“My name is Zsofia Kuszenda, I am a volunteer of The Ideas Partnership.” This has been my line for more than a year now; this is how I start e-mails and this is how I introduce myself when shaking hands of people in important positions and also of those in the slums of Fushe Kosovo. Just like I did at the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Conference, organised by the European Commission, chaired by Pierre Mirel, European Commission Director of the Western Balkans. This time I was sitting on the ‘other side’, wearing my colourful TIP badge refreshing the crowd of bureaucrats and politicians, representing the energy of a small but ambitious grass-root organisation. Quite a change after my own past in the Commission.
It was an important day and I feel lucky I took part in it. Ministries, international and local organisations sat down with the representatives of the RAE communities of Kosovo, to discuss the challenges and difficulties these disadvantaged groups of people are facing on a daily basis.
Poverty doesn’t know politics, it doesn’t know borders: besides some specific local issues, the poor of this planet fight the same daemons in Africa, Asia, and yes, also in Europe. Education, housing, employment, health care – how to feed the children, how to survive winter, how to cure the ill…
For the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community of Kosovo, civil registration matters a lot. People living without an official identity are people living without human and civil rights. Even if the service is provided by the state, they cannot see a doctor, cannot claim social assistance, they are not entitled to education, vaccination – they simply don’t seem to exist. Today, every sixth person in the RAE community is unable to prove his or her identity. The recommendation of the attendees for the government is to facilitate civil registration and exempt it from fees at least for a limited period of time. Clearly, if I had the choice of feeding my kid or paying for a plastic card I cannot even read I’d opt for the first. And here we are. Why does registration matter at all, if marginalized, discriminated people have no idea how to make good use of it?
Lack of access to information seems to me the biggest issue of poverty. The only way to bridge this gap is education: state funded education of child and adult. It is a long term investment but a precondition to live a decent life. On the short run, RAE communities need mediators, community advocates, who are trained to transmit the information to the members of the community. It is not a surprise that at the conference, the session on education was the most difficult one to close: everyone had something to say. Thanks to Patrick Schmelzer, the policy officer of the European Commission Office, the issue of ‘our‘ children in Fushe Kosove was raised: RAE kids who are not allowed to go to school. We received promises to sort out this scandalous problem and we are going to follow up the conference with a meeting with the people who are in power to make changes. (Thanks again to Patrick!)
Last but not least, I would like to have a word for the mothers of these children. I can call it gender issue, but you all know, I am talking about women: ladies, who prepare the next generation for life. Lack of adequate data, and disaggregated data in particular makes it difficult to refer to statistics in Kosovo. However, the estimates are alarming. Globally it is said, women invest 90% of their income in their families (in contrast to men’s 33%) yet, less than 1% of RAE women are employed. A woman with seven years of education marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children, yet only 8% of RAE ladies completes primary school. Women are the most important role models in the society and if the situation of RAE ladies doesn’t change, the conditions of the next generation are predestined.
Unfortunately, the priorities of the Kosovan government are currently neither education, nor female employment and it is not allocating adequate funds for minorities. Still, I have hopes that conferences like this have a point: they gather people around a cause, invite communities into the government building, and with the good will of people present, policies can form and bad practices can be eliminated. And who knows, if the follow up meetings end with good results, Elhame, the two year old little sister of Gjelane will never know life without school.