When Suada came to SOS Children's Village Sarajevo in the spring of 2005, she had just turned nine. She had never attended school before. "It is the obligation of the legal guardian, i.e. the parent or the state social services, to enrol the child in school," says Alema Rudalija, social worker in the village. "Not doing so represents a violation of children's rights and is punishable by law."
Where Roma children are concerned, no legal action is taken. Authorities claim that if they do, they'd be charged with discrimination. The Roma strongly oppose this and consider this lack of legal action clear discrimination. The fact remains that the Roma are the ethnic group with the lowest level of education in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Why is it so and is there any chance of improvement?
Education for nearly all
Several reasons were identified as obstacles in the educational path of the Roma children. The first one is poverty. With unemployment among the Roma of almost 100 per cent, parents need their children to work rather than go to school. In addition, school might be free, but school books are not, which has forced many Roma students to drop out. With no educational qualifications, the job prospects are extremely low.
The lifestyle of the Roma population is another big challenge. By tradition, the children are involved in all aspects of adult life at an early age. Girls are married in their early teens and are expected to have many children. In the strict patriarchal setting of the Roma families, the fathers, many of them illiterate themselves, fail to recognize the value of education and push their children into the same future of stereotypes the society has imposed on them.
Rejection and discrimination are two other barriers on the road to school. Roma students are often verbally and physically abused by students of other ethnicities and cases of teachers' discrimination against them have been reported. Those who stay against all odds can't study in their native language as guaranteed by Bosnian Law. The reason is simple: there aren't enough qualified teachers who could teach in Romani.
Right to a future
Suada had nothing but the plight of the Roma to look forward to. For a couple of years she was the only one taking care of her younger brother and sister, replacing a disabled mother and living with the memories of their deceased father. She had no idea her peers were already finishing second grade when she came to the care of SOS Children's Villages.
Emotionally and educationally neglected, Suada was first enrolled in the SOS Kindergarten along with her siblings. There she learned to socialize with other children. At home she received tutoring in first-grade subjects by a primary school teacher and tirelessly practiced writing with her SOS mother.
Four months later, instead of passing the entrance test for first grade, she passed the first grade! She started school directly in the second grade and is way ahead of her classmates in her studies. "I will finish second grade by the winter and start the third after the vacation," says Suada. "That way I will be the same age as everyone else in the class."
"I was worried how all those changes in one year would affect her," says Suada's SOS mother. "But when I saw how much she wants to blend in, how hard she works to get there and how happy it makes her, my worries disappeared. She wants to be a teacher. She'll do it too. I know my girl will make it!"
The future starts now
Whether Suada will become a teacher, a psychologist or the school principal, we have yet to see. What is certain to happen, though, is that she won't be an exception. In September and October of last year, the Bosnian newspapers published many articles with titles such as "75 Roma first-graders in Prijedor", "30 Roma students received books in Banja Luka", "46 new Roma students in a Sarajevo primary school"...
The numbers are not big, discrimination has not disappeared, but things are starting to change. The Bosnian government is soon expected to adopt and start implementing a ten-year programme for improving the situation of the Roma population with the strong support of the international organizations in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
More and more local NGOs are actively lobbying both with the authorities and with the Roma population to increase the number of Roma students in schools. Roma students are supported with school material, and last summer, the first primary school book in Romani was published.
Raising awareness and solving the problem will not be easy tasks to accomplish, but then again Suada never imagined first grade would be, either.
Due to privacy reasons, the name of the child has been changed.