THE INVISIBLE WOMEN
Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women are among the most vulnerable groups in our society and, historically, they have been treated as citizens of the lowest order. They face contempt, hostility and social and institutional discrimination on a daily basis. This research carried out by QIKA scrutinizes the inter-sectoral nature of challenges which women of these communities face and highlights the fact that they are particularly affected by poverty and exclusion because of the manifold discrimination they face on many levels; both as women, and as members of a marginalized ethnic group. Moreover, the tradition of early marriages only aggravates their risk to poverty, social exclusion and gender-based violence, as well as undermines opportunities for education, employment and independence.
“Business would suit me best as a profession, because, as a child, I would help my mother selling milk and cheese she would make from sheep and cows we used to have”, says Maja Paqanki, a 67-year-old egyptian woman from Gjakova, as she reminisced about her great desire for education.
This dream of hers never came true, because her father never allowed her to go to school. As a result, Maja did not attend a single day of school. At 15, she had already begun working in the textile factory Emin Duraku, alongside many young people of Gjakova, who also worked there.
When Maja turned 18, she decided to migrate to Germany for work, where her aunt was living and working as a cleaning lady in a private company. “At first, it was difficult, because I did not know reading and writing in Albanian, let alone German, but I had my aunt’s help who worked with me”, says Maja.
Several years later, Maja’s mother fell gravely ill and she was forced to return to Kosovo to take care of her. After battling with the illness for some time, her mother passed away and the burden of household and care for the family fell on Maja.
“As the eldest child, I took the biggest decision of my life: not to marry and commit my life to taking care of my father and my brothers and sisters, who were younger”, she says, as she explains that, despite these responsibilities, she returned to work in the factory because the money her father earned from cattle, was not enough to make a living.
Maja talks about how the decisions she made at that time, did not result in the best possible outcome. Her brothers and sisters married, and she remained alone with her younger brother that her father had left in her care. “Soon after my father passed away, I received a letter and, since I could not read, I showed the letter to my younger brother. When he read it to me and I found out what it was about, everything changed. The eldest brother had sued me for the property I had inherited from my father”, says Maja in a dejected voice. Despite all the sacrifices and difficulties, Maja is still fighting for her right to property, although her other brothers and sisters claim that the property belongs to the brothers.
Maja’s experiences, as those of most minority community women, display a psychosocial and structural trajectory, through which racism and discrimination have an impact in denying them their basic rights of enjoying the status of being state citizens.
Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians live in various areas of Kosovo and they give vital contributions in society through their traditions and culture. These communities are dispersed in 24 different municipalities, with a greater presence in municipalities such as Ferizaj, Fushe Kosova, Gjakova, Peja and Prizren.
Data from the latest census in 2011 show that there are 8,824 roma, 15,436 ashkali and 11,524 egyptians living in Kosovo. Thus, Roma represent 0.51% of Kosovo’s population, Ashkali 0.89% and Egyptians 0.66%. Nevertheless, it is considered that these figures do not represent the accurate demographic number of minority communities. This is due to failure in civil registration of all community members, failure to register deaths and population movements in relation to migration and repatriation.
There is a general tendency in the overall population to blame marginalized communities themselves for their situation. This tendency to blame leads to social segregation and further oppression of these groups.
Discrimination, illiteracy, unemployment and lack of social security have led to most of these community members living in margins of society. Largely, roma, ashkali and egyptian families do not enjoy even the basic public services. Neighborhoods where these communities are located, in general, have poor infrastructure, including roads, cleanliness and lighting. Because of serious economic difficulties, a substantial number of them live in improvised houses, which often do not meet basic living requirements. When it comes to roma women, discrimination is manifold and severe.
Poverty and violence
Elma Fetahu, a 43-year-old woman of the Roma community lives together with her husband and six children in a one-room hut with no windows, in Sefa neighborhood in Gjakova.
She was wed at 15 and bore two children. Due to family problems, Elma was forced to separate from her husband and children, and move back in with her parents.
“I returned to my parents’ house. These were very difficult moments for me, because I was leaving behind two small children, whom I abandoned against my wish. The pain was unbearable, so much so that I did not leave my room for days crying”, says Elma.
She later got a job as a cleaning lady in the hospital, because she had to earn a living, but also get to spend some time outside of the house.
“I was slowly getting used to my fate, and in trying to take my mind away from things that had happened to me, I decided to work and take care of myself, because lately I had neglected myself so much that I no longer recognized myself in the mirror”, says Elma.
At 25, she married for the second time and became a mother again.
