A voice of reason, a voice for the future
In Roma settlements, one in six girls are married before the age of 15, and more than half of them are married before the age of 18.
Pirot, 16 July 2018 – Silvija Nesic, a cheerful and bright 23-year-old student of the Music Academy in the city of Nis, in Southern Serbia, has been working as a peer educator in the Roma community for the last eight years.
For the past few years, she has been sharing her knowledge about child marriage and its consequences with Roma girls in Pirot and across Serbia. Those girls see her as a star, a good example and a role model.
As she plays the piano, she tells her life story - an inspiration to many over the years.
“I had an exciting childhood. But I think a lot changed when we moved into a non-Roma settlement. Then I realized – I also can do everything that my non-Roma friend can,” says Silvija.
With this attitude, her life started changing for the better. She knew exactly what she wanted.
“While in primary school, I also went to a music school, practiced folk dancing, and sang in the church choir. Even back then I knew I wanted to become a music teacher. And today, while I’m completing my university degree, I am involved in numerous projects in various organizations,” says Silvija.
Silvija’s mother, Radmila, had a huge impact on Silvija’s life, her education and her engagement as a women's activist.
“My early marriage, pregnancy, and dropping out of school, my entire life, led me to preventing my daughter from suffering the same fate. From my experience, I know how difficult it is when you marry young. I tell other women about it as well. I advise them to talk to their daughters, to support them, but emphasise the importance of education. My vision is – a successful, educated, working Roma woman”, Radmila says proudly.
"My early marriage, pregnancy, and dropping out of school, my entire life, led me to preventing my daughter from suffering the same fate."
Knowing that there are many girls and women who have had the same experience as she, back in 2010 Radmila founded the Citizens Association “Ternipe” (Youth), which, as its name indicates, works with young people.
Radmila also works as a coordinator for Roma issues in the Municipality of Pirot. At the beginning, the Association, which, among other things, works on preventing child marriage, was met with distrust in the Roma community. Today, she says, the cooperation is much better.
Silvija, who also works as a motivator at the Association's workshops, says that the problem lies in the fact that Roma communities, just like the majority population, consider child marriage as normal and see it as a tradition. These preconceived notions slow down the efforts to combat child marriage.
“Roma organizations often emphasize that the average life expectancy of Roma women is 48 years. Why is that? We have just realized that this is caused by child marriage that lead to early pregnancies, which also result in early abortions. We've also realized that child marriage is the reason why Roma women are not educated. And uneducated parents cannot understand the importance of education for their children; and they view everything through existing community norms”, Silvija says.
Girls often do not know about their rights. They are not aware of the fact that they are equals – of both men, and women of other nationalities.
“We want to let them know that they are equal, that they can fight both for their rights and, vitally, for their economic independence”, says Silvija.
According to UNICEF’s research, 7 per cent of girls in the general population in Serbia are married before the age of 18, and less than 1 per cent before the age of 15.
The situation is dramatically different in Roma settlements, where one in six girls are married before the age of 15, and more than half of them are married before the age of 18.
As a result, less than one half of girls from Roma settlements (40 per cent) continue their education into secondary school.
This is why Silvija talks to girls about the consequences of child marriage, about family planning and pregnancy, and also steers them towards education. Often using real-life negative examples, stories about girls who married at the age of 14 or 15 and who suffer physical and psychological violence. She is able to positively influence the girls, and get them thinking about what they want from their lives.
Sixteen-year-old Natalija Osmanovic, a participant in the workshop, knows now that she definitely does not want that kind of life. She proudly says that Silvija has changed her outlook on life.
“Silvija has had a huge impact on me because she is hard-working, she is finishing her studies and is engaged in different activities. I want to be like her. I would also like to first finish school and then get married,” says Natalija.
This kind of attitude is how Silvija knows that she has been successful. Every time she convinces a girl to finish school and not marry before adulthood, she considers it her personal success.
“I am definitely trying to be a motivator in my workshops, to be someone who will move them, so they can say – yes, I want to be like you,” says Silvija proudly.
Now that the problem of child marriage has been recognized in Serbia, there is an urgent need for different stakeholders, Roma communities and the civil sector, schools, centres for social work, the police, and the health care system to become involved so that child marriage can be prevented.
Thanks to the financial support from the Korean National Committee for UNICEF, UNICEF in Serbia has launched the project “Towards prevention of child marriage in Serbia”. The project is piloting a model of support to girls at risk of child marriage, as well as their families.
The activities are currently being implemented in the cities of Novi Becej, Belgrade and Pirot, and support to the national coalition against child marriage will be provided.