A young Roma woman in Serbia overcomes poverty and discrimination
BELGRADE, Serbia – Ljiljana Ilic, 28, is a Roma woman who has risen above the odds, conquering social, economic and cultural barriers to earn both a college and a graduate degree. But reaching her goal was far from easy.
Ljiljana was discouraged from staying in school after the eighth grade. “My father kept saying, ‘Now it’s time to get married’ or, ‘Why do you have to keep going to school?’” she says. Her mother had begun pressuring her to drop out when she turned 12.
Marriage vs. education
Child marriage is frequent among Roma families. When a Roma girl marries, she becomes the property of her husband and immediately moves to his house. Deprived of an education, many girls are unable to secure identification cards, losing access to health care or social protection and becoming dependent on their husbands.
Ljiljana was caught between the expectations of her family and wanting to continue her studies. Only 2.4 per cent of Roma girls get a secondary school diploma, and college degrees are almost unheard of.
“My mother said I should learn to cook and keep house, or no man would have me,” Ljiljana says. But Ljiljana persisted, working in a flower shop to support herself while studying for a degree in linguistics from Belgrade University.
Realizing their rights
Roma children, and girls in particular, are frequently victims of trafficking, violence, sexual abuse and exploitation. Because of discriminatory practices against the Roma in government institutions, these child rights violations are not properly addressed.
Says Ljiljana: “Male children are more highly valued, more important in Roma culture. Girls think that a different life, or an education, is not possible.”
According to official national figures, 108,193 Roma make up less than 2 per cent of Serbia’s total population. Unofficially, however, the number of Roma is estimated at about 500,000.
The situation of the Roma in Serbia is showing some improvement. For the first time in their long history in the region, the Roma have been granted national minority status, giving them an opportunity to realize their rights.
The Government of Serbia has also passed three major plans related to the Roma: a poverty reduction strategy; the 2005 Decade for Roma Inclusion Declaration; and an action plan for Roma inclusion. And since 2002, UNICEF has been supporting the education of Roma children in the 11 poorest municipalities in Serbia.
“The drop-out rate of Roma children is lower now, and there is greater interest in staying in school,” said Dragan Djoric, a teacher in Bojnik, where UNICEF is active.
Not ‘just a Gypsy’
Ljiljana credits her best friend, Vera Miljkovic, with her decision to stay in school. After completing high school, Vera, who is not a Roma, went on to university and talked her into doing the same.
Following graduation from university, Ljiljana began working with Alexsandra Mitrovic, who runs a non-profit organization that aims to improve the life of Roma. Ms. Mitrovic encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree.
“If it hadn’t been for them – and my own determination – I would have dropped out,” Ljiljana says. “Their examples made all the difference.
“Once I receive my Master’s degree, I will become stronger and more self-assured,” she continues. “People will no longer look at me as ‘just a Gypsy,’ but as an equal.”