Women and children, under the clutches of the risk of the online world - Conference "Psychological violence and online violence against women", Tirana - June, 2024

I appreciate this invitation because the opportunity to be here today, talking about a concern that 33 years ago the world did not imagine, is special for me. When you invited me, you probably didn't know that apart from and despite the fact that you invited me as the prime minister's wife, you invited a person who lives with this concern every day and who not only as an intellectual and civil society activist, but also both as a woman and as a mother, seeks to understand how such a concern can be addressed before it is too late.

Dear friends and guests in this discussion space,

33 years ago, Albania, just emerging from extreme communist isolation, was a gloomy, chaotic country, full of hope but disoriented in space and time. Girls and women were suddenly caught in the spiral of a vortex unimaginable today for those who were then children or not yet born. The scale of the challenges and the sense of danger of that maelstrom were indescribable. Massively threatened by the unemployment gap, the revelation of extreme poverty, the return of the old patriarchy, the lack of public order, the pressure of illegal immigration, forced school dropouts, trafficking and prostitution of white flesh.

 A space where their rights seemed utopia and a time when the state seemed headless. Women and girls did not appear at any point in the new sphere of interest and in any statistical table, except for births, deaths, marriages or divorces.

In the parliament that emerged from the pluralistic elections of 1992, there were 148 men and only 7 women. There was no woman in the first democratic government. A decade later, the government had 20 men and only 2 women, while in the parliament for 10 years only two women were added, from 7 to 9. So, it was left for the men to make the assembly and, along with the problems of the country, take care of problems and women's rights.

An anemic institution charged with gender issues, had to wander for 15 years in a row from one corridor to another, changing its name, form, address, until it settled under a more long-term shelter. It was born in 1991 as a sector for women under the Commission for Work and Wages, and then sometimes it appeared as a secretariat, sometimes as a department, then as a committee, then as a committee again but with a new name, passing from the wing of the Ministry of Labor, to the back pocket of the Ministry of Culture, then under the sleeve of the Prime Minister, after under the Deputy Prime Minister, until in 2006 it appeared as the General Department in the Ministry in charge of Social Affairs.

This memory is valid today only for the fact that the tragicomic course of survival of that institution would have continued, if civil society organizations had not appeared as early as 1991. Independent Forum of Albanian Women (1991), Refleksione (1992), Family Planning Association (1992), Useful for Albanian Women (1993), Women's Program at the Open Society Foundation for Albania (1994), Women's Center ( 1995) all in search of protecting women's rights, encouraging women to participate in development and promoting the pursuit of equality with men. So even though embryonic and fragile in front of the fury of the vortex that I mentioned above, these fundamental creatures for everything that followed later, managed to convey the reason for their existence even to the ears of the headless state.

Furthermore, after the national tragedy of 1997, flourished courageously associations that provided gender awareness services, shelters for abused and trafficked women, counseling and assistance services for them and child victims of trafficking, violence, abuse, and those under risk. This reminder is also valid for the fact that we were not alone in this battle. The Open Society Foundation for Albania, UNDP, UNICEF, UNWOMEN, UNFPA, the World Bank, the Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Swiss Cooperation and other bilateral agencies or humanitarian associations made an extraordinary and continuous contribution to the journey for more equality, representation, awareness, counseling, referral-service-protection in case of need, promotion and encouragement for entrepreneurship and employment.

Today the reality is incomparable to what I just described very succinctly. Civil society, with its stubborn persistence, managed to encourage an increased listening about the vulnerabilities that this dramatic part of the transition was going through. With all forms and without stopping, they actively created quality with little quantity, by successfully influencing the legal and rights agenda in favor of women, improving their political representation and bringing to life the first models of services for girls and women in need.

 The state, which in the meantime began to find its head, began to establish a stable legal, institutional and strategic framework in support of girls and women, creating the premise of the gender mainstreaming at all levels as well as gaining clarity, to became cooperative and persistent in gender focused objectives.

But above all, in these three decades, it is the women themselves who, thanks to their efforts, managed to become an extraordinary contributing reality at all levels and a generator of development and emancipation. And with this long parenthesis, allow me to express the troublesome concern with which I started my speech.

In the start of the journey in the 90s, we knew who were the criminals, abusers, blackmailers, obstacles in general, in the sense that we had a definition for these categories. We suffered, learned and became stronger in facing them, together, both us and the state.

