability” is a huge issue issue for families who may curtail all of their daughters’ extra curricular activities. The most tragic story I can think of is the case of an “honor killing” in which a father shot and killed his own teenage daughter after she became pregnant. He would later claim he did it to protect his honor and that he didn’t consider it a crime. This happened in one of my town’s peripheral villages.
The GenderIndex.org website has a pretty great summary of the situation on Albania. Reading through it, what rings true to me is the reoccurring sentence that goes something like “Legally, Women have the same rights as men, however traditional social practices…”
Over the next few months our group covered topics such as stereotypes, women’s heath such as breast cancer, violence against women, gender roles, etc. My gender development “pipe dream” project was to have women start taking part in the almost entirely male “xhiro,” the casual stroll through town in which people meet up with friends, see and be seen, etc. However this vision is years, perhaps generations away for my region. Regardless, I’m happy with what we were able to accomplish with the women’s conversation group. Sometimes all it takes is a nudge!