Education is my future

With UNICEF’s support, in cooperation between the Bibija Roma Centre and the Centre for Education Policy, 60 girls and young women from Belgrade who dropped out of school were empowered to continue their education and complete certified courses.

Jelena Terzić
Samira, 17, is Ardijana's peer mentor, her friend and role model.
©UNICEF Srbija/2020/Pančić
16 June 2020

Ardijana was 13 years old when she witnessed a shocking scene.

“Some people came to our house and sat down, just like we are sitting now, and arranged with my father for my sister to marry their son”, Ardijana recalls the scene from just three years ago. This is often the case in Roma settlements. “My dad asked my sister – do you want to? I know she didn’t want to, but she accepted out of fear.”

Ardijana's sister was only 15 years old at the time. Soon after the marriage, the people she just met took her to France. It wasn’t long before she was faced with domestic violence as well.

“She called us once and said – get me out of here, whatever it takes. My father talked to her husband, but it happened again”, sixteen-year-old Ardijana recounts.

Ardijana's sister, however, found the strength to report the abuser to the French police. Three years later, she found refuge in a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“I don’t want that!” Ardijana says decisively. “I want to go to school. If it weren't for school, I wouldn't know how to read, write... I wouldn't know what to do.”

Ardijana, 16, believes that education can help her tackle any challenge.
©UNICEF Srbija/2020/Pančić

As she is saying this, Ardijana is looking to Svetlana Ilic, an activist of the Bibija Roma Centre, who has been supporting her to continue her education. This support was particularly important to Ardijana when she returned from Germany with her parents and sister six years ago as a ten-year-old girl. Back then, Svetlana helped her return to school, to easily re-adjust to being back in Serbia and to realize that she belongs here. Without that continuing support, Ardijana would find it much harder to stay committed to finishing school.

Svetlana didn’t help just Ardijana, but many other girls who are now much less likely to be persuaded to leave school. In workshops and courses, which were organized with UNICEF’s support, the girls and their mothers were empowered to develop professional skills and to learn about their rights, their health and education. In cooperation with the Centre for Education Policy, activists of the Bibija Roma Centre approached each girl and mother with an individualized plan. 

“When we started working with girls aged 13, 14, 15, I was doubtful at first”, says Svetlana: “I was wondering if they would come regularly, I was afraid whether they would go straight home after the course, so I was waiting for them. However, I realized that I didn’t have any reason to worry, they were responsible and the thing they wanted most was to learn. They would text me when they got home. They liked the course and, most importantly, it gave them confidence!”

Ardijana smiles at that. During the courses she was attending, Ardijana learned about beauty and care. She earned a certificate, but she doesn't want to stop there. She would like it to be a beautician.

“I liked the manicure and make-up classes the most. I’m good at that. I even did my teacher’s make-up - me out of all the girls”, says Ardijana proudly.

The 16-year-old is working hard during her preparatory classes for her primary school final exam. She wants to continue her education at the School for Beauty and Care.

Ardijana confidently says that she will attend classes together with her 17-year old peer-mentor Samira.

Samira, 17, is Ardijana's peer mentor, her friend and role model.
©UNICEF Srbija/2020/Pančić

“Samira is a very good student, who is leading by example and helping Ardijana, not only with her schoolwork and coursework, but also in terms of general behaviour”, explains Svetlana Ilic from the Bibija Roma Centre.

Samira is supporting Ardijana to enrol in the School for Beauty and Care. “It’s important to love what you do and to believe in yourself!”

“I have to study, work, and have my own salary and my own apartment,” Ardijana concludes cheerfully.

Activists from the Bibija Roma Centre support girls to continue with their education.
©UNICEF Srbija/2020/Pančić

With UNICEF’s support, in cooperation between the Bibija Roma Centre and the Centre for Education Policy, 60 girls and young women from Belgrade who dropped out of school were empowered to continue their education and complete certified courses. They had the support of activists, but also of peer mentors, girls their age with similar backgrounds, who can be their role models. In addition to helping them with their schoolwork, which is tailored to their individual needs, they also support them during courses which will make it easier for them to find a job.

UNICEF's aim is for child marriage, which is particularly common in Roma settlements, to become a thing of the past by 2030.

The Bibija Roma Women's Centre project is a part of a broader programme that UNICEF is implementing with partner organizations: Roma NGOs, the Republic Institute for Social Protection and Centre for Education Policy in Pirot, Novi Becej and Belgrade, as well as at the national level, with the aim of ending child marriage in Serbia.

In early 2019, the Coordination Body for Gender Equality and UNICEF, motivated by this issue, launched the National Coalition to End Child Marriage, whose task is to contribute, through targeted and coordinated action by relevant stakeholders, to ending child marriage in Serbia, particularly in the Roma population.

This goal will be achieved by strengthening the options of safe choice for Roma girls, and promoting good practices implemented in partnership between the local communities, non-governmental, governmental and private sectors and the media, along with advocacy for implementation of the legislative framework.