by Natasha Dokovska
– Macedonia –
The sounds of the tambour and clarinet – loud Gypsy music – throngs of young people dressed in traditional costume, a wood table piled high with food and plenty of dry red wine…this was the backdrop for a marriage between Esma and Redxep last month in the first Roma community in Europe, Shuto Orizari, located in the northern part of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia.
Romani woman and her child in Eastern Europe. Photograph by Lori Scott •
Esma is only 14, but her husband is 18 years old and this is his second marriage. Esma is very young and she is illiterate, having left school when she was only nine. Until now, she lived with her parents and nine brothers and sisters. Her family is very poor, and decided she should be married for the money it would bring them.
“Esma was my friend; she lives near our house. Esma [did] not want to be married, but she was [forced] to by her father, Ramce. He sold [Esma] to the parents of Redxep,” say Resmija, one of Esma’s friends.
The neighbors of Esma’s family claim that she was sold for 1000 Euros (approximately $1,300 USD); they confirm that all of Esma’s other sisters have been sold off as well. In a country where the average monthly income is around $690 (USD), Esma’s bride-price will certainly help sustain the family. They say that Esma’s parents haven’t worked for ten years, and that this is one means of survival.
“Esma is [a] very beautiful girl. She is very young and she is [a] virgin, [so] she cost[s] [a lot],” says one of the neighbors who was invited to the wedding. He explains that over the last two months, five girls under 15 were married. Three of them were already pregnant.
Esma’s father, Ramce, is reticent to discuss the marriage. But he says that Esma is his child and only he will decide what’s best for her future. He says that he was 16 year old when he was married and that he is responsible to provide for his children’s needs. Even so, Ramce feels like he’s a “victim”, and says that he has lived only for his family. As such, he feels he has the authority to do what he thinks is best. After all, he says, Esma is his property.
Esma is silent. She looks out over the land, avoiding eye contact with her new in-laws. She is ashamed of her circumstance and uncertain of her future.
The case of young Esma and Redxep is not unusual. Even though child marriage is forbidden in Macedonia, it is estimated that thousands of Romani children are married every year, especially in Skopje and the eastern part of the country. In direct defiance of a law that prohibits anyone under the age of 17 from marrying, child marriage remains a frequent and accepted tradition among Roma families. Under Macedonian law, the Roma population, even as a minority (2% of the country’s total population), enjoys all the rights afforded the rest of society. Technically, they must also abide by the same laws. If a child marriage occurs, the parents should be punished, but in these cases, the authorities do not exercise the laws they are charged with upholding. The tradition continues simply because no one is ever convicted. Child marriage, and marriages within the Roma community in general are not considered official, which, ironically means that these young girls are not protected under the law.
But the real problems start after a Roma girl marries; with this act she becomes the property of her husband and immediately moves to his house. Deprived of an education, many girls are unable to secure identification cards. They lose access to health care or social protection and become entirely dependent on their husbands. Subsequently, many child brides are exposed to sexual abuse and exploitation. Most Romani men abhor work and often resort to prostituting their wives for income. After having three or four children with their wives, Romani husbands often desert their families, leaving their wives to fend for themselves in poverty as they pursue younger women and re-marry yet again.
Since child marriage precludes girls from attending school, they are thereby deprived of an education, which seriously diminishes their employment opportunities. This makes them easy targets for exploitation. The best options these young women have are working as domestics or selling handmade clothing or food on the street. Considered only as baby-making machines by their husbands, these girls face a desperate future.
They conceive and deliver their children while still very young, which has dire consequences for their health. Statistical data shows that the rate of infant mortality (at 13.9%) is higher among this population than any other ethnic group in Macedonia. Romani girls also face increased risks of complications during pregnancy and delivery.
Despite the tragedies that befall these young girls, the authorities in Macedonia are at best ambivalent about their plight. The Macedonian authorities regard child marriage as part of Romani life and tradition, regardless of the fact that it exploits these children’s rights. They turn a “blind” eye to the phenomena because of the stereotypes widely held by mainstream Macedonian society about the Roma people.
The Roma culture is considered to be so different from the rest of society that the authorities feel that this minority is basically exempt from normal Macedonian laws and customs. They argue that since the Romani people do not marry their children at a town hall, their weddings are not even official. Similarly, when a Romani child is found truant, the parents claim that their child has fled the school – they refuse to accept responsibility for the fact that their child is not getting an education.
And despite the fact that many nongovernmental organizations exist in Macedonia to address the needs and rights of women, efforts to aid Romani child brides have been largely unsuccessful. NGO workers face the often insurmountable task of penetrating the tightly knit Roma culture. A survey conducted by the NGO, Youth Open Space, reported that approximately 100 child marriages are performed each year. By May of this year, 76 had already been performed. These numbers are most likely very conservative given the difficult nature of compiling data on the Roma culture. Even more are anticipated as child marriages peak in the summer months. Regardless, what is clear is that many more young girls will face an uncertain future alone.
About the Author
Natasha Dokovska has been a journalist for 23 years, covering social issues and human rights in Macedonia. She has been an editor for international policy, an advocate for human rights as a NGO activist and publisher, and has edited books related to peace journalism and other topics. She currently is the editor for the first internet alternative radio in Macedonia and is also the Executive Director of Journalists for Children and Women’s Rights and Protection of the Environment in Macedonia.