Human Trafficking in Albania: Part One

Copyright: NYTimes By Greg McDonald

This article is the first in a series of three covering human trafficking in Albania in the context of centuries-old social customs. This article discusses Albania’s recent past, and the human trafficking crisis it has experienced since roughly the end of the Cold War. It also touches on the particular sections of the Kanun, Albania’s social doctrine thought by some to be relevant or even contributory to human trafficking in the country.  The two subsequent articles will lay out hypotheses I use to test the validity of the relationship between the Kanun and human trafficking, and make general policy recommendations pertinent to Albania.


Albania’s Recent Past

Albania experienced considerable economic hardship during the Cold War under the rule of Enver Hoxha, its dictator from 1944 to 1985. Under Hoxha, unemployment and poverty spiked, infrastructure crumbled, and corruption spread. Once the Cold War ended, the country became a hotbed for drug smuggling, arms trafficking and the trafficking of women, as there was no longer an authoritarian regime in place to prevent these activities.

Although human trafficking did exist in a number of countries, including Albania, during the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union brought about an increase in the prevalence of trafficking. Borders that were previously closed opened up, making it easier to transport goods, services and people from one country to another. And globalization deepened income disparities around the world, making it economically possible for people to be trafficked and later bought for “consumption” in comparatively richer countries.

Since the early 1990s, Albania has experienced relatively high levels of human trafficking. Estimates place the number of women and girls trafficked from Albania between 1991-1999 at around 100,000. Albania currently serves primarily as a source (rather than a transit or destination) country from which people are trafficked to much of the rest of Europe. Male and female children are often exploited for commercial sex, as well as forced begging and other forms of criminality. The economic hardship faced by many Albanians makes Albanian women particularly susceptible to fraudulent job offers and marriage proposals, which often serve as a prelude to them being trafficked for sexual exploitation. Albanian men have been trafficked as well.  However, they are typically trafficked more locally and are usually subjected to forced labor rather than prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation.

In recent years, the Albanian government has made efforts to proactively identify trafficking victims, used its witness protection program to protect them, and has given money to human trafficking-related NGOs. But this funding has been somewhat intermittent, which has resulted in the temporary closure of shelters for human trafficking victims. In addition, Albania still suffers from widespread corruption—specifically within its judiciary—which hampers anti-trafficking efforts in the country.


Albanian Social Customs and Their Effect on Trafficking

Illegal today, the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini remains the most significant and comprehensive compilation of northern Albanian customary law. For centuries, the Kanun governed social behavior and everyday life in northern Albania, serving as a complete moral and legal framework and covering subjects including dispute settlement, division of property and blood feuds.

According to Siddharth Kara and others, there are two primary channels through which the Kanun has impacted human trafficking in Albania.  First, they argue the hardship placed on women in northern Albanian society—as evidenced by the social mobility and rights they lack, as well as the existence of “sworn virgins”—has made them particularly vulnerable to fraudulent job offers and marriage proposals.  Second, they argue that the Kanun’s sanctioning of blood feuds has caused the type of societal and economic unrest known to be a common precursor of human trafficking in other countries.


 The Role of Women under the Kanun

The Kanun’s arguably most well known quotation, “A Woman is a Sack, Made to Endure,” would suggest the Kanun generally holds that women are not equal to men. In terms of treatment, this gender difference manifests itself in a number of important ways in northern Albania.  In contrast to men, women are not allowed to choose whom they marry. A woman’s family decides whom she will marry, and, at the time of marriage, a bride price is paid. After marriage, women are effectively seen as property; they have few rights and little agency. Women are also not permitted to work outside the home to earn a living wage and cannot own property. Because women’s blood is considered to be unequal to that of men, they cannot incur a blood debt. Rather, when a woman wrongs her husband or even kills him, the blood transfers to her family at which point reprisals may be made. Even outside the context of marriage, women are exempted from blood feuds for the same reason.  More generally, a woman’s family is responsible for everything she does in the household of her husband.


Sworn Virgins

 In northern Albania, sworn virgins are women that have assumed a male identity and live as men; per the Kanun and the way Albanian society views them, they are equivalent to men. Rather than undergoing a medical procedure, sworn virgins make the transition to being a man via two processes.  First, they vow to remain celibate for the rest of their lives in the company of 12 witnesses; once this vow of celibacy is taken, it cannot be reversed. Second, they must dress and act as Albanian men do. Importantly, unlike women, sworn virgins are permitted to own property and work outside the home.

The fact that sworn virgins can work and generally serve in male roles in society is, in large measure, the reason for their existence. In a society where women were not allowed to vote, own property or even work outside the home, becoming more than a woman—a “sworn virgin”—enabled them to earn a living wage, maintain family property and generally provide for their families in the absence of male family members. Further, as Fatos Tarifa, an expert on Albanian culture and social issues, points out, in many cases women became sworn virgins in response to the hardships placed on men (via blood feuds) rather than those placed on women. In this way, blood feuds have facilitated and even driven transgenderism in northern Albania.


Blood Feuds

Blood feuds in Albania are a centuries-old, Kanun-sanctioned custom intended to provide redress for wrongdoing and violations of honor. In addition to murder, some offenses that can lead to blood feuds include insults, accidental killing, conflict over water rights, and, rather surprisingly, being disrespectful of a woman or “trafficking of persons.” According to the Kanun, if a “person’s honor is violated, it is incumbent on the person to take action to reclaim their honor.” Further, if a man is deeply affronted or killed, his family has the right to kill the person that insulted him. But in doing so, his family becomes a target of revenge, often leading to a cycle that results in the deaths of many more people than were involved in the original altercation.

Importantly, men are the only viable targets in blood feuds. Consequently, when blood feuds spiral out of control and take the lives of large numbers of people, families are often left with few—or no—male members, making it difficult for them to make ends meet given that women are not allowed to work outside the home.  There are also limitations to how and where men can be targeted in blood feuds.  Men can specifically take refuge in their homes, which, per the Kanun, are beyond the reach of blood feud-motivated violence. The fact that homes are off limits in blood feuds means that men being targeted often remain confined in their own homes, unable to leave or earn a living for their families. The (male) children of targeted men sometimes suffer the same confinement, as those seeking retribution may target them if their fathers or other male family members are incapable of being attacked.


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