A frail voice finally answers after I placed several calls to the same phone number. After a lot of searching, an employee at a small women’s shelter in Tirana gave me Shpresa’s* number, after she agreed to talk to me.
The next day, I meet with 53-year-old Shpresa, a mother of three — the youngest is on the autism spectrum. The frail voiced woman begins to describe how she has been toughened by the hardships she has gone through in her life since her biological parents abandoned her in infancy.
“I’ve had a difficult life and when I fell in love and got married at the age of 18, I thought I would leave my worries behind,” she said. “I didn’t know there would be another ordeal of suffering, even more difficult than in the past.”
From the beginning of her marriage until she turned 50, she worked with her husband in the home appliance business that they had set up together. From dusk to dawn she worked there and concurrently raised her children, washed, cooked and sent her autistic son — who had become her main priority — to various training courses.
Meanwhile, to add to her burden as a full-time mother and managing a business, her husband’s violence increased.
“He was ill, but he still had enough force to hit me,” she said. “Not every day, but when he raped me, I have to admit that his violence was very serious — I even received a protection order once.”
When they decided to divorce, she had to face a bitter truth: After 32 years of marriage, three children and a business, her name appeared nowhere on the ownership documents of the common family property.
Women of all backgrounds, ages and educational levels face this reality.
“In the last few years, before I got divorced, I used to say to him, ‘Okay, let’s sit down, we’ll see all the documents we have — let’s divide everything 50/50 and let’s get divorced,'” she recalled.
“After we built the house and the time came to register it in the cadastral office, I asked him if we could go together to the institutions and register everything together,” she said. “Of course, he would never agree. ‘No, you have to stay home and take care of the boy — I will deal with everything. This is none of your business.’”
New laws, old mentality
The exclusion of daughters, sisters and wives from family property is not only in isolated rural areas, but also occurs in major cities and urban centers in Albania. Women of all backgrounds, ages and educational levels face this reality.
Two years ago, notary Elona Saliaj conducted a study on this issue, which confirmed what she had noticed in her daily life. The study — carried out in eight districts and 16 villages in Albania — found that in 90% of cases property and inheritance are registered only in the name of men.
“In my work I was increasingly dealing with cases where women were demotivated and hesitant when it came to demanding their basic rights to be co-owners of any property registered during the marriage; or pointing out that the property inheritance from their biological families was unequal to their brothers,” she said.
In legal terms, women’s property rights were advanced by the Law on the Registration of Immovable Property in 2012, when registration became mandatory for both spouses in equal proportion to the property accumulated during the marriage. The same right is recognized by the Law on Cadastre, of 2018. However, there is still a lot of room for implementation.
“The responsibility first goes to those people who have the duty to implement this law: Cadastre employees, notaries, judges… unfortunately they have the same mentality as the spouses of these women,” says Saliaj.
One of these women is also Teuta.* She divorced eight years ago, after a long period of conflict that began with her ex-husband’s gambling addiction. “He was working in construction and every day when he came home he lied to me and told me that his phone had been stolen, or that he had been robbed, or that he had lost his wallet,” she recalls.
“Since the day I got married, 17 years ago, I have had serious problems with my husband,” she says. “His family beat me every time I argued with my husband. “Eight years ago, I asked the police for a restraining order against my mother-in-law, father-in-law and brother-in-law — as well as my husband.”
Shortly after that event, Teuta says he filed for divorce. “The court gave me the right to raise our child and ordered him to pay a scanty alimony.”
The house where they lived together was registered in the name of his parents, so after the divorce she was not entitled to ownership. The ex-husband allowed her to continue living in one of the rooms of that house with their son, but did not pay the financial support as instructed by the court.
Today Teuta still lives in the same house, which was significantly damaged during the November 2019 earthquake in Albania.
“He never paid the alimony, so one day the enforcement agent came to the house,” she said. “The ex-husband got a lawyer and he advised him to place the only property he had, a 280 square meter plot of land, in his parents’ names so that the enforcement agent would not take it from him. And so he did.”
Today Teuta still lives in the same house, which was significantly damaged during the November 2019 earthquake in Albania. “Every drop of rain falls on our heads,” she says.
Just a few meters away is the house where her ex-husband’s family lives and she says that they have built a villa on the land that her ex-husband passed on to them. “My ex-mother-in-law and ex-father-in-law fight with me and my son every day, and twice a week we all end up at the police station; they accuse my son of threatening and throwing stones at them,” she says.
Such stories are not unheard of in Albania and other Balkan countries, despite the fact that in all of them there have been legal initiatives to ensure equality between women and men and to combat discrimination on the basis of gender.
