Access to education--even to simple primary schooling--is severely limited for some young Bosnians, and girls are at a particular disadvantage.
SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina-- In the capital, elementary schools, secondary schools, and especially universities are bursting at the seams with students. But just over an hour's drive northwest of Sarajevo, near Vlasic Mountain, some elementary school children are being deprived of even primary education. Most of them are girls.
A recent article published in the weekly Dani featured a first-hand account of girls from the village of Vukotici, on Vlasic Mountain, who were not allowed to attend elementary school after the fourth grade.
According to a 2003 report by UNICEF, the United Nations' children's agency, the Vlasic story reveals a trend that might be a potential, hidden problem for Bosnia.
Zivica Abadzic, general secretary of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia, says that female education is especially neglected in rural areas, where poor families opt to send boys rather than girls to school.
"Male education is affirmed, while girls remain in the family circle to help out on the farm, and in this sense get ready for the future roles [expected of them]: the roles of housewife and mother," she said.
The most recent Helsinki Committee report for Bosnia, published in January, alleges that "parents are even willing to pay fines or to go to prison [for not sending their children to school] because according to their personal convictions--stereotypes--they do not want to educate their children, particularly female children or children with special needs."
Belma Becirbasic, the reporter for Dani, says that in many of the families in Vukotici that she has interviewed, the father did all the talking and the girls sat and listened, preparing for the future roles that Abadzic describes.
"'She is female, she can get married and be good around the house,' was their reaction," Becirbasic related. "These girls would like to continue with school, but nobody is asking them, and that's what's bad."
Azra Junuzovic, an education officer at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), believes that in some regions parents undervalue--or do not value--formal education, particularly if they themselves never attended or completed primary schooling.
However, Becirbasic says that "In that village [Vukotici], most of the older women didn't finish elementary school, but they are aware that their girls should be educated."
Becirbasic said that the women simply didn't have a say in family business.
"There is a social attitude that the man has to be the one to feed the family," says Klelija Balta, a gender program manager with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), adding that it was up to the family, as the basic social unit, to stop spreading gender stereotypes.
This general unwillingness to send girls to school is compounded by poverty. In a country where 60 percent of the population is estimated to be on the brink of poverty, parents often fall back on stereotypes that might not guide their actions in more prosperous circumstances.
But it is not only families that encourage discrimination against girls. Bogdan Stojadinovic, who monitors gender issues at the Gender Center in Sarajevo, says that discrimination can be found in elementary-school textbooks.
In response to his complaints that "not everything should be written in the male gender and that women authors were neglected and so were women as [public] figures," some revisions have been made in individual textbooks. However, Stojadinovic believes more needs to be done and that the federal education authorities should thoroughly review textbooks.
A DYSFUNCTIONAL SYSTEM
Around 4 percent of Bosnian children have never attended school. A Helsinki Committee report indicates that 94 percent of children are currently at school. But reliable numbers are hard to come by: the last national census dates back to 1991, and some children aren't even registered at birth. Nor is the number of school dropouts known accurately, since there is no tracking mechanism.
When asked, an assistant to the education minister of the Zenica-Doboj canton, Rasim Bajric, said he had no information to prove that children weren't attending schools.
"I don't know what information I could give you when I don't even have information that our children aren't going to school," Bajric said.
In that type of vacuum, the municipal and cantonal ministries that oversee schools often overlook the rise in the number of girls being deprived of elementary schooling, as well as the broader problem of non-attendance.
A UNDP Human Development report from 2003 estimates that 2 percent (or around 300 to 400 children a year) drop out from grades one to five in Bosnia. The main reason cited is poverty.
"Families that live in isolated regions, far away from the closest school, are often reluctant to send their children to schools, especially where the cost of transportation isn't covered, and where getting to school is dangerous," says the OSCE's Azra Junuzovic. "Research done by the World Bank showed that on average, urban populations attend schools for two years longer than rural populations."
The dangers mentioned by Junuzovic are also cited by Balta. In her work with women in rural areas, Balta found a lack of traffic lights and other dysfunctional or absent basic infrastructure were a factor in children not going to school.
Becirbasic, who interviewed girls now 13, 14, and 15 years old who were forced to drop out of school, found that a lack of money or means of traveling to school was a factor. But she says she left with the impression that some had left school because of their fathers' convictions.
RETURNEES AND MINORITIES
Girls are not the only group that is failing in significant numbers to enter the classroom. Others are the children from ethnic minorities and children of parents who have returned to their homes since the war ended.
For them, poverty is a major influence, even though primary education is free. Research conduced by UNICEF--mainly among minorities or returnees--found that 80 percent of parents said that they couldn't provide their children with the school supplies they needed. UNICEF found that the average family has to spend more than a fourth of their average yearly income to supply children with clothes and school supplies.
Junuzovic said that children who are behind schedule also have difficulties fitting in because they are often not provided the support they would need to catch up, such as extra hours of tuition.
Even registration is a problem, since parents have to show birth certificates and proof of medical insurance, for example.
Beyond that, says Junuzovic, "the lack of opportunity to use their own language and alphabet during classes, poorly adjusted teaching material ... or inappropriate school symbols--can be an obstacle in their enrollment."
The government has flagged a special action plan to provide minorities with textbooks in their own language. But there are none yet. The need is particularly acute for Romani children. According to the Helsinki Committee report, 70 percent of Romani children in Bosnia have never attended school. After Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, the Roma are the largest ethnic group in Bosnia.
THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS
If education is to be extended to include more children in the countryside, more girls, and more children from disadvantaged groups, "the state has to create a different atmosphere and include the possibility of alternative education," the Helsinki Committee's Abadzic believes.
Some educational authorities, for example the Una-Sana canton, are actively working together with Save the Children Norway to develop a strategy to boost attendance.
For Abadzic, one element in a solution would be for the state to "make it possible for girls and women to attend evening schools." These are "very rare" in Bosnia, he says, "and mostly organized through international donations and by NGOs."
The UNDP's Klelija Balta believes there needs to be greater public-awareness and "direct contact" with parents. "The state is responsible for educating the people; we have a strong non-governmental sector, and we should take advantage of all possibilities."
One example of cooperation is an initiative by the UNDP and Dani to help girls in rural areas. They hope to reduce the impact of poverty by tapping companies and individuals for money. But part of the challenge is to work out at what point poverty ceases to be a factor, and the initiative therefore includes a survey of parents' attitudes about educating their daughters.
At all levels of the educational system, Bosnia faces a challenge. Only 79.3 percent of Bosnians enroll in secondary education, according to the latest UNICEF Innocenti Social Monitor on economic growth and child poverty. This is one of the lowest rates in the post-communist world. Only 19.2 percent of children go on to attend university, though that is enough to stretch capacity.
The scale of the problem of non-attendance is significant. Bosnia is a young country--the Helsinki Committee estimates that one-third of the population is 18 or younger--and so the effects of non-attendance are particularly pronounced. Bosnia is, of course, poor as well and it can ill afford an under-educated workforce. Balta believes illiteracy and poor education are so critical that, if the trends start to worsen sharply, Bosnia might even not be able to join the EU.
And, in a country where women account for a huge 60 percent of the population, female illiteracy is already an economic obstacle for Bosnia.
The UNDP's Human Development report is stark in its warnings about the effects of continued inequality in education, employment, and other areas of life, arguing that the result will be greater poverty. Balta points out that inequality and poverty will make women all the more vulnerable to trafficking.
"In a sense," Balta charges, "we are diminishing Bosnia's capacity and possibility to produce quality from quantity."
Mirna Skrbic is a TOL correspondent in Sarajevo.
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