I am sure most of us have heard about the Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate - Malala Yousafzai. She is only 17 years old and currently lives in Birmingham UK, where she moved in the aftermath of the dramatic shooting in 2012 that nearly cost her life.
I am also certain those that have heard about this outstanding girl, fully support what she has been bravely advocating for the past six years – empowering women around the world through education. Her world-known campaign started back in the Swat Valley in her home country, under the destructive Taliban regime that took away this basic right from girls in January 2009.
Her refusal to stand down from what she truly believed in all her life, brought to light the plight of millions of children around the world who are denied education today. As of 2012, 58 million children of primary school age and another 63 million children of lower secondary school age were still out of school. Half of them are girls. 50% of the world’s out-of-school children live in just fifteen countries, with the top three being Nigeria, Pakistan and India.
Source: UN Women
And what does it look like in Europe? Has the problem of uneven access to education for everyone been entirely eradicated? It appears not everywhere.
About 2.5 million primary and lower secondary school-aged children and 1.6 million pre-primary school-aged children are excluded from educational opportunities in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The problem affects on average more girls than boys and is especially profound amongst disadvantaged children from poor rural areas, those with disabilities or from ethnic minorities, particularly Romani.
One country that I want to specifically focus on is a country I had the opportunity to live in for 5 months in 2012, which was also the subject of my Masters dissertation, namely the Republic of Moldova.
Moldova is a small landlocked Eastern European country sandwiched between Ukraine in the south, east and north-east and Romania in the west with a population of approximately 3.5 million people, over 20% being under 18 years old. An additional half million people, including over 100,000 children, live in the breakaway region of Transnistria. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe with $2,000 GDP per capita and an average monthly gross salary of $300. Despite some improvements, over 20% of its population still lives below the poverty line.
While obstacles to access education are significant for both Romani girls and boys in Moldova, the experience for girls is much more negative. Romani girls are allocated separate, subservient roles by the family or society and often face pressure to abandon school at a very early age. Child marriage is common in a number of Romani communities. Romani girls married in their teens generally are forced to abandon school and take on a submissive role in the family, becoming entirely dependent on their husbands. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to school dropout and low educational attainment, with very serious social exclusion and often also health impacts.
According to the UNDP report from 2014, Romani women represent one of the most excluded groups in Moldova. They experience lower levels of education, significantly higher rates of unemployment and poorer health than the rest of the population. 45% of Roma women in Moldova have no formal studies (including primary education) compared to 2% of non-Roma women and 33% Roma men.
The Government of Moldova is currently nearing towards the end of implementing Moldova’s second Action Plan on Roma inclusion (2011-2015). Whilst there have been some positive results already, including the slow appearance of Romani women’s civil society movements, there still seems to be a fairly long and bumpy road to achieve a full inclusion and equality of women and men in this small, still relatively unknown Eastern European state.
One would wish perhaps for a new Malala to be born, this time in a different part of the world.