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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Helping Roma mothers raise healthy, educated children

© UNICEF BIH/2006/0048/Kacmarcik
Mothers listen and share in parenting discussions organized by the UNICEF-supported Roma Community Project in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

By Nela Kacmarcik

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 8 March 2007 ─ Deep-seated discriminatory practices persist in southeastern Europe against nearly 1 million Roma children in the region, according to a new UNICEF report that seeks to raise awareness of the extent to which these children suffer from social exclusion.

Zorica Tahirovic, 35, a Roma mother of five, is working to secure vital rights to health, education and protection for her children and future generations. Ms. Tahirovic works for the International Baby Food Action Network, a non-governmental organization in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she coordinates a UNICEF-supported Roma Community Project.

The project is designed to reach out to parents and connect them with services needed to raise healthy, educated and safe children. 

Fundamentals of child care

“My neighbours in the Roma settlement were quite suspicious. They thought I was doing something for my benefit alone,” Ms. Tahirovic said of the difficulties she encountered setting up the programme. But after a few sessions, word of the classes spread and her neighbours began to join. Now, 15 to 20 parents attend each weekly session.

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. Through the programme, they are trained in the fundamentals of child care, with an emphasis on the importance of breastfeeding and early immunization.

Results of a UNICEF and European Union-supported study indicate the need for such training, revealing that only 1.5 per cent of Roma families in southeastern Europe are visited by social workers and half of Roma parents have not completed primary education. The study finds as well that 40 per cent of Roma children do not have access to basic health care.

1,300 families reached

The Roma Community Project teaches more than just mothers; children are welcome, too. They spend the sessions with a specially trained preschool teacher – a rare opportunity, since most Roma families cannot afford to send their children to preschool.

The programme also provides an opportunity for health professionals to work in Roma communities. Some of them have confessed to having a bias against Roma families, a prejudice that the programme has helped tackle with direct contact.

To date, the project has reached 1,300 Roma families and more than 400 other displaced families in about 36 communities. It has been an unqualified success in Ms. Tahirovic’s community, as well as a gratifying experience for her and a source of new confidence from her peers.



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