Poverty, disillusionment, and feuds are keeping an increasing number of children away from the classroom in Albania. Also in Russian. by Artan Puto 20 April 2006
TIRANA, Albania | Albania is one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe, and in many ways it has coped poorly with the fall of socialism. Among the most critical problems have been the decline of the country’s education system and the increasing number of children who simply do not attend school.
It’s a far cry from the days of communism, when it was rare to see children on the street during school hours. During that time a network of preschools reached throughout the country, and the attendance rate for older children was 99 percent.
Now on some streets it’s a common sight to see children begging, selling goods, or performing menial jobs.
BEFORE AND AFTER
Preschools, which serve children younger than 6, have taken the greatest hit. Under communism, 3,174 preschools served about 130,000, or about 57 percent, of eligible children. In numerical terms, it was a considerable accomplishment.
But with the fall of socialism, the regime changed and funding was cut. Government funds went only for compulsory education, with preschools left out of the picture. Preschool coverage fell to 34 percent in 1992, recovering slowly to reach an estimated 48.8 percent in 2005, according to UNICEF’s national file for Albania.
According to the Ministry of Education, there are now 1,573 kindergartens functioning in Albania. Three hundred thirty-four are in purpose-built facilities, often rehabilitated following years of neglect; others are in rooms set aside for them in primary schools or in other types of facilities not purpose-built. In 2005, 75,766 children attended kindergarten in Albania, according to the ministry.
The slow recovery in enrollment, however, conceals persistent differences among regions and income levels. The problem is especially acute in the north and northeast, where poverty is endemic and social pressures in highly conservative communities restrict activity outside the home and deter children’s, especially girls’ attendance.
Statistics for older children tell a more optimistic story, but education experts, including some in the Education Ministry, widely question the figures.
In a 2004 report by the Center for Democratic Education, a Tirana-based organization supported by UNICEF, during the 1980s attendance in the compulsory eight years of schooling, for children 6 to 14 years old, reached 99 percent. From 1990 to 2000, the average dropout rate was nearly 3.7 percent, peaking at 6.3 percent during the 1991–1992 school year, according to the Education Ministry’s information and statistics office.
Since then, the office reports that the dropout rate has fallen, to 1.2 percent in the 2003–2004 school year, of a total of 491,141 students in what is now a nine-year compulsory education system. In the most recent school year, 2004–2005, the dropout rate was 0.9 percent of 474,637 students, but education officials question the reliability of their own statistics, citing the domestic and external emigration of the population and the lack of identity papers for Albanian citizens.
But the official dropout rate, whatever it is, does not include those children who effectively drop out by attending classes but not performing. A UNICEF survey in 2004 suggests that more 100,000 students fall into this category.
LOOKING AT THE CAUSES
According to the center, the most significant factors pushing the dropout rate upward are poverty, trafficking, and blood feuds.
Poverty, closely linked to trafficking, touches thousands of Albanian families, urban and rural. Official statistics say that 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day, with 17 percent living on $1 per day.
Poverty is most prevalent in the rural areas and suburbs of the big towns. Here many people, moving from the most remote and poor northern regions, find it difficult to integrate and to cope with the higher cost of living. They rely on their children’s labor for money they need to survive.
Trafficking is most widespread among poor children, orphans, or those with only one parent.
Blood feuds force some children to remain locked up at home in order to avoid revenge from rival families. These children grow into illiterate adults, and in cases where they return to school, they often present severe psychological problems. This phenomenon is more common in the northern areas of the country and affects thousands of people. These children are often missing from the statistics. According to the Ministry of Education, the official number of children missing some part of their compulsory education due to blood feuds is 104.
In 2001, a nongovernmental organization called Development of Education, in collaboration with UNICEF, conducted a study into the reasons why students drop out in the region of Durres, the main Albanian port, 42 kilometers west of Tirana. Durres is the second-largest municipality in the country, with 315,000 residents, six towns and 104 villages. The group looked at the experience of 44 schools and identified four main reasons why some students stop attending school.
The largest single problem was families with their own problems or those who did not emphasize the value of education. About 30 percent of dropouts studied came from such an environment.
Alienation from the school system was a factor in 29 percent of cases, poverty in 26 percent, and “other,” such as family movement or attempts to keep children safe from public disorder, accounted for the remainder.
BRINGING THEM BACK
To fight the causes of dropping out, the Ministry of Education, with support from UNICEF and in collaboration with Development of Education, has started to implement a novel approach to teaching in the regions of Tirana, Shkodra, Dibra, Korca, and Gjirokastra. More than 60 schools and 5,000 students have taken part in the project, which seeks to involve students more in the learning process, leaving behind the traditional passive model of teaching and learning.
