Nowhere to go: pandemic inflames Albania's scourge of domestic abuse
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Her face swollen and arms darkened by bruises, Ana's eyes dart anxiously around her flat in eastern Albania, where she is trapped with a violent husband whose blows have worsened during the pandemic.
"My life has been hell for the past few months," the 31-year-old, whose name has been changed for her safety, says, as her daughters, aged three and five, cling to her in a dark corner of the small apartment.
Domestic violence was already at crisis-level in Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, before the coronavirus emergency began in March.
But for Ana and women like her, the stay-at-home measures and economic anxiety have exacerbated their plight and led to a spike in abuse.
The beatings started several years ago when Ana's husband learned she was pregnant with a second daughter and not a son.
"He wanted me to have an abortion, but I wanted to keep my baby," she told AFP.
The abuse worsened recently when the pandemic caused both Ana and her husband to lose their jobs.
Terrified of angering him further, Ana doesn't see a way out.
"If I take a small step, he will be even more violent. What can I do," she said, through tears.
Albania's patriarchal society strictly governs gender roles, leaving many women financially dependent on men, and revolves around an honour-and-shame system.
According to a United Nations report in 2019, nearly one in two Albanian women has suffered domestic violence in their lifetime, compared to a third globally.
And yet, nearly half of those surveyed in Albania believe "a woman should tolerate some violence to keep her family together", the report found, speaking to the taboo that prevents many from seeking help.
- Suffering in secret -
"Women and children are the first to bear the brunt of the pandemic, the number of victims of domestic violence has increased considerably," said Iris Luarasi, who runs a group to assist victims in Albania.
Calls to her national help hotline shot up 60 percent during March to September, compared to the same period last year.
Likewise, the Woman Forum in the central town of Elbasan has also seen "a considerable increase" in calls for help from victims, whose "mental health is deteriorating", its head Shpresa Banja said.
"They want to talk about their distress, their total lack of a solution," she told AFP.
While only a small fraction of survivors speak out, the UN Development Programme has helped more than 200 women and girls escape violent situations this year, its Tirana representative Limya Eltayeb said.
According to activists, many women choose to secretly share their suffering over the hotlines rather than go to a court, where protection orders offer little help to those who don't have the financial means to find a new home.
Semiha Xhani, 37, mother of a 10-year-old boy, has tried the legal route but is losing faith after a six-year battle to claim rights to her house and child support from her 2013 divorce.
It is a common problem for women in Albania, where property is traditionally registered and inherited through the husband or his family's name.
With nowhere else to go, Xhani is still living next to her in-laws in a decrepit room with holes in the wall, outside the capital Tirana.
The relatives of her husband, who works abroad, routinely threaten to evict her and her son.
"It would have been better to endure violence than risk being thrown out like beaten dogs," she told AFP.
Her meagre salary from dishwashing at a fast food joint is not enough to cover rent.
"I don't know where to go," she said.
- 'He tortured me' -
The Albanian parliament has recently tightened the penalties for domestic violence, which is now punishable by between five and 10 years in prison.
But that doesn't bring any peace of mind to Lindita Hoxha, a 40-year-old mother of three, who is still recovering from assaults that left her with a broken nose, jaw and vertebrae.
"He tortured me with screwdrivers, knives, a gun to my head," said Hoxha, who still has damage on her left eye "which he tried to tear out with a screwdriver".
After going to jail in 2018 for domestic abuse, her ex-husband was recently freed in April as part of an amnesty to clear out prisons during the Covid-19 crisis.
"Even in prison, he didn't stop threatening, but everything became awful when he regained his freedom," Hoxha told AFP.
Terrified of his return, she took her children and fled their home.
Safe houses for women were already full, so she sought refuge in a small, rented space in a new neighbourhood.
"I'm still very afraid, even the children are afraid, he can appear at any moment, he's going to kill me," she said, crying.
Her injuries, coupled with the pandemic, make it difficult for her to find work to support her children.
A paltry 32 euros ($37) a month from the state doesn't help much.
"School is starting, the children need everything, a safe space, books, clothes, food... how to do it?" she asked.
© 2020 AFP