Helping Roma mothers to raise healthy children and break the vicious circle of social exclusion
By Nela Kacmarcik, Communication Officer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Zorica Tahirovic, 35, is a Roma, a wife and a mother of five.
She is also a committed worker of the International Baby Food Action Network, an NGO in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she coordinates a UNICEF-supported Roma Community Project. The project is designed to reach out to Romani parents who do not have access to health, education and other services needed to raise healthy, education and protected children. Despite good intentions, Zorica encountered difficulties when she first set up the project.
“My neighbours in the Roma settlement were quite suspicious; they thought I was doing something for my benefit alone,” explained Zorica. “It was only after a few sessions and a chance to talk directly to the health professionals about breastfeeding, pregnancy and immunization that their attitude changed. My neighbours began to join in one by one, after hearing about the project from their neighbours.” The community started demonstrating support for the project after they had received basic hygiene packages.
Better parenting classes are held once a week in the health centres and kindergartens of the Roma settlement where Zorica lives. Most of the participants are young, unemployed mothers who have not had much education or information on how to provide the best possible care for their children and how to cope with the challenges of caring for their newborns. Around 15 to 20 parents attend each session.
In some households, children can work in a separate room, but mainly, because of lack of space in their houses, they only get a corner in the same room where their mothers are. This is however good for mothers, as they also see in practice the principle of learning by playing with young children.
The mothers are not the only ones learning - this was also a big lesson for health professionals. Previously, they didn't have a chance to work in Roma communities. Some of them even admit they also have some prejudice towards Roma families, and that this direct contact has helped them overcome their unawareness about the Rom community.
Poverty has hindered every effort to improve basic hygiene and encourage healthier lifestyles in Roma communities.
“Workshop participants often say to me that even if they learn how pregnant women have to pay more attention to the quality of their food, it makes no difference because they cannot afford to buy milk or eggs,” explained Zorica. Nevertheless, Zorica believes that the knowledge they have gained is priceless.
In addition to poverty, Roma families also face exclusion and prejudice from non-Roma populations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Results of a UNICEF-EU supported study indicate that only 1.5 per cent of Roma families are visited by social workers and half of the Roma parent surveyed had not completed primary education. The parents’ educational background itself isn’t an obstacle to motivating them to send their children to school. The problems escalate when children turn to them for help with their homework and they cannot do it. When it comes to health services, the study reveals that 40 per cent of Roma children do not have access to basic health care and around 16 per cent of parents interviewed did not know much about immunization.
Being Roma is an advantage for Zorica who has gained the confidence of the Roma women in her neighbourhood. Women often drop by her apartment to ask questions about parenting.
While mothers are carefully listening and discussion about parenting, their youngest children are also busy with learning by playing with a specially trained preschool teacher. This is a rare opportunity, because Roma mothers cannot afford sending their children to preschool. A professional approach to upbringing is a valuable value added to this project.
At the end of each parenting session, young Roma mothers express their gratitude, writing feedback on of paper provided by their trainers.
“I am satisfied with the lecture and the description of upbringing, breastfeeding and nutrition of pregnant women. I wouldn’t add anything,” wrote one mother.
“We’ve had a nice time and a useful discussion. Trainers were good and patient with us,“ said another one.
“Both trainers performed well and I have learnt a lot from them. I wish we had this sort of lecture more often. I’ve been listening carefully because I am a mother but I’m also pregnant.”
The project covers 1300 Romani families and over 400 internally displaced families in about 36 communities.
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