Serbia's Roma fight poverty with education
Enrolment in school is shockingly low in Serbia’s Roma population, some say due to a cultural divide between Roma and the education system.Prokuplje -- Little Skurta huddles in her uncle's arms in a riverside Roma slum of this Serbian town, murmuring that she does not want to go to school for fear of getting a beating.
"What can I do?" asks her mother Scribana, feeling powerless when faced with a resolute 11-year-old girl.
While her younger sister Mevlida cannot wait to go to class, Skurta "does not want to hear about school, so it's better if she stays here," Scribana says.
Uncle Resat, who abandoned textbooks while still at elementary school, seems to understand his niece. "Studying is not for us ... because we are Roma," he says.
In this poverty-stricken Roma family, no one has a regular job and only some have temporary work.
A large Roma community lives in Serbia's south, one of the most backward regions in the Balkan country. Many of them arrived as refugees having fled strife in neighbouring Kosovo.
Roma children excluded from the education system "will only repeat the vicious circle of poverty," warns Maria Luisa Fornara, the acting representative for Serbia of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "If they remain illiterate, they will have only rare opportunities for work and will become parents who will not be able themselves to help their own children."
Some parents, adds Fornara, "are not aware how important education is and often see schools as an environment which is not very welcoming for their children. Even nowadays, the Roma have remained the most marginalised group who live in severe poverty and isolation with rare opportunities and social power."
In Prokuplje, UNICEF has set up a development education centre with the support of Switzerland's agency for development. The UN agency has already established about a dozen similar centres in southern Serbia.
The goal is to prepare Roma children for school, as some of them do not speak Serbian, as well as to make parents aware of the necessity for education.
Access to education was one of the major topics at a February 17 to 18 meeting in Belgrade, held within the framework of "The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015." This initiative brings central and southeastern European countries together to promote the rights of the minority.
The chairmanship of the programme is currently held by Serbia, where education disparities are flagrant between Roma children and other communities.
According to UNICEF, 66 percent of Serbia's Roma children enrol in primary schools compared with 95 percent of the general population. Only 28 percent complete elementary schooling.
Matthew Newton of a Roma assistance programme for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says he is aware of the extent of the task ahead.
"There is a big divide between the schools and Roma communities," he said. Many Roma are suspicious of educational institutions while "within schools there is not a clear understanding of Roma culture."
That is why some Roma act as mediators between schools and families. They are funded and trained by the OSCE in close cooperation with the Serbian education ministry.
A desire for education exists among the families, "but if you look at their living conditions ... it is unrealistic to expect they can provide textbooks for the children who go to school" or even proper clothes for classes, Newton says.
He estimates it could take 20 to 40 years for Roma to be fully integrated into Serbian society.
Serbian "authorities understand this issue, and we together are working on addressing the most grievous aspects," he says.
The European Union has contributed 2 million euros (2.6 million dollars) to the OSCE for Serbia's Roma inclusion programme.