Fellowship | Minority Rights

Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women’s invisible lives in society’s ‘outskirts’

By - 10.12.2019

Bringing Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women out of the margins.

On May 31, 2019, a Roma woman was publicly beaten by juveniles in Lipljan following false accusations of child kidnapping that had been spread by the media. There were shocked reactions throughout Kosovo. 

One of the most candid comments came from Ambassador Vlora Çitaku, who spoke about her own upbringing with members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in a post on her Facebook profile. She spoke directly on the widely acceptable racist treatment of these minority groups in Kosovar society:

“Nurije and Fitim were in my class. They always used to sit on the last bench, although the teacher tried to have them sit with us. But we laughed at them. We did not shake hands with them. We did not touch them. We did not play and did not speak with them. We mocked them. One day, when Nurije was sick and did not come to school for several weeks, our teacher could barely make a small group of us from our class go and pay her a visit.

“I remember how hard our teacher tried to convince us to socialize and play with them. Frankly, she even used to punish us when she’d see us attack and mock them. Nurije and Fitim dropped out of school, because we became unbearable. Today, our children are beating Nurije, Fitim and their children in the streets.”

Çitaku, ultimately, would go on to become the Ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo to the United States of America. Meanwhile for Nurije and Fitim, her fellow students, dropping out of school was a one-way ticket to anonymity. Their teacher Mukadeze Ballata, now retired, remembers she always tried to treat all of her students equally, but she does not know what happened to Nurije and Fitim. 

The data shows that this story is far from an exception to the rule.

According to the 2011 census, only 2,053 Roma, Ashkalis and Egyptians were formally employed — mainly in the agriculture and processing industries — of whom 360 were women. Calculated on the ethnicity-based population data for that year, 12% of working-age people from these communities formally worked that year, less than half of the 24.5% employment rate of the population as a whole. 

If 50% of working age people were women, then only 4.2% of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities’ women would have been employed that year. That’s barely one third of the 11.5% women employed in the general population.

The exception to the rule

Sakibe Jashari is currently a consultant at the Council of Europe Office on a project for the inclusion of communities at the local level of governance in her home city of Prishtina. She is an anthropologist educated at one of the world’s top ranked universities, the London School of Economics (LSE), and a former recipient of the prestigious Chevening program scholarship funded by the Government of the United Kingdom. She owns a flat in the capital and is part of what may be termed Prishtina’s “middle class,” both in terms of her income and her hard-earned social status.

But the 44-year-old is not at all the stereotype that Kosovo society expects from a Roma woman. Roma women and other “peripheral” ethnicities in the country, particularly Ashkali and Egyptian, were and are far more likely to never finish elementary school or emerge out of economic poverty.

How did Sakibe break this rule?

“I was neither white enough for Albanians nor black enough for the Roma,” says Sakibe Jashari, recalling growing up and attending school in Kosovo. Photo: Uran Krasniqi.

She grew up in the city of Ferizaj’s neighborhood known as Sallahane, largely inhabited by Roma and Ashkali communities. During her childhood, her father worked in the Tube Factory, a large, renowned social enterprise, while her mother took care of the home.

Back in the 1970s, as opposed to the general situation nowadays, school qualifications reliably opened up employment opportunities, and the work of the educated was well paid. Sakibe says both of her parents wanted her educated and that the importance of education was an important value in the household.

When she began attending the Tefik Çanga elementary school in Ferizaj, both parents put their belief into practice; they were committed to seeing her focus on studying and doing her homework. Their belief did not change even when, due to developments following the annulment of Kosovo’s autonomous status in 1989 and the subsequent economic crisis, thousands of people boycotted, left, or lost their jobs, including Sakibe’s father.

“I was in high school at the time. Three of us kids were in school,” Sakibe says. “I don’t know how we survived … but we didn’t interrupt our schooling. It’s been a [family attitude] that it needs to be done — whatever the circumstances, you had to go to school.”

