Mired in poverty, many of Albania’s rural children struggle for access to education
Nga BUJAR KAROSHI*
June 1 is around the corner, and Emrahi is happy that spring has come, so he can work and bring some income to his family. A 15-year-old boy from a small village in Albania’s eastern Dibra region, 180 kilometers from Tirana, he has no understanding of the significance of the first day of June. To him, the International Day for the Protection of Children is just a date on a calendar.
To children of his age elsewhere and others, the date marks awareness against violence, abuse, child labor and for the rights of children as well as celebration of childhood – and education.The right to an education is paramount, guaranteed not only by the Albanian Constitution, but also by a considerable number of international conventions of which Albania is a signatory, child rights activists say.
Yet children in Albania’s rural areas, often very impoverished, have little to no support for their basic right to an education.
According to official statistics from the Ministry of Education, more than 1,400 children from all over Albania have dropped out of the compulsory elementary school system, grades one to nine. Most of these kids come from impoverished families. They are denied the fundamental right to an education. However, the statistical number in the Dibra region is currently zero, which, in fact, is not supported by reporting on the ground.
Illiteracy is a bigger burden than poverty
The Hoxha family is poor. They live in the village of Laçes, 10 kilometers north of the city of Peshkopia, Dibra’s administrative centre. The family consists of six members and they all live on a single source of income, a monthly pension of 9,000 leks (63 euros). From afar, the family’s home looks no more than a cot for livestock. It is build with mud bricks, like many others in the area and covered with tiles. Once you get closer, you realize the door is made of crossed planks nailed together. The windows, too, are made of other small planks, instead of glass, wrapped up with transparent plastic paper. When you notice the door and the window, you have the impression that no one lives there and the planks have been put to confine anyone from entering the premises. A pipe sticks out from one of the windows, serving as a chimney for the stove. A granary stands right next to the house. If you peek inside, you can hardly make out a few remaining dried corn cobs, perhaps the only source of food left to feed the family for the days ahead.
The two grown up daughters, who used to get good grades at school, say they have not been able to continue their studies due to financial problems.
Emrahi, the eldest son and only 15, dropped out during the 11th grade. He couldn’t afford the books and says he is ashamed to show up at class without them.
Meanwhile, he is still able to read, but has forgotten how to write. He can do a few basic math calculations, after contemplating the numbers in his mind for quite a long time. He can’t remember the last time he wrote something on a piece of paper. But he works. He works mowing fields and gets paid 1,000 leks (7.2 euros) for a tenth of a hectare.
Arif is the youngest of them all. He should be attending the fifth grade this year, but he flunked one year and is not going to school. The clothes he wears were given to him by relatives from Tirana. They often bring clothes for the whole family. A visitor presents Arif with a children’s’ book of tales. He flips through the pages and it is clear he is only looking at the illustrations. When he is asked to read something from the book, he stops, and a smiling, looks at his buddies, 14-year-old Kevin and 11-year-old Deni, as if to ask for their help: “What should I do?” But neither Kevin, nor Deni, two kids living in the same neighborhood, can help him. They can’t read either.
A book for pre-school children shows up, titled, “Getting ready for the first grade.” The letters are huge, but Arif cannot read any better than before. “Green pepper,” he reads as “apple.” “Pig” becomes a “horse.” He figures out the word “banana” by recognizing the fruit’s drawing in the book.
He tries to read with the illustration covered, but he cannot. He spells the letter “A” after struggling for a while. However, he cannot spell any of the other letters selected at random — “C”, “M”, “L”, “K”, are just symbols to him.
Like Arif, his other two friends, the brothers Deni and Kevin, respectively 11 and 14 years old, have dropped out of school since the third grade.
Their education has gone neglected. Their parents have never been to the Directorate of Education, whether at the municipality level or elsewhere to ask for help, so that they can provide an education to their children.
“My kids are intelligent, but we can’t afford to buy them school books,” Arif’s mother says.
Bilal, his father, says has never stepped inside the premises of an institution to ask if there are any opportunities available to provide his children with free books. The kids’ teacher and other school officials have never visited them at home.
When Bilal is told that according to the Albanian Constitution and international conventions, his children have the right to a free education and, according to the law, he could be punished for not sending them to school, the father says he would like to help, but it is clear he lacks a full understanding of his children’s education needs when alludes to “convention” as a foundation that could help him financially. He says he suffers from a form of epilepsy and the family owns a small plot of land of only 0.7 hectares, much of which is used to plant wheat, or “enough to live hand-to-mouth,” he says.