But it seems to me that all this was and remains daily in front of a new suspicion and threat, since the moment when Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and then Tik Tok and Whatsup appeared in our lives, a world in a parallel lane with the world before them, where it seems to me that this world is no longer divided into a world of developed countries or developing countries, but it is being redefined as a single world, blessed as it is with the amazing advantages of the Internet, and meantime cursed by its surprising malevolent capacity.

Thus, while domestic violence continues to be a wound for many girls and women in a society that still lives in the framework of stereotypes of the past and the economic, cultural and social problems of everyday life, another violence, online violence, has appeared in our daily lives as a threat that extends its possessions with an irresistible power into new territories within us, around us, between us, ceaselessly creating new circles, which as much as they are multipliers potency, are narrower of the space of human freedom, which practically does not end at the point where the freedom of the other begins.

In 2024, it is reported that cyberbullying reached a record level in Europe. The number of female victims, in every European country, is much higher than for boys. The adolescent victims are much higher than adult victims.

 A regional analysis of a few months ago by UNWomen states that 41% of women in Albania have been subject to at least one form of violence through technology (the regional average is 53%) - most of them from Instagram. 50% of the perpetrators are unknown persons or as I like to call them "digital pranksters". 37% of the abused ensure self-defense by blocking or disconnecting communication with the abusers. Less than half of them tell their friends or family about the incident, and negligibly few go to the police, institutions and associations. Because, most probably, they don't believe that the solution can come from them.

 In Albania, UNICEF reports that for parents, the child is safer when walking on the street alone in the dark, than when he is online at home with a cell phone in front of him.

Meanwhile, the monitoring report on hate speech in Albania 2023 finds that gender is mostly the target of hate speech and discriminatory discourse in television, written media and social media platforms. Hate speech originates mainly from the media itself, journalists and analysts, but in sporadic cases also from politicians, artists, intellectuals, lecturers, celebrities and influential individuals in the public who, as a rule, never talk about their life, but make the trial of "the others", always pointing the finger at them, never at themselves, without being contradicted by the interviewers or the hosts of the shows or even by their colleagues.

Then the question that arises is who are the allies of women, mothers, parents in general, in the face of digital danger and online violence on themselves or their children?

Big-Tech does not seem to be our ally. The facts brought by studies or reports, in addition to everyone's daily life, prove that although there is an increase in the attention of Big-Tech on the issue of online violence, the priority of tech companies remains their profit and occupation of human life spaces, not the safety of people in the super seductive spaces they create. Big-Tech today monitors us, knows us, understands what we like, what we want and what we don't. In its own space, it knows our children better than we do. This invasion of the space of our intimacy has created a monstrous component of capitalism, the surveillance, which in exchange of the dizzying information it gives, has turned us in its raw material and has created a new form of power over lives of people and world’s destiny, in which the very fate of democracy as the free will of citizens seems to be seriously threatened.

Civil society pressure on governments about online risk does not yet appear to be comparable in level to that on the issue of climate change, which prompted, raised awareness, forced governments to exercise their power to crack down on businesses and encourage financing towards the environment and climate sustainability.

However, just as the women's associations of the 90s dictated the pace of gender advancement and the support of women and girls, today it is completely possible and legitimate for women in all representative capacities to offer support and seek solutions, at least for the concern of online violence against women and protection from digital risk.

Because today in the parliament among 140 deputies 50 are women, today in Albania there are more women than men ministers, over 60% of the public administration are women, about 80% of teachers in 9-year schools and 70% of teachers in secondary schools are also women.

If we cannot leave out of this calculation of forces in the face of such a big problem, the fact that more and more girls and women are employed in the technology and information sector, almost all at a young age, who can be mobilized making their presence available for awareness-raising efforts and finding solutions, or the fact that today's media has 40% women journalists as part of its team.

We are today with the hope that the perpetrators against women and girls, online and offline, will be pursued, caught, judged better and faster, without managing to increase the number of their victims, even for the very fact that currently in Albania, half of the prosecutors and judges in office are women.

But as you may have understood by now, I hope, I just hope. But I still do not have an answer that will give me peace in the face of such a disturbing concern, where the feeling that our democratic world is unprepared for this new development where extraordinary opportunities seem synonymous with an extraordinary danger. An existential danger for democracy itself, which has become dominant in our everyday life. And where it seems to me that with each passing day, as a mother, I am more unable to protect my ten-year-old son from the danger that threatens every day children, girls and women in the first place.

 Therefore, even though in this activity organized with desire and good will, we will certainly not be able to find the answer that calms us, the fact that we have gathered with the awareness of this dizzying concern and with the desire to share the fears, experiences, thoughts of our ideas, is in itself a food for hope that the answer will be found, even soon.

Thank you.

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