Renata goes to school… and stays in school

A young woman form Moldova is determined to break the stereotypes surrounding the Roma community

Rebecca Wabwoba
Renata, 14, takes a group selfie with her friends in front of Vulcănești school.
02 April 2019

Divorced and forced to move back in with her parents and younger sister is not how 24-year-old Randunica had pictured her life. Before leaving school in the ninth grade, her dream was to become a psychologist.

“Unfortunately, it’s not custom for Roma girls to go to other towns like Nisporeni or Chisinau to study,” she explains. Facing limited prospects for continued schooling, and like many other Roma adolescent girls, she married at the young age of 17.

Randunica’s mother, Liudmila, herself attended only elementary school and cannot read or write.  She nods as her daughter speaks. They are sitting together in the sparse but brightly painted living room of their home in Vulcănești, a village some 100 kilometres from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau.

Outside in the yard, Randunica’s 14-year-old sister, Renata, is quietly working on a painting of a tree with autumn colours. In her, rests the opportunity they both missed – an education.

Renata (left), her mother Liudmila and her sister Randunica stand in the doorway of their house.
Renata (left), her mother Liudmila and her sister Randunica stand in the doorway of their house.

“I don’t like this practice of getting married very young.”

Renata is now in ninth grade and thriving. Her sister’s story stays close to her but unlike Randunica, Renata says she will not marry any time soon and is determined to complete her education.  

“I don’t like this practice of getting married very young. After a short while, they separate from their husbands, and they must go back to their family. But then, what to do? You have no profession, no family, no job, and this is not a good situation. I don’t like this. As for me, after I finish all that I plan to do, then I will start thinking about [marriage].”

And she has plans for her life.  A lot of plans.

Renata dreams of studying art and becoming a painter. She also hopes to train as a hair and nail technician. She still has a couple of years before she needs to choose a career. For now, she is just enjoying being at her school again after spending a few months in Germany where her familyhad gone in search of seasonal work. She had hoped to study there if the family found a way to stay longer. But this was not to be and so they returned to Vulcănești.

Renata in class at her local school in Vulcănești.
Renata in class at her local school in Vulcănești.

“I like school because I learn new things,” Renata says.  “I see my friends and we play games. I like the teachers and the way they teach.” Her favourite subject is Romanian, Moldova’s national language. “I don’t know why I like it so much – probably because I don’t know the language very well, so I like to hear how the formal words are pronounced,” she adds. At home, Renata and her family speak Romany, a language spoken exclusively by Roma people.

Renata is one of a few dozen children from the Roma community in her village who go to school thanks to a UNICEF-supported programme aimed at increasing class attendance among Roma children. When the programme started in 2016, in partnership with the Dacia Youth Resource Centre, a local NGO, there were only seven pupils at the Vulcănești school. Now there are 64.

Overcoming stigma, discrimination, exclusion

There are around 15,000 Roma people in Moldova and they continue to face discrimination and exclusion from mainstream society, resulting in low literacy and employment rates, as well as social stigma. School attendance rates for Roma children are much lower at all levels of education, with only half of Roma boys and girls receiving primary education.

So, starting a programme that aims to attract and keep Roma children in school and overcome negative social norms has had challenges.

 “Many Roma families practise seasonal migration when they seek job opportunities in other European countries,” says Liudmila Lefter, UNICEF Moldova Education Specialist.  “So, children can be removed from school at any time by their parents.”

Renata's artwork proudly hangs in her family house in Vulcănești.
Renata's artwork proudly hangs in her family house in Vulcănești.

Changing attitudes

To increase school enrolment among the children, UNICEF and Dacia worked with parents, community members and the government’s education department to revamp the school and make the environment attractive for children. Now the school is fully functional with spacious classrooms, a playground and room equipped with computers, board games, books, drawing albums and even a set of drums, all provided by UNICEF. Pupils enjoy several extracurricular activities – computer lessons, music lessons, football and volleyball.  

“Convincing parents to bring their children to school and to keep them in school was a big undertaking, but we are happy to see that their attitudes are slowly changing,” says Lefter.

Babici Ion, Director of the Dacia Youth Resource Centre, says that while much still needs to be done to ensure Roma children fully complete their education, there is no doubt about the success seen in Renata’s school. “We should collect good practices from this project and replicate in other schools,” he adds.

Renata remains in school because of her own determination and the encouragement of her family – particularly her mother and older sister.  Liudmila, the mother, is especially supportive.  “I got married very early and then I spent my time raising my children. I would love for Renata to finish school and to have a good profession.” 

For Randunica, there is overwhelming joy and hope when she sees her younger sister. “I wanted to be the one, to be the best in school, but I could not,” she adds.  “I am very proud of her.”