Along with the financial difficulties, her parents had only eight years of education and could not help her with her homework as she got older. Sakibe also faced ethnic prejudice that many of her peers did not have to deal with.

Sometimes she would overhear her schoolmates: “They’d say, ‘Alright, she’s white and dresses neatly, but she’s not Albanian.’” 

She says she even faced this kind of prejudice within her own neighborhood. “I was told that I’m not dark enough to be a Roma … I was neither white enough for Albanians nor black enough for the Roma,” she says. 

Despite the financial challenges and prejudice, Sakibe never quit school. 

“I believed in education,” she says. “I learned both in school and outside of it. Of course the family motivated me, but it also depends a bit on the individual’s personality.”

In particular, from a young age, Sakibe devoted herself to learning English. “I tried to learn English with whatever means I found and had at my disposal,” she says.

That dedication opened up opportunities for her to work and have a career. In August 1999, aged 24, Sakibe was employed by CARE International, an organization dealing with emergency humanitarian aid and fighting against poverty. Sakibe facilitated communication between minority communities and the organization.

“The internationals did not deal with the color of my skin, but with my qualities,” she says.

From there, Sakibe later moved on to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Kosovo, then continued her education abroad. She pursued a career in other similar and prestigious organizations focusing on community and human rights in general.

But Sakibe is a remarkable exception.

Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian minorities are generally unemployed, while also under-employed in the public sector; data on female Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities’ employment does not exist.

According to the Kosovo Agency of Statistics’ (KAS) most recent Labor Force Survey report for the second quarter of 2019, the employment rate among men has increased significantly (compared to 2011) to 45.9%. Among women it only increased by about two percentage points to 13.7%.

But since the 2011 census, official data on employment at the community and gender level within communities is lacking. KAS surveys present the overall employment rate, the employment rate of men and women, but not the employment rate of these categories at the ethnic level.

Data included within the Strategy for Integration of Roma and Ashkali Communities 2017-2021 study from the Government of Kosovo, suggests that employment differences may have deepened since the census. The document says that in the Obiliq and Fushë Kosovë municipalities the employment rate of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities remains at 7% compared to 40% for the majority Albanian community. According to a December 2018 World Bank report, in 2017 the overall employment rate of the Roma population alone was 13% — 22% among men, 4% among women.

Kosovo institutions lack complete official data on community employment even for public sector employees. The Government of Kosovo, since 2010, through its Civil Service Law, has stipulated that non-majority communities be represented in the civil service by a minimum quota of 10% at the central level and proportionally to the demographic composition at municipal level.

But the number of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians employed in public institutions is very low, and considering these communities make up just over 2% of the population, according to the 2011 census, they appear to be significantly under-represented.

According to data released to K2.0 by the Ministry of Public Administration (MPA), out of the 12,314 civil service employees in a total of 56 central level public institutions in Kosovo, only 20 come from communities that the Ministry refers to by the acronym “RAE.” At the municipal level, Kosovo’s 38 municipalities employ a total of just 45 people from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.

Calculations based on the Kosovo Pensions Savings Trust indicate that only 0.08% of public sector employees are from the Roman, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.

Public sector employment of Roman, Ashkali and Egyptians is low across the board, where data is available. Based on data from the Ministry of Education — which employs a total of 28,000 teachers in primary and secondary schools — 17 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians work as teachers; Kosovo Police data shows, two members of these communities work in the police. Other institutions, such as the Kosovo Clinical Hospital Service and the Kosovo Security Force, have not released any data.

According to the Kosovo Pensions Savings Trust (KPST), which all public sector employees pay into, in 2018 there were a total of 95,476 employees in Kosovo’s public sector organizations. If the total number of communities reported were to be commensurate with this number, it means that only 0.08% of public sector employees are from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.

