Winning child support and a happier life
It took 10 years of hard work and sacrifice, but Shefikat finally managed to secure child support for her four children. And in addition to child support, she also gained some important lessons that have enriched her own life.
"You want to hear my story?" she asks. "Well, it's bad memories from an unhappy marriage, as I lived with a violent man for eight years, and I can tell you, my life with him was a hell." But with UNICEF's help, Shefikat eventually managed to go to court and obtain legally mandated child support.
Shefikat (her last name is withheld to protect her privacy) worked the land and her husband was a miner. They lived in a poor area 20 km from Tirana, the capital of Albania. Her face is creased with the deep lines of her hard life - both from working outdoors in the fields and from enduring a frightening marriage.
In 1993 they decided to divorce. He left her with four children under 7 years old, including one-year-old twins, in a one-room house with a collapsing roof. During the rainy season she had to move her children in with neighbours or relatives at night. Her husband never contributed any support for the children. She struggled to raise them on social assistance of 4,000 lek ($40) per month, always delivered late, sometimes not at all. Frequently she had to borrow money from a friend or relative. She also earned a bit of money selling old clothes in the village market.
Shefikat knew she was legally entitled to child support, but she didn't know where to start to obtain it. She knew she needed to go to court, but she couldn't afford to pay for a lawyer or the other costs of the court process.
The centre offers pre-marital counseling for young couples to help them start off on the right foot. It also trains peer counselors to work with women and girls facing problems in the family, with 80 trained so far, and offers services and referrals for individual women needing help. Another activity is encouraging community discussion about building healthy family relationships, being an appropriate role model for children and ending domestic violence. These informal sessions take place in schools on Thursdays, the day when parents go to talk with teachers about their children's progress.
Once Shefikat went to the centre, she was referred to the Women's Advocacy Centre, which provided five free sessions with a lawyer. This enabled her to make a successful claim for child support from her ex-husband.
"In the beginning I couldn't believe that I could get it, as I kept waiting for so long to have the support for my children," she says, a smile lighting up her face. "But now, thanks to the support of the centre, the problem is solved."
Shefikat didn't know about the rights enshrined in Albania's new Family Code. Revised in 2003, it incorporates significant improvements in the status of women and children. It raises the marriage age for girls from 16 to 18 years and better defines responsibilities for child rearing and economic rights of spouses in cases of divorce. The Code also includes emergency measures for domestic violence victims.
"There is no information about this new law, and it's important to publicize it to increase the demand for its provisions," says Drita Babameto, coordinator of Productive Women in Transition. In just one year, the centre has informed 2,000 people, mostly women and girls, on issues such as psychosocial services and health assistance.
"I remember how frightened Shefikat was in the beginning," says Ms Babameto. "When she heard about the centre, she didn't have enough trust to join us and seek advice, as the mentality in her community is very patriarchal. But I can see now how much she has changed."
Shefikat visits the centre frequently, enjoying the company of women who support each other in dealing with their problems. What she has learned through the centre has enabled her to teach her children to respect themselves and become responsible citizens. She and her four children live together in their house in peace and harmony, and she has found more serenity in herself. Her eldest daughter recently became engaged and found a job.
"The worst is over," Shefikat says. "Now my children are growing up, they managed to finish at least elementary school, and they are helping each other. I hope they will have a better life than mine, and I hope I taught them how to have love and respect for themselves and for their future families."