“Now I work in a restaurant, I wash the dishes. My husband works as a caretaker in the cemetery. With the little money we earn, we try to satisfy the needs of our children, but shelter is still a big problem for us”, says Elma.
Nazmije Hasani, a 20-year-old Roma, living in 028 neighborhood in Fushe Kosova, talks about the dream she had of becoming a hairdresser, but after having married young and becoming a mother, she could not attend any school or any professional courses. She had her first child when she was just 13 years old and, now she has four other children.
“I did once go to the center for social work, to look for work, cleaning, or anything else that might be needed, but they told me they are not looking for workers and kicked me out. Then I told my husband I did not want to go out looking for work anymore because all I got is rejection and contempt”, says Nazmija.
Because of the high percentage of unemployment, a large number of women in neighborhoods of these communities in Fushe Kosova are forced to collect recycled waste such as tins, nylon, paper and plastic, in order to earn coins to buy food for a day. Sulltane Berisha, a Roma woman living in this neighborhood, says that she goes out every day to collect waste in waste containers, because she could not find another job. “When I went to look for work, they told me there is no work for us. There is no work for Roma”, says Sulltana.
Makfire Ilazi, 40 years old does the same work.
Most of the scrap collectors work long hours, with no gloves or any other protective tools. Long walks, heavy weights and spending long hours near waste containers directly endangers the health of these women. On the other hand, earnings from this type of work are extremely small. Normally, on a full day’s work, they earn not more than 5 euros, which barely covers the most basic expenses of their families for a single day.
A life overburdened with struggles for survival is often a big source of violence in a family. According to data obtained by QIKA from Kosovo Police, there were 241 reported cases of family violence from Roma community between 2015-2021, 239 from Ashkali community, and 160 from Egyptian community. Those affected the most from family violence are girls and women.
According to MICS data for 2020, 57.1% of women from Roma, Egyptian and Ashkali communities believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife. Asked when they thought violence was justified, 30.3% of women responded that violence is justified if women go out without permission from their husbands, 48.6% justified violence if they neglected their children, 30.5% if they argued with their husbands, 26.9% if women refused to have sexual intercourse with them, and 13.7% justified violence if the wife overcooked food served for dinner.
Limited access to health services
Marginalized groups and ethnic minority groups have far greater difficulties in accessing health services. This is due to unfavorable economic conditions, lack of information, lack of policies which facilitate the improvement of living conditions, etc.
According to data from the report on the Strategy for Inclusion of Roma and Ashkali Communities in Kosovo Society 2017-2021, the main barriers in utilizing primary healthcare services are financial, distance to healthcare buildings and long waiting hours. Thus, 79.5% of minority community members often do not visit healthcare professionals due to the inability of paying for medicines or treatment, 48.8% do not go to the doctor because of physical distance to facilities, 54.5% because of lack of transportation, while 49.6% of surveyed women stated that they avoided doctor visitations because of long waiting hours.
Girls and women from minority communities are more vulnerable when it comes to reproductive health, due to the prevalence of extreme poverty, lack of water and hygiene materials.
The stigma that affects women in general regarding reproductive health, the notion that they should be visited by a gynecologist only when having health issues, systematic racism that follows them in hospital rooms, are just some of the reasons that have only aggravated their reproductive health.
“Such were the circumstances, there was a woman that helped us give birth at home, and up to that point, I did not know if the child was a girl or a boy. Even when I had abortion, I did not go to the doctor because I did not have any problems”, says Fatime Krasniqi, a 59-year-old woman from the Egyptian community.
Meanwhile, the co-founder of organization The Ideas Partnership, Elizabeth Gowing, recalls experiences of accompanying Roma women to the hospital for gynecological check-ups, how they were discriminated against and were not treated with dignity. “I have very often accompanied women who decided to place spirals at the doctor, and during one of the cases, the doctor told the woman that she was too unclean to receive a spiral, whereas in other cases, the doctor shared gynecological details on women’s health with me, which violates confidentiality”, says Gowing.
Pre-natal and post-natal health is important but unfortunately, many of the women interviewed stated that they did not visit the doctor even after giving birth, with many of them giving birth at home, without any assistance from health professionals.
“After the birth of my little girl, who is now 6 years old, I did not visit the gynecologist anymore”, says Safete Hasanaj.
