“How’s school going?” “I don’t know, I don’t go to school.” This is not the answer that we would expect from a 13-year old child, but in some countries it often works this way. Despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that education should be free and compulsory, reality is often different.
Last winter I had the chance to take part in a volunteering experience in Albania, near TIrana. My task was helping the social workers in a community centre that welcomes Roma children and youth, taking care of after-school activities so that they could take a rest from the situation of poverty and sometimes exploitation in which they live. From a study of Children’s Human Rights Centre of Albania (CRCA) in 2011, only 61.4% out of 5100 youths taken into consideration goes to school, and lots of them don’t attend lessons regularly. Moreover, girls often drop out sooner and more easily, as per tradition they have to marry at a very young age. There are two main reasons why children often skip school: either they are sick, or they need to work or beg in order to support their families. Albania offers free healthcare for who can’t afford it, but Roma families lack the necessary documents to be granted access to it. That is because adults don’t arrange for it or are illiterate and don’t receive any support from offices and institutions; as a consequence, Roma children can only benefit from vaccinations that are free and offered without asking for any paperwork.
Another big problem of the Albanian education system is that while book expenses should be reimbursed by the government for less wealthy individuals, as a matter of fact, reimbursements are never paid. Children find themselves without proper school supplies, making the teacher’s job even more difficult. Teachers have to deal with highly heterogeneous classes and aren’t paid enough, accordingly, they prefer to leave behind those who have difficulties learning. Hence, Roma children end up being ignored by the teachers and excluded by their classmates. Once again, the policy of “increasing inclusion of the poor in schools” has failed in practice. School is transformed into a place where no one wants to go, giving yet another reason for parents to keep their children home and send them to work. A study by Merita Meça has confirmed that 31% of Roma parents don’t believe that getting a good education can lead their way out of poverty. It is certain that begging doesn’t help, too.
Community centres like the one where I volunteered play a huge role in Roma society. Not only are they a place where youth can socialize and play together, explore their passions and discover some new ones, they also support parents regarding paperwork; children are helped with homework and social workers listen to their personal problems. Additionally, the fact that many centres offer one meal per day is a relief for parents who can’t afford food for everyone to send there their children. Unfortunately, the majority of centres are financed exclusively by foreign associations, while the State Social Service does not do much. They “don’t like to work outdoors”, and sometimes suggest ideally perfect plans, only without guaranteeing any budget.
I have met teenagers that are progressively rising out of poverty thanks to the support of community centres. I believe that it is important to first be informed, and then to act. We, readers of the Gazette, can consider ourselves lucky to have received quality education. Thanks to our knowledge, we can make the situation better.
Nadia Dalla Gasperina