TIRANA, Albania (WOMENSENEWS)--The trendy cafes of this colorful and resurgent city are a long way from Breju Lumi, a slum of muddy, rutted roads and metal shacks, where Nexhmije Daljani lives.
Once Europe's poorest and most isolated country, today Albania's economy is growing fast as the country makes the transition from communism to democracy and free market capitalism.
But in Breju Lumi--whose name means "river side" even though the only nearby water is a dry stream bed cluttered with rubbish--most houses lack running water, sanitation or electricity, and children race through the streets at midday when they should be in school.
The poorest families here, like the Daljanis, belong to the Roma, the term that members of the community prefer to the more derogatory "Gypsies."
"The two small ones and I go and beg," says Daljani, who at 22 has three small children and no husband or job. "It's the only way we can eat."
Daljani had her first child at 17. By 21, when her husband left her, she had three. Now she lives in a borrowed one-room metal shack and relies on begging--the only source of income for many Roma women--to keep her three small children fed and clothed.
The oldest child, who is mentally disabled, goes to a day-care center run a local nongovernmental organization called Children of the World.
Life Got Harder
For many Roma, especially women, life has gotten harder since the end of communism. Girls are marrying and having children younger, poverty and unemployment are rampant and access to health care and education has declined dramatically.
During communist times, Roma--like all other citizens--were given jobs and houses and forced to go to school. In those days, all Albanians were poor, but the Roma were not necessarily any poorer than other groups.
As social services have collapsed, though, the disparities over wealth and living standards between the Roma and other Albanians have increased. A recent study by the United Nations Development Fund found that the average income of Roma was less than half that of non-Roma living in the same communities.
"The quality of services has decreased," says Dr. Arlinda Ymeraj, a social policy officer with UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, in Albania. "There's more disparity in access to services than in the past and certain groups have suffered from this."
Today, 57 percent of Roma women in Albania--compared to 48 percent of Roma men--have never been to school, a decline from the communist era, according to data from the World Bank.
Since the end of communism, the average age of marriage for Roma women has fallen to levels that worry development experts.
Ages of Marriage, Childbirth Drop
In Albania, the average age of marriage for Roma women is now around 15, compared to an average of 23 across the country and 18 for Roma men. The average age of Roma women at the time of birth for a first child has fallen too. Before 1990, it was almost 19; today it is under 17. For Roma men it's 21.
The young age of marriage and childbirth among Roma women puts them at high risk for abuse and trafficking, limits their access to education and can lead to higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, the United Nations says.
Between 7 and 9 million Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe; Albania's Roma number around 95,000. As a group, they remain one of the poorest and most discriminated against groups on the continent and often live on the fringes of society. Over 70 percent of Roma families in the country are considered very poor and many, like Daljani and her children, live in slum-like conditions.
The causes of this social exclusion are in dispute. Many Roma blame discrimination, but others say they refuse to integrate into mainstream society. The Roma--traditionally nomadic, but now largely settled or semi-nomadic--are a distinct ethnic group with their own language and belief systems.
"The Roma families have a very different culture," said Marinela Cani, a social worker who works with families in Breju Lumi. "They don't think about tomorrow."
Jalldyz Ymeri, a 42-year-old grandmother who lives in a two-room house with eight family members and begs for a living, says life has gotten much harder since the fall of communism.
Fewer Years in School
She went to high school, but her daughters haven't. According to the World Bank, before the end of communism, Roma women had an average of 6.2 years of education. Today, they average less than four.
Roma women in Albania also say their access to health care has deteriorated. They say more Roma children are being born at home and many women have no prenatal care. Albania has no reliable statistics about maternal and infant mortality, but many experts believe that rates among Roma are much higher than the national average.
Public health care in Albania is supposed to be free, but many doctors demand bribes.
"They treat us this way because we are Roma. If we can't pay, they send us away," says Ymeri, whose 3-year-old grandson recently nearly died because she did not have enough money.
Conditions are so bad in Albania that many Roma have left the country and gone to neighboring Greece, which is part of the European Union. Although they face discrimination--as well as the risk of deportation--many say life there is better because it is easier to find odd jobs or to make money by begging or playing music for tourists. Ymeri and her family spent several years in Greece and say they regret returning to Albania.
But even in Greece--a promised land for many Albanian Roma--life is hard.
In a Roma settlement called Grthaios, in an industrial area of Athens, families live in wooden huts surrounded by piles of rubbish. The one-room house of Elena Zerollari, a 39-year-old mother of five, is neat and tidy. Magazine advertisements plaster the walls and the family's belongings are neatly stored away. Zerollari, who is originally from Albania, says many things are better in Greece: the doctors treat them better and jobs are easier to find. The children she has given birth to since moving to Greece were all born in hospitals.
But Zerollari says she'd like a house with running water and for her children to go to school. The schools accept Roma children, she says, but many drop out because they are teased for their ragged clothes and lack of shoes.
"Roma shouldn't live like this forever," she says. "We want to be like you."
Nicole Itano is a freelance reporter based in Athens, Greece. Before moving to Greece in 2006, she spent five years reporting from across the African continent. Her book, "No Place Left to Bury the Dead," about AIDS in Africa will be published in November by Atria Books.
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