A community’s aspirations: Understanding what works in parenting education in Roma communities in Serbia

Kavita Hatipoglu

The Roma community in Serbia faces multiple challenges, key among them long-standing discrimination and marginalization, poor living conditions, outright poverty, and limited access to health and education services. It is difficult to even know how many Roma live in Serbia – estimates range from 180,000 to 500,000 – but we do know that, as a group, they face an uphill battle, especially in education.

Under 6% of children in Roma settlements attend early childhood education, compared to 50.7% of the general population. And strikingly, fewer than 30% of Roma children complete primary school.

Parenting education and community support initiatives can play a key role in changing the prospects for these Roma families and their children. But what is the right mix of program activities? How do we know which are the key components of the program that bring about change?

By working with these communities we can help answer these questions, build the evidence base, and connect more people to effective solutions.

At R4D, I am a part of a team studying the Strong from the Start parenting education program in Serbia. After returning last month from my first trip to the country, I am an even stronger proponent of how important it is to imbue data collection activities with a sense of purpose. With the right mix of passion, commitment, and experience, there is no limit to what can be achieved.

The Strong from the Start Program

The Strong from the Start Program (Dam Len Phaka – Let’s Give Them Wings) works with Roma families to facilitate the development of more enabling and safer family settings for small children. While children are at the center of the Roma family, parents often don’t understand their role in supporting their child’s development. Combined with the discrimination and marginalization the Roma community often faces, young children enter school lagging their non-Roma peers and less likely to complete formal education.

international education roma ecd early childhood development evaluation assessment serbiaStrong from the Start seeks to break this cycle by providing monthly workshops for parents, caregivers, and children on roles and responsibilities of the family, health protection, and child development. By changing attitudes, knowledge, and behavior, parents provide their children the best possible early start in life. The program, led by the CIP Centre and Romanipen, was implemented in three communities between 2012 and 2015, and now, based on positive results, and with additional funding from the Open Society Foundation’s Early Childhood Program (OSF ECP), is expanding to serve 15 new communities through 2018.

This current study will help partners identify any differences between the lived experiences of families participating in Strong from the Start and similarly situated families that do not participate in the program. These findings will help build the global evidence base to better implement Strong from the Start and programs like it.

Passionate and skilled: The impact of local data collectors

We kicked off the study with a week-long training in February, led by Luke Heinkel, Senior Program Officer at R4D, and our local partners, Deep Dive. The preparation of the experienced data collection team, combined with the motivation of the data collection team was inspiring to see.  The data collection team will work in pairs, combining one experienced survey data collector with a member of the community who truly understands the families being interviewed. I spoke with some of these community-based data collectors about their experience and their aspirations for the Roma community.

Silvija Nesić, for example, is a 24-year-old Roma woman from Pirot studying music theory at university, and is absolutely committed to helping Roma overcome discrimination and changing attitudes around early marriage in Serbia.

“Roma in Serbia are very discriminated,” Silvija said during a break in our training, “and sometimes they don’t recognize it.” As we spoke, Silvija explained that shifting mindsets among her own community is an important first-step in empowering Roma youth.

As a university student, “I try to be their role model. Be a positive example.” Unfortunately, Silvija felt that the discrimination and lack of opportunities for educated youth only reinforced the value many parents place on marriage, especially for women.

Silvija continued, “adults think that education is not important…The most important thing for a young Roma woman is to be a virgin when she gets married, and to know all the jobs about the house - the cooking, the cleaning - that is the most important thing. And that is what I want to break.”

Two other enumerators I spoke with, Srdjan Novakovic, 23-year-old chemistry student, and Zoran Petrovic, a pedagogical assistant in his 40's, affirmed the need for positive role models to change parent and youth mindsets.

Srdjan commented, “I want our kids to be open mind[ed]. My credo is ‘open mind’ and an ‘open heart’. But I think that we have a lot of problems with parents. We need to change their customs, minds, and their habits. Parents are the key for the children.” Zoran added, “Especially when it comes to education, [children] need support, especially from older, educated people in order to overcome their own poverty.”

Zoran, long active in the Roma community, summed his participation up like this: “It is the unequal opportunities, that the Roma, being poor, have. And this is something that has given me strength for 20 years now, both strength and energy, to try and work on including them in the social system because I don’t want them to be left out, I don’t want them to be on the margins of society. And unfortunately, very often, they are forgotten, they are discriminated, and they are poor. I want those Roma children to have equal opportunities and I want them to be equal members of the society.”

international education roma ecd early childhood development evaluation assessment serbia

Such an ingrained understanding of the challenges facing Roma children was common throughout the data collectors we trained. Moreover, their passion and experiences within Roma life will be critical in the work that remains.

‘Invigorating’ is not often a word associated with week-long trainings, but it is exactly the impression our passionate partners left with me. Now it’s time to put their passion to work.

As you read this, data collectors are in the field conducting the baseline assessment in 30 settlements across Serbia. The parent and child assessments draw on Save the Children’s International Development and Early Learning Assessment (IDELA) tool. This evidence will be critical in helping to answer the question at the heart of our work: Does this program lead to improved parenting knowledge and behaviors and positive child outcomes?

One way or the other, the future will be shaped by how well we can integrate those who are currently marginalized from quality, early education. After the week I spent with these inspiring local change-agents, I’m more confident than ever that collaborating with inspiring women and men like Silvija, Srdjan, and Zoran can help us overcome barriers that have been as persistent as they are damaging.


Kavita Hatipoglu is a senior program associate on the Global Education team at Results for Development (R4D). She works primarily on R4D’s early childhood development projects and is currently working on an evaluation of a Roma parenting program in Serbia and supporting a new global initiative to strengthen the early childhood workforce.  Her work at R4D has included providing strategic guidance and capacity building support to foundations to inform their grant-making and advocacy efforts as well as research on the household of costs education in Ghana. 

Photo Credits: Results for Development

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