Neighbourhood hero fights child marriage in her Roma community

5 April 2019
Nesime Salioska visits with Nanny Litka and her great-granddaughter Anelia, age two, at their home in Prilep, North Macedonia. Photo credit: ©UNFPA North Macedonia/Tomislav Georgiev.

PRILEP, North Macedonia—Orphaned as a child and pregnant by an adult boyfriend at the age of 14, Isabela was highly vulnerable to the fate that befalls so many girls in her predominately Roma neighbourhood: child marriage. But her life has taken a different turn, thanks to the tenacity of two women: her grandmother, and a tireless Roma-rights advocate named Nesime Salioska.

“We stopped a life from being stolen. Isabela’s story shows the importance of an intergenerational commitment to fight against child marriages,” says Salioska.

Child marriages in North Macedonia predominantly occur among the Roma community, and are often informal and overlooked by authorities. The State Statistical Office of North Macedonia registered 118 child marriages in 2016 but local NGOs estimate that the true number may be three times higher.

Isabela, who is now 16 years old and the mother of a two-year-old daughter, could easily have become one of those statistics. But her grandmother Nanny Litka, who raised her in her humble Prilep home, refused to let her go. Although illiterate, poor and feeble, Nanny Litka fought courageously to keep her granddaughter from getting married so young.

“She never gave up on protecting Isabela from her adult boyfriend while also accompanying her to every doctor’s examination during her pregnancy and delivery to make sure her reproductive health was taken care of,” Salioska says.

With Salioska’s support, Nanny Litka also won a rare, three-year-long legal battle to get Isabela’s adult boyfriend arrested and convicted of having sexual intercourse with a minor. He has been sentenced to an four-year prison term.

“There is often a lack of action and commitment by relevant institutions in cases like this due to ethnic stigmatization. They see child marriage as part of Roma ‘tradition’ and thus something in which they should not interfere,” Salioska says. “I get fired up to act when I see social workers or teachers failing to address these cases, treating these girls as less important individuals with no potential for achieving anything else in their lives other than being housewives and mothers.”

A tireless fight to break an intergenerational cycle of inequality

Salioska was also born and raised in Prilep, the fourth-biggest city in North Macedonia. A large Roma community of around 5,000 people lives on the city’s urban fringes.

“Although early marriages are common among Roma, this is not only a Roma issue; it’s a harmful practice, a lifetime inequality and a form of disempowerment of both girls and boys,” says Salioska. The activist is also a UNFPA partner and a strong advocate for legislative changes to end child marriages who works to spread her ideas across the region. She addressed the issues facing Roma women and girls at the 2018 Regional Conference on ICPD+25 in Geneva, and women’s empowerment and human rights at UNFPA’s first global “Let’s Talk!” event in Antalya, Turkey, last year.

As executive director of the non-governmental organization ROMA S.O.S., Salioska has been working for years to advance health care, enhance gender equality and enable access to legal aid and justice, with a particular focus on eliminating harmful practices within her own community.

“Women in my community are ‘homeless’ all their life: their family house does not belong to them, since property is inherited only by male children, and anyway she is expected to join another house where she will be a stranger,” Salioska says. “There is an intergenerational cycle of discrimination against girls that is perpetuated in part by women themselves.”

Nesime Salioska (shown reflected in traditional carved-wood mirror) visits with Isabela, age 16, and her daughter, Anelia, age two, at their home in Prilep, North Macedonia. Photo credit: ©UNFPA North Macedonia/Tomislav Georgiev.

“If a mother has had a hard life and married early, her daughter should not have to do the same because ‘that’s the way things go,’” Salioska explains. “If a mother-in-law was treated poorly as a bride, she should not repeat this behaviour with her son’s wife because ‘that’s how it has to be.’ Instead, women should use their own experiences as an example to fight harmful practices and support girls’ education and independence.”

Among Roma in North Macedonia, child marriage is linked to poverty, school dropout and patriarchal values that associate female virginity with family “honour.” It is also associated with early pregnancy, which can be detrimental for girls’ reproductive health. But despite the risks of child marriage for girls, their education is often not a priority for families concerned with survival in an impoverished community where employment opportunities are limited or do not exist at all.

“With information and choices so scarce, many families, and even some girls themselves, see child marriage as a protective mechanism for social safety,” says Salioska. “Fortunately, not all parents and grandparents share this belief.”

Big steps forward at the legislative and local level

Salioska has been working for years to mobilize governmental partners, parliamentarians, civil-society organizations and UN agencies including UNFPA to advocate for institutional changes. In December 2018, these efforts bore fruit with the National Parliament’s passing of a new law making marriage under age 18 a crime. 

“This was a huge victory. We advocated jointly for these changes along with UNFPA, UNICEF, member of parliament Cvetanka Ivanova, representatives from the National Democratic Institute and many other partners and allies,” Salioska says. “However, we still have many things to do.”

These next steps include proposed changes to the Family Law that would include legal recognition of cohabiting couples in order to register them and ensure that those relationships involving a minor are likewise forbidden. Salioska and her allies are also pushing for the Laws on Primary and Secondary Education to be amended in order to collect data about the reasons why high school students leave education as a tool for identifying girls in or at risk of child marriage.

Meanwhile, attitudes in Roma communities are beginning to change as well. Last year, several cases were filed with the police and court hearings opened by the government’s Centre for Social Affairs based on claims submitted by the parents of minor girls who were seduced by adult men who brought them to their homes as brides. Roma parents have been encouraged to demand institutional support in fighting against child marriages based on available legal mechanisms.

“Traditional cultural norms around virginity have harmful consequences for girls and we must work with communities to dismantle these norms and the stigma that comes with them, and to promote a culture that attaches more value to girls’ happiness and well-being than to out-dated notions of family ‘honour,’” Salioska says. “We still have а lot of work to do, but I am confident that we are on the right track.”

- Irena Spirkovska