When you were nine, could you peel potatoes, make soup, lay a table for ten, shop, bring water in from the well, change nappies and get three toddlers to have an afternoon nap simultaneously? At that age, the average person could probably manage the potatoes and the soup. The rest would be beyond, not only children in the second grade of school, but a great majority of adults in the easy-does-it society in which we live. Not so Catinca. She is nine, hard-working and she can do all of the above and more.
With the patience of an angel and the poise of a seasoned parent, Catinca watches her seven younger siblings and runs the household on the edge of Zarnesti while her mum is in hospital in nearby Brasov. It has been more than two months since she went there. Dad is out working all day so Catinca has taken on the role of a parent for which she has a natural aptitude. It is a full-time job. The two-room house with a bare brick facade is in the upper village. Upper is usually associated with better-off and upwardly mobile. In Zarnesti, the upper village is the impoverished part of town where many children fail to attend school. Catinca is one of them.
Often from large Roma families, the children stay at home to help look after their siblings. They lack basic commodities such as shoes or a change of clothes which is an embarrassment to the family. The parents do not know how to deal with the situation and prefer to allow their children to drop out of school rather than lose face with their classmates. Research has shown that some of these families have a tradition of non-attendance going back several generations. When the parents do not understand the value of education and have not formed the habit of rising in the morning and getting ready for school, the children pay the price.
One capable of Catinca’s selfless devotion to others deserves to do well in life. Sadly, Catinca’s only ambition for the future is to be like her mum. When she grows up she will look after the house, collect her social security every month and, maybe, have a car. The interviewing team had a hard time convincing her that with her amazing people skills, she would make a wonderful doctor. But to get there she would have to return to school.
This is why UNICEF has made its School Attendance campaign a priority for the next two years. School mediators will bring together families, communities and the schools themselves in order to ensure that Catinca and others like her will begin to attend and look forward to school. Just imagine how this child will flourish if she learns to wield a pen as well as a knife and read books as well as she reads the needs of family members that depend on her.
A precocious child as a carer and a housekeeper, Catinca is not a great talker. She cannot read and often struggles to put her thoughts into words. Her very expressive face more than makes up for this. She wrinkles her nose and smiles a lot, showing curiosity, fear, surprise and amusement in turns. Her busy day is disrupted by the RTV crew that have come to film the little mum. But she takes her stardom in her stride with equanimity uncommon for her nine years. The soup that she cooks with the camera upon her every move is a resounding success with her hungry brothers and sisters. They down it with large slices of bread that she has painstakingly buttered beforehand.
Surprisingly, Catinca finds the time to play like other children even though in her games, just as in real life, she is the responsible one: the housekeeper, receiving guests and making them coffee. If UNICEF’s campaign is successful in Zarnesti, Catinca will be back to school after the holidays. She knows she will be there as long as she can get a hold of a decent pair of shoes.
The education team of UNICEF Romania has every reason to celebrate this Christmas. Although there is still a long way to go, the School Campaign is yielding great results already. Catinca and other children taking part in the Back to School programme have returned to school. Her attendance is not a hundred percent but she is at school almost every day and does her best academically. Concerns that she might drop out completely are a thing of the past.