Although 94.1% of Roma, 99.0% of Ashkali and 98.1% of Egyptians have been visited at least once by a qualified healthcare professional before birth, the percentage of visits during pregnancy are much rarer. During month 4-5 of pregnancy, only 8.1% of Roma, 6.2% Ashkali and 9.8% of Egyptian women visited a health professional. The percentage of visits during months 6-7 of pregnancy varies from 8.4% in Roma, 0.0% in Ashkali and 1.3 percent in Egyptian women. Meanwhile, visits appear to lower significantly during month 8 of pregnancy, with data showing that only 1.3% of Egyptian and 0.9% of Ashkali have visited a doctor after month 8 of pregnancy. When it comes to post-natal visitations, 29.2 % of women from these communities visit a doctor a week following birth, while 63.1% never visit a doctor after giving birth.
The lack of inclusion in family planning and use of contraceptives, has often caused unwanted pregnancies, a higher number of children and abortions in women of communities.
“I don’t use protection because we can’t afford it, this is why I am careful not to get pregnant”, says Nazmije Hasani. This is not unique to Nazmije. Other women say that they visited the gynecologist only when giving birth, while most say that they do not know what contraceptives are or that they cannot afford to buy them.
The use of contraceptives differs, both in terms of ethnic belonging and level of education, as well as marital status. According to KSA data, published in 2014, the prevalence rate of contraceptive use indicated a trend in decline (from 15% in 2009 to 14% in 2013). The unmet need for family planning is 9% for women in general, and 18% for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women.
According to the study, 37.9% of girls and women who are married or cohabitating, did not use any contraceptive method, with the percentage being higher in rural areas (39.7%), when compared to urban areas (36.4%). The most featured method against pregnancy is the traditional withdrawal one with 49.4%, whereas other methods are used significantly less, among them spiral (3.1%), pills (2.3%), condoms for women (0.3%) and condoms for men (2.9%).
Moreover, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women are often victims of early marriages, with 12% of them marrying before the age of 15, whereas 43% of them are married or cohabitate with their partners at the age of 18. Early marriages are also a direct consequence of lack of education and inclusion of girls and women of minority communities in the labor market. Early marriages are often imposed upon by the family and family circles, forcing their girls to marry the moment they enter adolescence age.
Minushe Derri, an Egyptian woman aged 57, was forced to marry at age 16 against her wish, due to dire economic conditions. She remembers fighting against the decision, despite the fact she still saw herself as a child at the time.
“After finishing third grade, I wanted to continue school very much and, I still considered myself a child when my mother told me they would marry me off. With the childlike mind I had, I ran into the yard of the house and I started playing with mud, I became all dirty, hoping that my mother would give up on the idea and would not marry me off, and would understand that I was still a child and was not ready to be married. But it was in vain, my mother did not change her mind and, a month later, I became a bride for someone I did not know at all and whose name I did not know”, she says.
A similar fate befell Safete Hasanaj also, another Roma woman from Fushe Kosova, who says that early marriage was imposed on her because of conditions she lived under.
“After a difficult childhood, when my mother had passed away, when I was four years old and our father abandoned us, we stuck together with sisters and brothers and they took care of me. When all had got married, my father consented to take me in. Despite all my joy, I realized that he had other intentions in mind. He wanted to marry me off and benefit financially from the family I would be married into, and since I had no other choice because I was becoming a burden for my brother, I consented to marry, with the thought that, at least, I would be safe under the shelter of my husband”, she explains.
As a result of a high number of children and dire economic conditions, parents (fathers more frequently) force their daughters into marriage. On the other hand, due to lack of property ownership, education and employment, they are forced into these misogynistic and patriarchal arrangements. Therefore, many activists see awareness increase as a preventative measure against negative consequences of such marriages.
“Whenever we have discussions on early marriages and damages they cause, we try to include in the discussion all family members, not only girls”, says Xhulieta Devolli from the Network of Organizations of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Women of Kosovo.
Regarding the access to health services for girls and women of minority communities, Aida Morina from the Ministry of Health said that this ministry has carried out visits to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, but not specifically with a focus on the women of these communities.
“However, since the vaccination campaign against COVID-19 has been taking place in Kosovo for more than a year, the women of these communities have been among the targeted groups. Also, in cooperation with the municipalities, the women of these communities are part of the medical visits at home, where the medical team usually work on advising them on issues of health protection and prevention of various diseases”, says Morina in response to QIKA.
Away from school desks
Throughout all Kosovo, discrimination and non-inclusive educational systems systematically deprive children of minority communities from their right to education. According to MICS data of 2020, 15% of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children are left out of the education system in elementary and high school levels. On the other hand, regarding secondary high school level, this figure amounts to 21%. Even those who complete their registration are likely to drop out before completing their basic education, due to racism in schools and poor arrangements in meeting their needs. Many Roma children can be found in special schools and classes for children with disabilities, simply because of their language differences. Hence, there are enormous gaps of equality in quality of education received by children of marginalized communities, when compared with their peers from majority community.