"There are improvements in the legislation from country to country, but when it comes to the situation in practice, things are the same everywhere."
Sociologist Gëzim Tushi says that the democratization of the family in Albania is far from being achieved. According to him, Albania is not only “masculinist-patriarchal” but also “vertical in the gender ratio.” “For ideological, historical, cultural, prejudicial and discriminatory reasons, men stand above, have a special status, are administrators of family property and enjoy exclusivity that women do not,” he says.
The phenomenon, according to him, is almost equally prevalent throughout the Balkans, since we are dealing with a more or less identical mentality. “The Albanian man does not accept the idea of equality, especially when it comes to the material side of things — there are always problems here and he wants to have the lion’s share and does not want to split this wealth with his wife, because he does not feel safe,” he says.
The same opinion is shared by the notary Saliaj, who in addition to Albania, has conducted studies on this issue in countries throughout the region.”The results show that the situation is the same elsewhere; there are improvements in the legislation from country to country, but when it comes to the mentality and the situation in practice, things are the same everywhere,” she says.
Claiming what you are entitled to
Drita,* a 70-year-old woman, recalls that she never had problems with her sister and brother until the day their parents passed away and the three of them had to discuss the issue of inheritance.
“In the beginning everything went normally; a construction company in the city came and asked for the land where our apartment was located, so that they could build a residential building there,” she says. “Of course, we had to agree on the benefits we would have — how each of us would benefit. I did not even doubt that everything would be proportionally divided between the three of us.”
But that did not happen — the brother had already decided that their parents’ inheritance could not go to the families of his sisters’ husbands. “The first time I heard his argument, I laughed — I thought it was a joke. Then I glanced at my sister’s face, so that I could see her reaction: She looked down and did not say a word,” Drita remembers.
She says she still remembers what her brother said in their last conversation seven years ago. “He told me, ‘You have no value. You weren’t able to give birth to a son — I don’t understand why you ask for your share of the inheritance? Your daughter will get married and her husband does not deserve to be a part of our property.’”
At that moment, Drita says that she realized that the mentality and gender discrimination she had tried to fight all her life has always been there, even in her family. “My brother never considered me and my sister worthy as heirs. I was furious,” she recalls.
"This prejudiced mentality in the Albanian family is still very strong."
After first discussing it with her sister and realizing that she was giving up on the properties because of the things she thought people would say behind her back, Drita made a decision. “I went to meet one of my best friends and explained that I needed help; her son is a famous lawyer in town. “After that meeting, I went to court to demand my rights,” she said.
According to sociologist Gëzim Tushi, this is the most difficult moment.The confrontation within a family.
“It is blasphemous to claim property outside the household and this is considered alarming because in general Albanian society considers such a request from a woman to be undeserving and it does not accept the fact that a woman could receive something from her biological family,” he says. “This cultural cordon and this prejudiced mentality in the Albanian family is still very strong.”
Missing legal battles
None of the divorced women who were excluded from the joint marital property have applied to the court for the right that belongs to them by law. Shpresa, who is raising her three children on her own, fears that her ex-husband could corrupt the judiciary and in that case, she would lose even more.
“I already work in a restaurant as a cook, from morning to evening, from Monday to Saturday, because I have to pay bills and for the private courses for my son,” she explains. “I’ve often thought about going to court and asking for half of the property that belongs to me by law, but I’m afraid there will be corrupt judges and I won’t win anything.”
Meanwhile Teuta, who is in a very vulnerable position since she still lives in a room in her ex-husband’s house, is very worried and insecure about how things will develop further.
“If they put me out of that room, I’ll be left on the streets with my son,” she said. “Currently I only work a few days a week cleaning a house and I don’t have enough money to pay the rent and raise my son; this marriage has only brought me problems and suffering and after so many years I have nowhere to go.”
Of these three women, the only one who has gone to court is 70-year-old Drita. “I had a lot of health problems and at my age it was not so common to go to court and legally clash with a part of your family, but I will not give up on that trial until the end of my life,” she insists.
In recent years, Albanian women have continued their efforts to exercise the rights guaranteed by law. However, according to sociologist Tushi, the state and society still have a lot of work to do in this regard.
“Today’s women are jugglers, who should be good wives, good mothers, competitors and good professionals,” he said. “So in a way they have to play a lot of roles and make a lot of contributions and yet their financial position, their wealth position is not in line with their contribution.”K
Feature image: Elona Elezi / K2.0.
*Names have been changed to conceal the identities of the interviewees.