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Albanian Kids Skip School En Masse

The authorities in Tirana are struggling to deal with spiralling illiteracy and truancy rates
By Denisa Xhoga

At a recent news conference, the education minister, Et'hem Ruka, caused a stir when he announced there were an estimated 16,000 illiterate youngsters in the country.


The figure may not seem high for a developing country, but Albanians were shocked nonetheless because the authorities had proclaimed in the early nineties that the battle against illiteracy had been won.


Ruka's announcement was controversial for other reasons too. His figures conflicted with statistics put together by his staff. The latter suggested the number of children struggling with literacy problems was actually a third less than the minister's estimates.


Confronted with this discrepancy, the ministry was forced to admit that no thorough study had been done into the problem.


What's clear though is that a problem exists - it's visible in the streets and fields where children work to support their families rather than attend class.


"If I make good money this year, I'll go to school next year," said Besnik, a ten-year-old bus conductor in Tirana. Besnik left school to supplement his family's meagre income after they left their village of Lazhe in northern Albania.


Ergi, another ten-year-old, begs around the city's bars and cafes to help his family out. He's never been to school. He says he's always been "employed" as a beggar.


A study carried out by the Children's Human Rights Centre of Albania, which interviewed thousands of children and teachers across the country, showed that many kids are starting work at ten or 12.


Parents can face fines of up to 650 US dollars for failing to ensure their children are in school. But those likely to be caught are also those most unlikely to be able to afford to pay. Anyway, police have other things on their mind besides chasing up truants.


About 10,000 children abandoned elementary and secondary school at the end of last semester according to Eduart Osmani, the education ministry official in charge of elementary schools.


Ministry spokeswoman Edlira Myrtaj says that just under one and a half per cent of the country's half million elementary school age children are not attending - a slight drop on the figure for the year 2000.


What the figures throughout the nineties indicate is that there is a direct correlation between the economy and truancy figures - the worse the former, the higher the latter.


In 1990, officials spoke of a zero per cent illiteracy rate. A year later, the figure rose to 3.1 per cent, falling to 2.4 per cent in1992 and then rising again to 2.7 per cent in 1997 - mirroring a period of economic downturn and virtual political anarchy.


Parents in rural and urban areas are taking their children out of school to help raise money. "Poverty pressures parents into sending their children out to work in the streets and the countryside, in order to survive, " said Osmani.


"I want to go to school but my mother doesn't let me because she wants leks (the Albanian currency)," said Irena, an eight-year-old girl begging in the centre of Tirana, her mother standing nearby with another child.


There is the additional problem that there are simply not enough schools in rural areas. Pupils often have to walk for miles or hitchhike to get to class. In northern, mountainous areas, the government has found it hard to maintain schools catering for small numbers of pupils.


The question is how to stem the flow of children from the classroom to the street. Is it a question of implementing social reforms or waiting for the economy to pick up?


Tightening employment legislation probably wouldn't make much difference. Albania's labour code bans children under the age of 14 from working in any capacity - at that age a child may work at light jobs in vacation time - but the reality is clearly rather different.


Denisa Xhoga is a journalist of the Albanian daily Shekulli.


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