This phenomenon constitutes only one of the dimensions which Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian girls deal with throughout their entire life cycle. Educational gaps for minority communities have another significant gender dimension. The percentage of girls from minority communities, who go on to be registered in school, is only 82.6 percent, compared with 98.4% of majority community girls.
These figures become even more dramatic when it comes to the level of secondary high school. The percentage of girls who attend high school in majority community is 90.4%, whereas this number is a mere 30.9% for minority community girls.
This drastic fall implies that, more often than not, the issue of low participation does not entirely lie in lack of registration, but also discontinuation of high school, in a word – dropping out. As any other social problem, school dropouts by minority community girls are not the consequence of a single factor, but a combination of factors; early marriages, religious and race-based discrimination, unfavorable financial and health conditions – are only a few of the factors.
Many girls from these communities live in poor families, which creates barriers for their access to education. With limited family income, many families cannot afford respective costs for sending their children to school, particularly girls. It has become increasingly common in many of these families for girls to drop out of school, in order to help the economic activities of the family.
“Poverty is a factor in early marriages because parents marry their daughters off just to rid themselves of a consumer from their family economy. Quite often, parents have told me that they do not have the luxury to send their daughter to school, because when they go out during the day to beg, they create a source of income, whereas when they attend school, this does not happen”, says Elizabeth Gowing, as she explains the link between poverty and multi-layered discrimination minority community girls face.
The provision of care towards other family members also plays a significant role in understanding the phenomenon of school drop-outs. From an early age, societies throughout the world embed the illusion in girls that their role in life is often, if not always, within the walls of the house, carrying the burden of care and unpaid work.
“I attended school for five years, but then I dropped out because my parents were working, so, being the eldest of children, it fell on me to care for my brothers and sisters”, says Hatiqe Krasniqi from Fushe Kosova. Similarly, Elma attended school only until fourth grade, when her mother, who used to work, forced her to drop out of school in order to take care of household duties, prepare food and wash clothes.
“I was frequently not focused during classes, because my mind was preoccupied with what I had to do at home, whether I had forgotten to do something, had the clothes washed well and many other things which, for me as a child, were a heavy burden”, she says, as she talks about those four years at school.
Elizabeth Gowing, who worked for 13 years with Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo, speaks about her efforts in getting children to attend school. Through The Ideas Partnership organization, she helped in school registration, but this turned out to be extremely challenging for girls to continue school because of early marriages.
“In 2011, we managed to register 62 children (aged 9 to 14) in schools, and two years later, the majority of those dropping out were girls, who were subjected to early marriages”, she explains.
In numerous cases, it is the parents who encourage their daughters to marry when they are still children, hoping that their marriage will ease the financial burden of the family. On the other hand, the effect of early marriages, entwined with the lack of safety in public spaces, often leads to social isolation of girls. According to the MICS research, over 52% of women from these communities aged 15-49, feel unsafe when walking alone after dark in their neighborhoods. This isolation affects their education and professional development.
“Early marriages are a challenge, not only for girls, but also for boys who marry at an early age, but the difference is that boys are not forced to put their public life aside, whereas girls have to”, says Elizabeth.
Many Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children face enormous challenges in school also because the language of instruction is not their mother tongue. Another significant disadvantage, when compared to other children, is the fact the students from minority communities have to attend classes in a school which is steeped in the culture of the majority. This can make the school be experienced as a foreign environment and often hostile. Religion is also a significant aspect of this phenomenon, which is frequently used as a cause for discrimination. A good example here is the experience of Nazmije Hasani, 20 years of age, who was denied the right to attend school in “Selman Riza” school in Fushe Kosova.
“I used to wear a head cover, and that is why they did not allow me to register in school. Out of my great desire to attend school, I removed the cover, but again they barred me”. She says it was not her parents who stopped her, but the repeated rejections she got from the school leadership.
On the other hand, low participation of girls from minority communities in school can, to a large degree, be attributed to institutions with low or inexistent quality, which are supposed to provide support for their development, care and education. “There is often hesitancy from the side of institutions to find a way to register children from minority communities in school”, says Gowing.
QIKA has contacted the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation regarding the issue of school drop-outs by minority communities, but has not received any response to the inquiry.
It is beyond doubt that education of girls is a precondition in fighting poverty and inequality. Education empowers and transforms women. This enables them to break the traditional cycle of exclusion, which keeps them inside houses and detached from public life.
There is a clear need for greater gender awareness, both in policy-making, but also in provision of public services for women and minority communities in general, in order to address the marginal position that many roma girls and women continue to have, both in their own communities, but also in society at large.
