Kosovo's Roma Women Await Emancipation

Mostly chained to the stove and the cradle, some women dare to dream of education and paid employment.

By Hajrudin Skenderi in Laplje Selo and Zana Limani in Pristina (BCR no 570, 10-Aug-05)

Merita, a Roma woman from Laplje Selo, starts her long day at around 5am, the first job being to cut wood for the stove to prepare meals. From that point, she will be kept busy until late into the night.

"I am employed but work at home," she said. "I wash, cook and babysit. After this I have no time for anything else."

Her routine is normal for most Roma women, who are brought up to do housework and look after their husbands and children.

Hatixhe, aged 46, from the village of Preoce, doubts she could do much now with a formal education.

She never had a chance to go to school. "I had to take care of all my brothers and sisters and was always expected to work at home," she said. "How can a woman find a job if she's never even attended a class?

"I wanted to enrol my daughter in primary medical school so she would have more opportunities than I had, but her father wouldn't agree to it. He said the only thing her husband will ask of her is to cook, clean and give birth."

With such attitudes prevailing, it is not surprising that few Roma girls even enter a classroom.

"Statistics are hard to find because it's difficult to keep track of how many women drop out of school," says Gjyzele Sheljoni, a Roma woman biologist who runs Foleja, a non-government organisation, NGO, that combats illiteracy.

Among the 5,500 Roma community in Prizren, Sheljoni believes only three women have university degrees and only seven girls attend high school.

Roma tradition dictates that girls should start to learn how to bake at the age of five or six.

By 12 they will be looking for husbands, and will be taught to seek nothing more than what the men will offer them. Their principal duties from then on are to bear children and to pass on their household skills to the next generation of daughters.

If anything, Roma women have fewer chances now than before to obtain salaried work outside the home.

Since the war ended in Kosovo, many Roma have been driven from their homes and even those who have remained have often lost their jobs.

The dismal state of the economy has resulted in Albanians taking over menial occupations that were once left to Roma, such as cleaning the streets.

Sheljoni says Roma women seeking education encounter prejudice from several angles.

On the one hand, their own menfolk see it as a waste of time. On the other, Kosovo Albanian society tends to be dismissive of all Roma.

"Even those [Roma] women who manage to fight their way into education run into prejudice in society at large," said Sheljoni. "We are seen as good enough only to clean their homes."

Maksut, a 45-year-old Roma from Laplje Selo, is a typical Roma traditionalist. "I am the boss at home and everything has to be as I say," he said proudly.

"My wife has to take care of my children. There's nothing wrong with that. I treat her the way that my father and grandfather treated their wives."

Maksut's wife is expected to carry out many tasks that would appear very old-fashioned in other communities, including washing her husband's hands and even his feet when he comes in to eat his dinner.

He says that is as it should be, although he is open to the idea that life might turn out differently for his daughter's generation.

"My wife and I could take care of my daughter's children, so that she could work," he says. "But what would people say if she spent more time outside than at home?"

Although Merita is interested in the prospect of finding a job outside the home, she says traditions are slow to change.

"Change requires time and struggle and this situation has existed for centuries," she says. "The most important thing is that they [the men] understand that we too have needs and are not made out of stone."

Gradual changes in the position of Roma women are occurring, however, mostly as a result of pressure from internationally supported NGOs.

Emsal Merhaxholli, who runs the Roma Women's Centre in Prizren, is helping Roma women become more active.

"Roma women are as capable as other women," she says. "One of them [in Prizren] runs her own internet cafe. Another runs a factory and employs 16 other women," she adds.

"These are just some examples that show change has begun. But a lot more has to be done to improve the situation." Merhaxholli says the lack of education is the biggest obstacle blocking the further emancipation of Roma women.

"Mothers have to support the education of their daughters," she says. "And women have to follow their dreams in spite of the traditions mainly imposed by men. Roma women don't exist only to give birth to children."

Saskia Marsh, who coordinates "catch-up" classes for Roma children for the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe, OSCE, agrees that attitudes are shifting, albeit slowly.

"Traditional views and early marriage keep most Roma girls out of school," she said. "But there is far more interest now for them to attend catch-up classes than there was before," she adds.

Hajrudin Skenderi is a trainee attending IWPR's Primary Level Journalism Course. Zana Limani is a project coordinator for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, IWPR's partner in the Balkans.

Enisa Eminova
RWI consultant
e-mail: rwi@romawomensinitiatives.org