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The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Real lives

Mothers in TFYR Macedonia battle the cycle of poverty with reading, writing and arithmetic

© UNICEF NYHQ/2002/Accone
Drita and a neighbour go through the day's lesson with their literacy educator, while a third sister-in-law (extreme left) and children from all three families look on.

The day Marieta's* daughter turned 10 was a bittersweet reminder of her own tenth birthday. That day, more than 20 years ago, was a painful personal milestone. It was the year her parents removed her from school.

The results of that decision have debilitated Marieta, and hundreds of other women in the former Yugoslav Republic (TFYR) of Macedonia like her, ever since. "Shop owners would lie to me," she says. "Sometimes they would give me the wrong change and I didn't know. I was too ashamed to ask them." "[Many of] these women are the heads of the household but they are not able to read, write or manage basic arithmetic," explains UNICEF Skopje Education Officer, Elena Misik. "They can't pay the bills because they don't understand them, they can't help their children with homework… they are on their own because most of the husbands work in other countries and return infrequently."

A new start

But there is a second chance for women like Marieta.

She and five other women in this ethnic Albanian village of 4,500 inhabitants in the hills above the city of Tetovo, joined UNICEF's Women's Literacy programme three months ago.

UNICEF identified the need for the programme after examining why many mothers throughout the country were not using critical information on improving the care and development of young children. The information had been distributed to families as part of the Lifestart Community Early Childhood Project, a nationwide initiative.

UNICEF discovered that many mothers receiving the information couldn't read, but never admitted this because of the social stigma of being labelled illiterate. The Women's Literacy Programme was launched to remedy the situation. A curriculum was developed for women and girls in 13 vulnerable communities and 25 community workers were trained as literacy educators. The educators now work concurrently with some 1,250 adult women learners around TFYR Macedonia.

Educators visit the women twice a week over the four months it takes to complete the course and achieve basic literacy and numeracy. The classes take place in the privacy of the learner's homes and only one, or at most, two women will be taught together.

Practical and personal empowerment

© UNICEF NYHQ/2002/Accone
Drita concentrates on the arithmetic exercises in her workbook as the educator explains the task.

"I am very proud," says Marietta, beaming. "One of the greatest elements of my pride was when I saw my younger daughter learning her first letters from me." The learners gain not only invaluable practical skills, but an incredible sense of pride and empowerment. Marieta's sister-in-law Drita* is also in the programme. "My little girl is six and about to be enrolled in Grade 1," says Drita. "I want to be able to help her learn her letters and give her future homework support."

Drita also hopes to help her 13-year-old daughter who has learning disabilities. "She is always holding a pen in her hand," she says. "I hope I will be able to make her literate because the school will not accept her."

Today, missed education opportunities contribute to the cycle of poverty afflicting many families. Some 20 per cent of the children in TFYR Macedonia do not continue their schooling after Grade 8. But parents like Marieta are breaking this cycle.
"I have a daughter who is 10," she says. "I am never taking her or my other children out of school. It was a big mistake my parents made with me, but I will try never to make the same mistake!"

* Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.



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