It is of great importance to encourage public involvement of these women, in order for them to create and develop their political voice. Through learning about historical and structural injustices, they would empower themselves to overcome situations of injustice in public and private level.
Registration of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in civil registers
Registration of citizens in civil registers is a precondition for availing with and utilizing human rights. Legal identity is provided through a birth certificate, which is necessary for an individual to have access to state assets and be provided with appropriate security. Therefore, registration is the first step in making sure that individuals feel equal before the law, which defends and guarantees their rights at all costs.
Registration and birth certificates are also a legal proof regarding the birthplace of a person and family relations of that person and, consequently, are necessary for obtaining a passport. In adulthood, the birth certificate can be necessary to benefit from social assistance, find a job, buy or inherit a property, as well as vote.
The registration of births in Kosovo is currently regulated by the Law on Registers of Civil Status and Family Law. A birth certificate is required in order to have access to healthcare, education and employment, social welfare and pension, registration of property and a series of other services. All births carried out in the Kosovo University Clinical Center, the main hospital and other Kosovo regional hospitals, can be registered free of charge within hospital buildings.
When interviewing women of minority communities, most of them say that their births, or some of their births, took place at home, even though all those births were in order as it pertains to legal identity. However, when asked if they knew people in their circle who were not registered in civil registers and do not possess documents, most of them said they knew someone who was not registered.
“There is a case in our neighborhood, where parents abandoned their child and, now the grandmother takes care of the child. Hence, the child is not registered and the grandmother cannot register the child because parents never showed up again”, says Hatiqe Krasniqi.
Failures in civil registration of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community members is an enormous impediment for them and, at the same time, contributes further more in the discrimination they experience each day. According to the Law on Social Assistance Schemes, in order to qualify for social assistance, all applicant family members must be equipped with Kosovo documents. Although there are no accurate data on the number of members of these communities who are not registered, according to assessments from the study of 2015, it is estimated that there are around 600 members who are not registered, while the study by ASK found that 20% of children do not possess birth certificates. Reasons for failure to register vary, including procedures when children are not born in the hospital, poverty and illiteracy, lack of registration throughout generations, lack of awareness on the obligation to register and the rights/benefits from registration, as well as living in non-formal apartments. Lack of information on registration procedures appears to be another reason for failing to register children, since 40% of unregistered child custodians have emphasized that they are not aware about registration procedures of newborn children.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs did not respond to inquiries by QIKA regarding the issue in question.
The risks related to failure of civil registration vary largely, beginning with access to health, to the risk of trafficking. Registration of birth and, especially birth certificate, is a lifelong passport on recognition of rights which, among others, may be necessary to be able to vote, marry, or acquire formal employment. Additionally, registration is necessary to obtain a driver’s license, open a bank account, have access to pension, as well as register descendants. It is also of crucial importance to ensure inheritance and property rights, especially for women.
Registration plays another key role in protecting children from labor exploitation. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are more than 168 million children in the world who are exposed to labor exploitation, out of which 85 million do hazardous work, or work which is likely to harm their health and safety, something which should be banned for anyone under the age of 18. While legislation which determines the legal minimum age for employment is important, it will have little or no impact if measures for proving children’s age are not available. As such, registration of birth and availability of a birth certificate are a precondition in preventing and effectively eliminating child labor, including here its most severe forms.
Registration of birth can also contribute in eliminating and preventing the practice of early and forced marriages. The Committee on Eliminating Discrimination against Women and other bodies require from states to register births and marriages, as a tool to facilitate monitoring of marriage age and to support effective implementation of laws on minimal marital age.
Children who are not registered are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and illegal adoption and sale. The legal invisibility of unregistered children makes them more prone to disappearance and exploitation, going thus under the radar of authorities. This is particularly true when trafficking takes place beyond international borders; there is no proof for the existence of the child, therefore national authorities have no means of tracking the case.
Moreover, when they are not registered, illegal purchase and sale for interstate adoption becomes possible through falsified documents and production of false birth certificates. Children, whose birth was not registered are particularly targeted. The report of the General Assembly (UNHCR, 2014) on sale, prostitution and pornography of children states that children, whose birth was registered, are less likely to be sold or adopted illegally, due to possession of proof of having parents and were thus protected by the law.
Authors: Riola Morina dhe Medinë Dauti
This article was originally produced for and published by Center for Information, Critique, and Action- QIKA. It has been re-published here with permission.
The article was produced as part od the project Invisible women, supported by the Reporting Diversity Network 2.0.
Photo: Mary Long/Shutterstock