Gender data, however, is completely lacking in the public sector. For example, the public administration employees’ data charts — both at central and municipal levels — should show the qualifications, ethnic and gender structures in Kosovo, but while the first two structures are completed, the MPA has not done the third one. Zeqir Bekolli, head of the Division of Public Communications in the Ministry of Public Administration, confirms the lack of data.

Edi Gusia, director of the Agency for Gender Equality in the Prime Minister’s Office, says data is lacking despite the fact that the Law on Gender Equality requires institutions to count employees by gender.

“This shortfall undermines effective and adequate policy making,” Gusia says. “And automatically we fail to achieve our best objectives and provide services for citizens in general and serve gender equality in particular.”

Although there is no accurate data, she says it is nevertheless recognized that minority women are among the most underrepresented groups in employment. “And with the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian groups, women are even more underrepresented,” she says.

Only a handful of women reach higher education

In order to be employed in most job roles, including throughout much of the public sector, a Kosovo citizen usually needs to have at least completed secondary education, while in some cases a bachelor’s and a master’s degree or special training is needed.

Less than 10% of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian girls who finish primary school continue their education.

But a large number of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian girls in particular do not get the opportunity to complete even high school education.

According to a September 2018 report by the Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (VORAE) organization and Finland’s Development Cooperation, 70% of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian girls who enrolled in school, drop out. A total of 40% of the girls interviewed for the survey said they could not afford their education. The report says that only 7% of the girls in these communities go on to receive higher education.

Nazan Safqi, head of the Division for Community Education at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) confirms that the dropout trend increases at higher levels of schooling. Official MEST data, shows that 2,791 girls from Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities attended primary schools, and only 241 girls were in secondary schools in 2019. If this is the usual trend, then it turns out that less than 10% of girls from these communities who finish primary school continue their education. MEST, however, has noted that this data may not be entirely accurate because students are not required to declare their ethnicity at school.

According to a 2017 study on the implementation of Kosovo’s inclusion strategy, funded by the European Union and the Foundation for Open Society, low educational attainment impedes young Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians from finding work. Young people from these communities, according to the report, even face difficulty finding a job that requires little or no skills and are more likely to be unemployed than young people with higher levels of education.

The report states that none of the young respondents surveyed had used the internet to seek employment or conducted a self-assessment of their skills against those required in the labor market, and they did not know how to apply for a job.

The Government of Kosovo, in its inclusion strategy paper, says it is committed to working toward increasing school attendance and employment capacities through a scholarship that would be distributed to up to 600 high school students.

Isak Skenderi, director of VORAE, says that since 2014, in partnership with VORAE, the Roma Education Fund, Kosovo Education Center and other organizations, MEST has awarded on average around 500 scholarships per year totaling 300 euros each. “This is supposed to cover the costs of a family to educate a child in high school,” he says. “It’s not enough, but it’s some help anyway and it prioritizes girls.”

Dukagjin Pupovci, director of the Kosovo Education Center NGO, says that during the 2018/19 academic year 600 scholarships were awarded, 200 of which were funded by an NGO coalition headed by the Open Society Foundation. “Of them, 316 beneficiaries were girls,” he says. “Only one of those who received a scholarship dropped out of school, which is a tremendous success.”

Other similar initiatives are also being implemented by civil society organizations.

Education expert Pupovci also points out that the Kosovo Education Center mentored 115 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian students in 10 secondary schools during the same academic year. According to him, the mentored students improved their academic achievements and there was a significant decrease in their absences from school. 

He says increasing girls’ participation in education directly impacts on community development. 

“An educated woman will not leave her children unschooled, nor will she encourage her daughters to marry without reaching adulthood,” Pupovci says. “Not only the woman, but the whole community is emancipated, gradually breaking free from the vicious circle of poverty. Currently, we have dozens of girls and women from these communities who do jobs requiring qualifications and they are role models for young girls.”

In addition to the laws and strategies mentioned above, Kosovo also has a Law on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Communities and their Members for the protection of communities and their members as well as a Law on the Protection From Discrimination. However, the World Bank warns in a study that throughout the Western Balkans the continuation of the gender and ethnic vacuum in practice “suggests inadequate implementation and enforcement capacity.”