Civil society volunteers act, institutions keep silent
According to Haki Përnezha, a teacher at the Fushe Alie Elementary School, there are families that either don’t bring their children to school, or take them off school during certain periods of the year. He counts around 20 children in his village who have stopped going to school due to economic reasons. He adds that other families risk getting their children off school because they cannot even afford to buy them books.
Zamira Gjeleshi is a teacher at another school in the region, Maqellara High School. She has been working as a teacher for 19 years and has worked as an activist while getting a Master’s Degree in education management and leadership, as well as is currently working a PhD on the subject.
“In 2008,” Zamira says, “I worked as a volunteer for Close to the Children organization and during that time we counted 96 children who had abandoned school in the Maqellara area alone, most of them girls.”
Some of the reasons behind the situation were the reform of the education system from 8+4 to 9+3 (elementary + high school), emigration, misadministration of schools, the fact that the schools are often very far from home, etc. However, through a close collaboration between families, local authorities, and education institutions, the number was considerably reduced and different services, such as free transport and psychological care, were introduced in elementary schools.
World Vision, an international charity organization that works with children to protect and safeguard them from all kinds of abuse and discrimination, has opened office in Dibra in 2008. Back in 2001, the Ministry of Education and Science allowed World Vision to work with schools across the country. From then on, the organization has worked non-stop with children who have dropped out of school due to poverty, health issues, or other social problems.
According to the organization’s 2012 annual report, around 4,000 kids are being monitored in three different communes in the Dibra region: Kastriot, Tomin and Maqellara. According to one of the volunteers who work with World Vision, in all three counties there are currently 20 children who don’t attend school because they cannot afford to pay for the costs associated with the education and another four children who are suffering from long-term illnesses which affects their ability to physically go to school. A year ago, six kids with disabilities were given wheelchairs and now they can move more easily.
Zamira talks about a child in Maqellara who suffers from autism. The child has been denied attendance in the school of Maqellara, but also in a specialized school in Durrës. In another family of the same village, there are three children with speech and hearing disabilities. A 9-year-old boy, who cannot speak or hear, will repeat second grade. His 10-year-old brother feels psychologically bullied and keeps away from his peers. Zamira also talks about a child suffering from asthma, who cannot go to school because of his illness. He receives no reimbursed medicaments and no social assistance, she says.
The Directorate of Education in Dibra County offers no statistics on children who cannot go to school, and on functional illiterates who manage to graduate from elementary schools. One of the officials says that statistics will be available by the end of the year, but not earlier, because the staff is busy preparing for the end of school-year and for maturity exams that high school graduates should take to attend higher education.
The head of the regional Directorate of Education did not answer repeated requests for an interview.
Official data on school dropouts doesn’t reflect reality
Data from the Ministry of Education and Science (MAS) provide low figures regarding children who have dropped out of school, while it is difficult to find statistics on illiterate children.
MAS official data on school dropouts deals mainly with children from Roma and Egyptian communities, but provides little on kids who are just disadvantaged because they are poor.
Statistics show that the number of children from the marginalized ethnic or cultural communities is zero in the regions of Dibra and Bulqiza, while national statistics show that 2,916 children, grades one to nine, attend school on a national level, with 60 percent of them below the fifth grade. In October 2013, the total number was 3,370 Roma and Egyptian children, grades one through nine, or 65 children less than a year ago, school year 2011-2012. The school year 2013-2014 saw 4,200 Roma and Egyptian children enrolled in grades one through 12, or 150 more than a year ago.
MAS prefers to use percentages, rather than numbers, creating the perception of a smaller problem than the one that actually exists. However, when these percentages are converted into numbers, the situation becomes more striking. At the end of January 2011, school dropouts were recorded at 0.39 percent, while it stood at 0.48 percent in December 2010. In December 2009 and June 2009, respective figures were 0.53 percent and 0.81 percent. Translated into numbers, 1,600 children were recorded to have abandoned school by January 2011. In 2009, the total number was 2,300.
MAS has initiated the “Second Chance” program through its Directive no.34 of Dec. 8, 2004, aiming to reintegrate in the educations system all children who have dropped out of school or are forced to live in isolation due to blood feuds. According to this program, 31 one new classes were initiated all over Albania during school year 2010-2011 alone, where over 600 students were able to continue their studies.
