The United Methodist Church has established an advisory service for Roma girls in Ohrid (Macedonia). After a trial phase and an evaluation period, this service will continue to provide valuable help and advice on the girls’ path to womanhood.
Roma girls who are already at puberty, or will soon reach puberty, are confronted with hormonal related changes which they often cannot discuss with their parents. This has lasting consequences for the girls, in particular if they are pushed into marriage much too early and become mothers when they themselves are still children. They are not yet mature enough to bring up children and have no idea how to take care of them. This is the background for establishing the UMC’s advisory service in Ohrid – with the object of changing the Roma girls’ way of thinking about early marriage, and directing their attention to education and a better economic and social future.
During the four-month trial phase, a team of women composed of a nurse, a pastor and volunteer helpers offered an educational and advisory program in which various subjects were discussed. These subjects were partly suggested by the girls themselves, which ensured that the program was closely related to their lives. In addition to this carefully prepared and flexible program, social services as well as individual medical and pastoral advice were available.
Initial experience showed that the invitation flyer was attracting increasing interest among the Roma girls and that the teaching units, which were partly carried out by specialist brought in for the occasion, were really valuable. At the outset, communication with the girls proved to be quite difficult. The participants were embarrassed by subjects such as menstruation, genital hygiene, mycotic infections and sexually transmitted diseases, but also the hormonal related changes of the bodies, way of thinking and behavior of young girls, and it took a while to build up a relationship of trust that admitted of more than bashful giggling and answers limited to a yes/no or a movement of the head.
Later, the number of the girl participants increased, and an encouraging openness developed that allowed discussion of subjects and questions which were taboo in the families of origin – for example inferiority complexes, teenager depressions and the mental health of girls.
One group of subjects aimed at showing the girls possible alternatives with regard to the traditional practice of child marriage, and in particular at emphasizing the value of education (even university education!). The physical and mental consequences of very early marriages were likewise discussed – consequences which also have implications for the children of such early marriages. In the course of these talks it became clear how much the girls longed for better values for their lives, but also how much they are trapped in their traditions and subject to pressure from their parents.
Another subject which was raised was the consumption of addictive drugs, widespread in Roma families, as well as the painful topic of domestic violence. It was distressing to hear to what extent these girls were affected by these subjects – and it likewise emerged how difficult it is to give them real help here, as long as the institutions in this country do little to protect the victims and the girls are too afraid to testify against offenders in their own families. Giving understanding, encouragement and love is one thing – and the girls have all experienced this. But more is really needed….
At the end of the trial phase, an evaluation was made regarding the work of the advisory service. It is difficult to say what the long-term effect will be of accompanying the Roma girls on their path. Certainly, valuable relationships to the girls have been created which form a good basis on which to build. And the feedback from the girls was clear: the discussed subjects were all described as very helpful, and the wish for further meetings and talks was expressed.
The advisory service started its work again in December 2017, and in response to a lively information campaign, 18 young girls came forward who would like to make use of the service offered. The persons in charge will need a lot of staying power – as well as people who support this work, particularly in prayer. But they are prepared to do their utmost to ensure that the path of the Roma girls to womanhood can also be a path to a promising future
Source: Julijana Mileska, Ohrid / Christina Cekov, Strumica / Urs Schweizer, Zurich