One of the authors of an evaluation report on the implementation of the government’s inclusion strategy, education expert Jusuf Thaçi, says that “none of the governments in Kosovo to date have worked hard enough to empower [Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian] communities.”

For example, the strategy provides opportunities for public sector jobs to target these communities, but the MPA did not provide any evidence of this measure being implemented nor any clarification about the reasons behind it.

Sakibe once met a deputy education minister to talk about Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian students studying in containers in the village of Plemetin, Obiliq. “He told me ‘Gypsies are not interested in education.'”

The government strategy also envisioned employment enhancing activities, including modifying and bolstering the effectiveness of active employment measures in the labor market, which are services provided by the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. This ministry has already stated that this year 60 Ashkalis, 38 Egyptians and 26 Roma participated in the active measures.

But Sakibe Jashari is not convinced that Kosovo’s institutions are doing what they can to improve the conditions for education and employment.

“Through my work, I have had the chance to hear the opinions of Kosovar officials,” she says, adding that she once met a deputy education minister while working for the Swiss Embassy to talk about Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian students studying in containers in the village of Plemetin, Obiliq. “He told me: ‘Gypsies are not interested in education.’”

Sakibe says she has often heard such denigrating and prejudicial expressions uttered by state officials, and although in her family the ethnicity issue was not raised as an important topic, she has faced racism her entire life. 

Self-employment does not seem to be a sustainable alternative

Mirjeta Qehaja from Gjakova is among those 7% of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities’ women who managed to complete her university studies. Now 25, she is the first graduate of Egyptian ethnicity from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Prishtina, where her paintings remain exhibited.

But to reach this point in her life, just like for Sakibe Jashari, it was not easy.

During her early years in school, she would be hurt by the ethnic prejudice. Dealing with it her own way, she tried to hide her ethnicity for years until her cousin declared herself an Egyptian. Then people learned that she was from the same community.

“When they learned at school that I was Egyptian, they asked: ‘So you are a gypsy too, right?’ Mirjeta recalls. “At that time, I would answer: ‘No, I’m not.’ I simply did not want to be discriminated against.”

Mirjeta Qehaja recalls the discriminatory approach and language of her teachers, such as when one once told her friend “be whiter.” Photo: Uran Krasniqi.

Mirjeta says that her ethnicity and perceptions about her tormented her until grade 10 when, in 2012, she joined a summer school organized in Durrës, Albania.

“Frankly, I decided to go there just because of the sea,” she admits. “Later I saw that the people there, members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, were smart and educated. Compared to them, I felt very weak. There, I started to be proud of myself and my ethnicity.”

The summer school was organized by the Foundation for Open Society in collaboration with the Government of Kosovo and lasted for seven days. School sessions included lectures on the state, political parties, elections and justice, with frequent slots for free discussions and games.

Nora Bajrami from the FOL Movement who was one of the summer school trainers, says that she recalls Mirjeta being a very talented person, who painted even during the summer school, but also a “very timid person with low self confidence.”

“What we did in that school was not only teach participants the basic principles of statehood and justice, but also build and raise their self confidence in the social sphere,” Bajrami says. “I feel good that it had such a positive effect on Mirjeta, because sometimes we are not conscious of the impact our work may have on other people.”

Sociologist Albert Mecini says that the motives behind an individual’s decision to hide or defend their identity are often related to the social environment in which they live.

“Usually, the individual’s tendency to hide the characteristics of racial and social background, culture, occurs because they fear it would cause them problems in their social life, and later in their education and employment,” he says. “This mentality emerges due to the continuous psychological pressure resulting from social stigmatization of their own community within that environment.”

The evaluation report of the governmental inclusion strategy, referred to above, shows that Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children face discrimination in schools from their peers and even their teachers.

