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In December, 2017, at the residence of the Swedish Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission to the United States, Göran Lithell and his wife Karin, BHeart organized a fundraising art exhibit featuring works by Selma Selman, a Bosnian and Herzegovinian artist of Roma origin. An amount of $9,820 was raised in support of Roma children from a village Ruzica, near Bihac, western Bosnia. The project was designed to help seven, carefully chosen, Roma girls to complete their elementary and high school education by providing them scholarships and training within a period of one year. It also envisioned school lunches for approximately 30 of Roma’s neediest children during one school year.
A local NGO Alfa is in charge of the project implementation while Natasa Goronja, the Vice President of Programs at Boulder Institute of Microfinance serves as a volunteer consultant and liaison between Alfa’s and BHeart’s leadership. Selman, children’s main source of inspiration and their mentor, remains involved with each step of the project’s implementation.
The scholarships are aimed at older Roma girls, who are most at risk of dropping out. Experience has shown that graduating from school is a critical milestone in terms of their potential success. The project aims to reward the girls for the academic achievements they have already made and to propel them forward. The hope is that their success will serve as an example to others that there are benefits to staying in school.
Even though public elementary schools are free-of-charge in BH, kids from the poorer families are still at high risk of dropping out because their parents struggle with associated costs, such as school supplies and food. That is why the project also provides funding to cover the cost of lunches for the most disadvantaged children attending school.
Child Marriage: a Deep-Rooted Tradition
Discrimination and financial barriers are not the only reasons for a high number of dropouts among Roma children. A tradition of child marriage is an additional complication. According to the Helsinki Human Rights Committee, only 15 percent of all Roma children in BH graduate from elementary school. The figures for girls are even worse, due to the fact that so many drop out in 3rd or 4th grade and get married by the time they are 13, 14 or 15.
Experience from NGO Alfa, a project partner, has shown that keeping girls in school can address this issue in two ways. Firstly, girls who finish their basic schooling are more self-aware and less likely to be forced into an early marriage. Secondly, girls who succeed in their education have a better chance of breaking out of poverty, which is also an important factor in arranged marriages.