Located in Ali Demi, a suburb of Tirana is Albania’s only women’s prison. Home to just 84 inmates, a new initiative has brought them a glimmer of hope and the chance of creating a sustainable future.
Alma Kordoni is the director of the NGO Orkidea Albania. The aim is to protect the rights of women and girls and to empower them through capacity building but a new project called Made in Prison takes this one step further.
“Many of these women are serving time for crimes they have committed due to being victims themselves. They have suffered from domestic violence, various different kinds of abuse, and are vulnerable – this is why they committed the crimes that got them sent to prison.” Alma tells me as we sit in one of Tirana’s many cafes.
“One woman had been beaten by her husband for years, and then one day she murdered him”. She goes on to detail another case where a woman had been in the car with her abusive partner who also happened to be a drug dealer. After being stopped by the police, he escaped, leaving her in the car with enough drugs in it to land her in prison.
Whilst many crimes have no excuse, the truth is that most of the women in Prison 325 have suffered in some way and it is the consequences of this, and their vulnerability that has landed them behind bars.
To make matters worse, their prospects do not look any rosier when they finally get released. With high levels of unemployment and the societal shame around a woman having been imprisoned, it is almost impossible for these women to get back on the straight and narrow. They are often kept from their children, disowned by friends and family and many end up being at risk of falling into a life of crime once again, or being preyed on by abusers seeking to exploit them.
But Made in Prison is hoping to help break that cycle. With the help of Alma and her team, these women are being given the skill sets they need to have a fighting chance on the outside. As well as receiving counselling and other forms of guidance and support, they are also learning how to be artisans and create beautiful, sellable products.
Under the guidance of a professional designer and product developer they are learning how to create a range of items including pins, bags, necklaces and earrings, all in line with the latest fashions and what customers are buying at the moment. Once the items have been crafted, they are sold on social media with the proceeds going to the women as well as being used to buy more raw materials.
The results are wonderful. These are not just items you would buy because a charity made them, these are items that would not look out of place in any number of high street shops.
Tassel and beaded earrings in jewelled colours, pendants in geometric prints, kitsch brooches, and beautifully embroidered tote bags- the level of skill and attention to detail is something quite remarkable. Clients can even request custom made pieces and then have them created by a woman whose work they particularly like.
This project has not just financially benefited the women involved- it has helped to benefit them from the inside out.
One woman, A.H said: “Made in prison Albania has helped us increase our skills. It has helped us to feel better and to express ourselves, to have more confidence in our abilities, to learn to appreciate the handicraft market, to adapt the traditional work to the trends of time, what customers want, what products are plausible, how to introduce the product etc. My dream is to open a business, using the skills that I have learnt through this project.”
Another explained how her involvement in the project had made her mother happy as well as increased trust levels between them.
M.K, another woman involved in the project said: “I am so happy when we are told that my product has sold – it makes me feel really good.”
It is clear that learning a new skill and building confidence through empowerment is the real benefit of Made in Prison- financial gain is just an added bonus.
“It is so rewarding to see how they change – how they learn, become more creative, and even surprise themselves,” Alma tells me.
Made in Prison is a relatively new initiative, starting in March with a grant from the US Embassy in Tirana. By the end of August, the funding will have stopped and they only have enough money to last until the end of the year. Between now and then they need to gain traction in terms of clients and business, to ensure that this vitally important project can continue.
Raw materials need to be bought, the designer needs to be paid, and the women need to keep selling products to enable them to work towards their final goal.
Alma told me; “I hope we can continue-I want this to become a proper social enterprise. We have had a lot of interest and support – so far we have made around 300 products and sold them, I hope that this number will increase as people come across our products and realise that they are great quality and well designed, not just items that raise money for charity.”
You can follow Made in Prison by following the links below.
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.