Isak Skenderi, who has for several years been leading the VORAE organization advocating for equal rights for the communities, says that ethnic based discrimination remains present in Kosovo.

“People are still not ready to treat everyone the same way, independently of who they are,” Skënderi says. “I myself happen to feel discrimination. For example, you go to the doctor and notice that no one is taking care of you or even cares to ask why you are there. You notice that your skin color is crucial.

Although Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children face discrimination in schools, they hesitate to speak openly because of the fear of consequences.

Following her experience in the summer school, Mirjeta began to value everything she had previously despised in herself. This helped her confront social discrimination more easily while attending Hajdar Dushi high school in Gjakova. She even says there were times when the teachers themselves would use stigmatizing language. She remembers that one of the teachers once told her friend to “become whiter.” The teacher in question has denied this to K2.0. 

But similar anecdotes are widespread amongst people familiar with Kosovo’s education system.

Although Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children face discrimination in schools from their peers and teachers, they and their parents hesitate to speak openly about this phenomenon. The 2017 evaluation report says that they hold back because of the fear of possible consequences.

Mirjeta’s friend dropped out of school. But Mirjeta continued and went on to complete her university studies. Although she is among the very few women Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women with higher education, she continues to face the challenge of making a living following her graduate studies.

She chose self-employment, painting full time.

During her interview with K.2.0, she was painting a commissioned portrait based on an original picture. The agreed commission was 150 euros. “It’s a color portrait, otherwise the price would have been lower, 50 or 100 euros,” she says.

Her family in Gjakova that occasionally supports her financially is also self-employed.

Nevertheless, for Mirjeta, and many other Kosovar artists, this kind of self-employment is unstable. Furthermore, the entire self-employment market has not marked any significant growth since the country’s independence in 2008. 

According to the data from KPST, 27,753 people declared themselves as self-employed in 2008, while a decade later the number reached 29,055, or approximately 9% of all working people in the country. According to the same data, the revenues of the self-employed are 25% lower than those of employees in larger organizations or institutions.

Mirjeta — who wishes to open her own atelier in the future — began working in September of this year in a project led by the Kosovar NGO Roma Versitas, funded by the Roma Education Fund and DG-Near. In her demanding artistic work, she continues to be concerned about marginalized groups. 

She says that the title of her personal exhibition is “The Holocaust,” a reference to the systemic murders, mainly of Jews, but also of other ethnic minority groups, by Nazi Germany during World War II. Alongside Jews, Roma people were also particularly targeted by the Nazis, a topic previously written about by K2.0.

Over the last few years in Europe, the modern day public discourse against the Roma community in particular, has sparked debates and studies about their systematic discrimination. Mirjeta has visited the notorious concentration camp in Auschwitz and believes that “the problems that members of ethnic minority communities face are a modern holocaust.”

The reproduction of poverty

Thirty-eight kilometers away from Mirjeta Qehaja lives 20-year-old Ramize Maliqi.

Ramize lives in Ferizaj with her mother Spasena, her father, two sisters, two brothers and a sister-in-law. She doesn’t leave her one-room house often since she dropped out of school without finishing her elementary education in order to provide essential support around the home.

Ramize says that her daily routine is mainly doing household chores and watching soap operas.

“I clean, cook and take care of my family members,” she says. “Usually, I watch TV, soap operas and sometimes the news. Often, I shop for groceries with my sisters.”

Both Ramize and Spasena Maliqi had to quit primary education. Spasena in order to take care of her children, and her daughter in order to help her with work and around the house. Photo: Uran Krasniqi.

According to the survey by VORAE and Finland’s Development Cooperation, in September 2018, 34% of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian girls dropped out of school because of household chores.

This year’s World Bank survey also claims that Roma women in Kosovo, especially the unemployed, do almost double the amount of household chores at home compared to men. This, according to the same report, is the second main reason, following a lack of funds, given by Roma families in Kosovo for not sending their children to nursery schools.