Over 66 percent of them came from the Roma and Egyptian communities. In 2013, 917 children were able to continue their studies thanks to the program, with over 300 of them coming from communities other than the Roma and Egyptians. Unfortunately, the statistics provide no specific data on children from poor families or victims of blood feuds.
MAS has created a national network to monitor school dropouts. Apart from gathering data, the network defines the measures to prevent and reduce the number of school dropouts. Starting in 2011, Roma children are provided free textbooks for compulsory public education, however, such assistance is not provided to children from other, non-Roma Albanian families who are just poor.
In October 2013, a MAS directive set in place the modalities on how to deal with children who have dropped out of school and who have not attended at least two grades of elementary education. The directive states the rights of children of eight or older, who have yet to register to school, have not attended second grade, or are repeating it. The directive states the registration procedures, the obligations that need to be fulfilled by institutions and by Regional Education Directorates and Offices, the role of schools and teachers, etc.
“The school officials, in collaboration with the responsible teacher, organize the drafting of individual programs to teach and learn,” the directive states.
MAS data on children quitting school due to blood-feuds are almost irrelevant. Non-governmental organizations speak of around 600 children who cannot attend school because of blood-feuds, but MAS data mentions only 13 cases in Shkodra, seven of which are females, and 2 more cases in Malësia e Madhe.
Good laws, poor implementation
According to Article 57, Point 1 of the Albanian Constitution, “Everyone has the right to an education.” Point 2 states that “Compulsory school education is guaranteed by law.” Point 5 of the same article states that, “Compulsory education and general high school education offered in public schools is free.”
In addition, there is Article No. 7952, “On the Pre-University Education System ” (approved in 1998 and amended through Article No. 8387 of the same year), which is based on the Albanian Constitution and sanctions all principles and standards stated by international agreements on human rights, particularly when it deals with children rights to an education.
Article 1 emphasizes that “In the Republic of Albania, education is a national priority. It is realized in accordance with the sanctioned principles by the current legislation, grounded in the traditional achievements of our national school and applied in accordance with International Agreements and Treaties ratified by the Republic of Albania. Education respects the rights of children and adults, as sanctioned by these documents.”
The law, apart from sanctioning in its articles the right to a compulsory free pre-university public education, it also sets the parents’ obligation to send their children to school, forbids child labor, etc., and also sanctions “the right of children with special needs to a free special public education and the state’s obligation to gradually ensure the necessary conditions toward such end, and the right of children in special circumstances to a compulsory education by private means and close to their families.
Today, globally, education is considered as one of the most sanctioned human rights as far as international law is concerned. The Convention on the Rights of Children, approved by the United Nations on November 1998, obligates member states to respect education standards as a fundamental right of children. This convention as special articles concerning children with special education needs. In addition, from 1948 to 2006, more than ten international conventions on the rights of children have been passed, and Albania is a signatory to all of them. Meanwhile, in 1994, UESCO approved the Salamanca Statement, where, in the second paragraph, it is states: “Each child has the fundamental right to an education and must be given the opportunity to achieve and sustain an acceptable level of education.”
Educational needs as important as food
Despite the laws and regulations on school dropouts, public action has dealt mainly with Roma and Egyptian communities, as well as with children forced to isolation because of blood feuds, activists say. Almost nothing has been done in regards to cases where children drop out of school due to economic reasons and poverty.
NGOs say they find it difficult to work with this group of children, because of the geographical spread and diversity of needs involved. Even though the law on pre-university education aims to ensure the constitutional right to an education for all, this is not guaranteed to all children in the territory of the Republic of Albania.
Emrahi, Arifi, Kevin and Deni look set for now to continue their childhood away from school. They often fall asleep hungry, because food is missing, but they constantly suffer the hunger derived from lacking an education.
The Ministry of Education has experimented with a “school with meals” in the Korça District. A similar school in Dibra, but also in other districts, would save these four kids, as well as many hundreds more, from illiteracy. And perhaps, activists hope, one of them will not remain just another statistic, but will grow to become somebody in his or her life, able to give something back to this country.
*Bujar Karoshi is a journalist participating in the Human Rights Reporting Project of the Tirana Centre for Journalistic Excellence (TCJE.org). This article is published as part of the training and reporting project. For more information: http://tcje.org/en/projects/human-rights-reporting/
** All photos by Bujar Karoshi.