A childhood, not marriage!
UNICEF and partners, through the activities of the National Coalition to End Child Marriage, are trying to break the cycle of Roma child marriages still prevalent in Serbia. In fact, 56% of women from Roma settlements still marry before the age of 18.
Serbia - Belgrade, Novi Sad, Ljubovija – Marina, Maja, Besima and Aleksandra only seem different. What unites them is their passion for education and the fight to end Roma child marriages. “We can’t do without the former, and we have to do without the latter,” all four are adamant.
Marina Simeunovic was born in the Roma settlement of Alingram in Ljubovija, in western Serbia.
Out of the four young women, Marina is the only one that comes from a family that has experienced child marriage. Her aunt had to get married at 13, her mother at 16. That’s why she fights for the right of children to be able to choose.
“My mother got married early to a man she didn’t know. She lived [with him] for three months. Then she returned to Ljubovija to her parents. I think this is the worst possible way to try to help your child escape poverty. I firmly believe that education is the only way,” says Marina. That’s the reason she works to educate Roma children in Ljubovija.
Six-year-old Ognjen Simeunovic talks about what Marina has helped him achieve.
“We learned where the Roma people come from and that the Romani alphabet has 37 letters. We also learned how to draw the flag. Marina is kind and patient with us”.
Marina pays special attention to the girls she teaches, because, as she says, they are always at risk of dropping out of school.
And poverty, ignorance and parents are all pushing them into child marriages. To illustrate the harmfulness of child marriage, Marina has made an exhibition depicting mothers and daughters – Roma Women of Ljubovija.
Besima Jasari and Aleksandra Aleksandrovic live 160 kilometres away from Ljubovija, in Novi Sad, in northern Serbia. When she was 10, Besima had to fight to realize her right to education, insisting on visiting her friends who were attending an adult education school.
“At the age of ten, I started attending the Sveti Sava primary school for adults. With all their tragedies, my parents had forgotten about me. I begged them to go there and see what's going on. There I met volunteers who taught people. That’s how they met me, that's where we got close, they loved me. When they came to my parents, they explained to them that they’ll help me and do whatever it takes.”
Besima couldn’t finish high school due to financial constraints. Now she works in a cable factory, but says she is satisfied because she is her own person.
Aleksandra Aleksandrovic is also happy that she’s her own person. She says they were always thinking about education in her family, and never about child marriage.
“To finish school – both my brother and me. And to be our own people, to have jobs and to be independent. I got a BA in Ethnomusicology from the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad. I completed my master’s degree in Applied Theatre in Norway through the Erasmus student exchange. It was a wonderful experience.”
What unites Besima and Aleksandra, apart from the fact that they are both from Novi Sad, is their work with Roma children. They both know that child marriage has adverse consequences for girls, impairs their health and mental well-being, excludes them from education and deprives them of opportunities to fulfil their potentials. These are the reasons that drive them to work with Roma children.
“I tried to convince them that marriage will not save them, and that education is very important in life. That sometimes parents are not right in this regard. There were a lot of child marriages where I’m from because they think it will be better for them if they marry young. Their lives are not great, their parents don’t let them go out, and then they find some comfort in that marriage. But unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out [how they imagined it would],” Besima explains what she told the children she works with.
Aleksandra is pleased because she believes that they were able to reach the children and, more importantly, the parents. “I believe that child marriage is a form of abuse, as well as violence against children. Every child has the right to a carefree childhood, to play, to protection, to education, to proper mental and physical development.”
Both Besima and Aleksandra reject the idea that child marriage is a Roma tradition. However, it’s a common belief of society at large that changing the predominant customs is impossible.
Maja Simic, a future university student from Belgrade, also believes that child marriage is not a Roma tradition.
“They are deprived of many things: education, youth, going out. A childhood, not marriage – they should grow up first. To understand what life is all about, and not to suddenly say that it’s tradition – because it’s not! It’s something from the past. We have different values now.”
Maja would like other children to follow in her footsteps but insists that a precondition for that is a supportive family. They shouldn’t give up their dreams and need to work hard to achieve them.
“I’m aware that what I want requires a lot of knowledge in many different fields. I’m really interested in languages. I’ve recently completed a German language course. Right now, I’m finishing a C1 English course, and I’m planning to start Spanish in the summer.”
These four girls are just a few representatives from the Roma community who want to help change detrimental statistics, which show that the rate of child marriage in Roma settlements is stagnating. In 2014, the percentage of women who got married before turning 18 was 57%, and five years later this number is lower by only one percent.
To tackle this problem in the Republic of Serbia, the National Coalition to End Child Marriage was established in February 2019, at the initiative of the Coordination Body for Gender Equality and UNICEF. The Coalition represents a group of 39 institutions and organizations working together to strengthen safe choice options for girls, especially those choices that affect their lives and futures, and to empower women and men to change existing child marriage practices.