Teuta Rrusta, a sociologist and Social Democratic Party activist, says that when women don’t have paid work, they remain financially dependent and feel the patriarchal burden.

“In the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, the poverty they live in is reflected much more in the lives of women,” Rrusta says.

Vetëvendosje activist Funda Demiri studied Health and Social Work in Finland and serves as an Assembly member of the Vantaa Municipality in Helsinki. She recommends two governmental measures to help turn the situation around.

“Kosovo needs a system that provides parents with care for their children. This would keep women out of the house, because there are people who can take care of the children,” she says. “The typical situation in Kosovo is this: The husband goes to work and the woman stays home to look after the children. It would also be important for both parents to enjoy ‘parental leave,’ to both participate in raising their children. Then no one would remain excluded from society.”

To this end, in another study published in 2019, the World Bank recommends that the provision of care for Roma children in nursery schools in the Balkans would raise the participation of women and girls in schools and create a more inclusive labor market. The Bank underlines the lack of nursery schools as a problem that needs addressing and recommends various incentives such as food, free transport and teachers from the community, in order to encourage more registration in nurseries. 

The Bank also recommends different employment policies such as parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and other incentives to raise the participation of women in the labor market.

According to the same World Bank report, over 40% of Roma families in Kosovo have no food security. Meanwhile, the government of Kosovo, just like with employment data, has little official data about the poverty rate among the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. The latest official data on poverty based on ethnicity was reported in 2003-04, when the poverty rate among non-Albanian and non-Serbian communities was 51.7%.

Ramize’s family is officially poor. They cannot afford food and receive social assistance from the Social Work Center in Ferizaj.

Ramize’s mother, Spasena, says that in 2005 she worked briefly as a cleaner in a coffee shop in Ferizaj. She was forced to quit her job, the way her daughter quit her schooling.

“There was nobody to look after the children,” Spasena says.


Ramize Maliqi often helps her mother at work, such as when doing paid domestic work in the neighborhood in Ferizaj. Photo: Uran Krasniqi.

The inheritance of social status and poverty from generation to generation, as in the Maliqi family, is not an isolated phenomenon. Albert Mecini, the sociologist, says that financial and social factors are the main determinants here.  

“In a society and a country with a difficult general economic situation, there is little social mobility, which hampers positive changes,” Mecini says.

Poverty forces people to do hard and unstable jobs. Spasena and Ramize are sometimes invited to do paid domestic work in their neighborhood. “We get sometimes 30 and sometimes 40 euros,” Ramize says.

Her father and brothers also collect recyclable waste from the city containers.

It’s a common source of essential income for many Roman, Ashkali and Egyptians who find themselves excluded from the formal labor market. In the village of Plemetin, Obiliq, Burbuqe Syla and her daughters — most of whom have dropped out of school — are forced to collect recyclable waste in Prishtina in order to support their large family that includes 11 children.

The Ashkali mother climbs entirely inside the garbage containers in the capital and carefully selects the sellable items.

“I sell the items at the market,” she says. “One kg of bottles costs 15 cents, one kg of paper 4 cents and tin cans 70 cents. Sometimes, it takes two days to fill up a sack with tin cans, and I need to search a lot to find them and make some money.”

It’s a meagre income, in gruelling conditions, but Burbuqe has little choice. “When you’re hungry, you’re hungry!” she says.K

Edited by Artan Mustafa.
Additional editing: Bronwyn Jones and Jack Butcher.

Feature image: Uran Krasniqi.

This article has been written as part of the second cycle of the Human Rights Journalism Fellowship Program supported by the European Union Office in Kosovo, co-financed by the project ‘Luxembourg support to civil society in Kosovo,’ financed by the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and managed by Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF), as well as from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This program is being implemented by Kosovo 2.0, in partnership with Kosovar Center for Gender Studies (KCGS), and Center for Equality and Liberty (CEL).
Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0, KCGS, and CEL and do not necessarily reflect the views of the donors.