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PRISHTINA, Kosovo - Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities learn the value of contraception and family planning for a better future.

The well attended session at the ‘Health for All’ NGO center was filled with eager participants excited to learn. Actively engaged in discussions on sexual and reproductive health, most of the women in this workshop had no formal education on the matter. This didn’t deter them, however, from sharing their experiences about life, and pausing to ask questions.

This gathering of women from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities certainly had a wealth of experience to call upon. Xhejlane Ahmeti’s story was typical of many of the other women in the room, all of whom were ethnic minorities in Kosovo. With seven children and no desire to have more, Xhejlane had undergone two abortions and had not received any education on the use of contraception.

“The generation today isn’t having as many children as we did,” she said, “because they know how to plan and protect themselves. We didn’t know that in our day.”

On this 8th of March, International Women’s Day, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) renews its commitment to gender equality, human rights and dignity.

“Many rural women have limited autonomy and low status, which puts them at increased risk of hunger, gender- based violence and other human rights violations,” says UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin. Advancing rural women’s political, social and economic status, he says, are critical strategies to eradicate poverty, promote women’s rights and pave the way for sustainable development. “Improving access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights,” he continues, “is essential for rural women’s empowerment and ability to earn an income and feed themselves and their family.


Raising awareness for improved sexual and reproductive health

Coming from a marginalized group in Kosovo that faces economic and social exclusion, and with high rates of illiteracy especially among women, sessions like this one, conducted by ‘Health for All’ NGO, are vital in helping them take control of their sexual and reproductive health.

Sofije Puqolli, also a mother to seven children, shared her experiences with the group. Following the traditional method of delivery at home, she tells them, she had six of her children at home without any medical attention. “I would deliver the baby,” she said, “and then cook the dinner for my other children.” Only her seventh baby was delivered in a hospital.

Gradually, thanks to greater awareness and a growing trust in the local medical services, women and men from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo are seeking out services from Government clinics and hospitals.

“We provide contraception,” explains Director of Main Family Health Center, Dr. Ali Prebreza, “and lately, with greater awareness, there has been an increase in demand for services.”

The improved awareness of contraception is thanks in part to the work of organizations like ‘Health for All,’ supported by UNFPA.

“The topics we discuss here are family planning, hygiene, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS,” said ‘Health for All’ Director, Gezim Hoti. “Through these sessions we try to increase the awareness especially of the young population.”

Fully attended sessions like the one are evidence of their popularity, and are hosted regularly at the ‘Health for All’ Center. Often there are parallel sessions for men from the same communities that are equally well-supported.

UNFPA reaching out to a growing, marginalized community

After the end of the war in Kosovo in June 1999, many Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians fled from severe discrimination. Others were forced to flee in March 2004 during inter-ethnic violence between Albanians and Serbs.

The ‘Health for All’ Center is located in Fushe Kosovo–a district on the edge of the capital Pristina and home to large communities of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians still living in the country. Surveying the deprived, rundown area with mounds of smoldering rubbish on street corners, the degree of marginalization of this vulnerable group is

What is more, according to Amnesty International, several EU governments plan to forcibly return Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian refugees to Kosovo. Their expected arrival suggests even greater pressure on areas like Fushe Kosovo, making it even more crucial that these communities are reached.

“It’s a growing population,” says Dr. Doina Bologa, Chief of Operations at UNFPA Kosovo, “and we are doing our piece to help them integrate.”

While UNFPA is working well with this community in Pristina, it is still looking at how to help the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in other parts of Kosovo, such as in the town of Gjakova, near the border with Albania.

Occupying an area on the outskirts of this historic town, large mounds of recycling waste are a frequent sight, showcasing the main occupation of local residents. Like his neighbors, Ramush Gashi supports his family through scrap recycling.

Having never received any education on sexual and reproductive health, he and his wife now have seven children.

“I don’t want any more children,” admits his wife Sakibe, “but I don’t like using any type of contraception. I leave it up to God.”

A changing landscape: improved family planning to overcome social barriers

Back in Pristina at the home of ‘Health for All’ activist, Bekim Tahiri and his wife Advije, changing views in the community point to a generational transformation that is  taking place.

“Before, families would have up to ten children,” says Advije Tahiri, “but now five is more common, and they know far more about contraception.”

“If these health education sessions are provided in other places, where the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians live,” said Bekim, “The success will be replicated.”

The goal of social inclusion for marginalized communities represents a huge challenge, one that is supported by UNFPA, particularly through its focus on empowerment of women and improving their right to sexual and reproductive health.

“With our partners,” says Dr. Osotimehin, “we strive to strengthen healthcare systems and develop new ways to inform women and girls about their rights, especially about access to family planning.”

On this International Women’s Day, UNFPA stands in solidarity with stakeholders in promoting women’s health, education and rights to improve gender equality and build a world of opportunity—one in which every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person can fulfill their potential.

– Rob McBride, Ryan Dolan, Gabriela Iancu