As for preschoolers, Linda Bushati, an early-childhood specialist with UNICEF’s office in Tirana, said her organization has five-year programs targeted to children in poor or remote regions and minority areas. “An important objective is the integration of children who have dropped out or who cannot attend school,” Bushati said. “Among preschool children, up to 3 years old, only 10 percent have access to the education system, while 48 percent of children 3 to 6 years old do attend.”
Bushati said UNICEF has set up a community-based program to reach children in marginalized areas. “UNICEF has offered alternative education in the northern areas. Houses have been adapted to serve as kindergartens, social centers, and preschools. Forty-three such preschool centers have been opened in the suburbs of Tirana, and more than 2,500 children have benefited from them. Research has shown that children who attend such centers have fewer cases of childhood diseases and do better in the first grade.”
Bushati says, “The main reason for dropping out for Albanian children is poverty, while for Roma children poverty is compounded by discrimination.”
Fatmir Bezati, a specialist in compulsory and special education at the Ministry of Education, said the ministry is on the way to adopting measures to pay teachers more. In addition, Bezati said, “The ministry has built up a number of new schools and has enlarged the existing ones. As a result, classes are not as crowded as before. We have also built new laboratories in the big schools.”
Bezati said the ministry, in collaboration with the Korca-based foundation Help for Children and UNICEF, also carried out a project in the southern and central parts of the country to try to reintegrate children ages 6 to 12 who have left school. As part of the program, social workers provided the children’s families with food and medicine so their children would not need to work. More than 50 percent of those involved were Roma.
The ministry has also ordered schools this academic year to accept Roma children who do not have birth certificates, a document often missing among the Roma community, Bezati said.
Further, during the 2004–2005 school year, the ministry introduced a counseling service for preschool children who have dropped out of school. In addition, a project called “Second Chance” has been implemented to help children of families in blood feuds to attend school. It opens classes in village houses and gathers children who do not go to school for fear of blood-feud revenge.
ON THE STREETS
But adding preschools and changing teaching practices are hardly enough to combat the specter of small children working in the streets when they should be in school. Forced child labor constitutes the most flagrant violation of the rights of children in Albania. Advocates from the Center for the Protection of the Rights of Children, an Albanian organization, are pushing for tougher laws and better enforcement against those who force children into such work, according to a recent report in the Tirana-based daily Shqip
“The lack of appropriate laws for prohibiting the economic exploitation of children risks turning children’s labor into a more dangerous crime than trafficking, because it is left unpunished and it is carried out in the whole territory of the country,” says the report.
The child-protection group’s report estimates that more than 5,000 children in Albania are exploited by adults, frequently their own parents. They are also used to smuggle drugs. “Labor in the street has created a market of drug smuggling in small quantities,” the group’s report states, and it argues that “The consequences of children’s involvement in illegal labor at an early age might have not only individual implications, but national ones as well.” Many of these uneducated children will no doubt need social assistance in the future, with a heavy cost for the entire society, the group warns.
Labor Minister Kosta Barka wrote in a 5 April article for the Tirana-based daily Shekulli
that his ministry has started working to set up a State Committee for Children that would address children’s rights issues and make policy.
The ministry and the International Labor Organization’s child-labor program have launched an effort in Tirana, Korca, and Berat to identify children working informally on the streets, in the fields, and in markets, and to get them into formal or informal education, recreational activities, or vocational training. So far, the program has dealt with about 300 children ages 6 to 17.
Near the center of Tirana, it’s easy to see many poor children, including Roma, who are exploited by their handlers along the main boulevard, Deshmoret e Kombit. They try to wash the windshields of passing cars or sell newspapers. Very close to the luxurious Sheraton Hotel, next to a car wash, Dritan and Ismail, 11 and 12 years old, but looking much older, sell cigarettes and lighters to passers-by. Dritan says, “I dropped out of school this year. There are five people in my family, and we have lived in Bathore [a suburb of Tirana where many people from the north have settled since 1990] for five years now. My father works in construction, but not regularly. I have at home my jobless mother, and four older sisters, who don’t work regularly. Some of them help my mother. I have to work. What to do?”
For his part, Ismail says, “I want to be a waiter [at the Sheraton]. It is good, you are warm inside, and you work with foreigners. You can get tips and make a good salary.” When I tell them that we can one day be part of Europe and life will be better for all of us, Ismail replies with an Albanian rhyming joke that means “Instead of going to Europe we are going to the hole.”
He rushes away to a BMW that has stopped suddenly so one of the passengers can buy Marlboro cigarettes.