Bijeljina’s first Roma student

Wife, mother and housewife – this is the life girls from Roma families in Bosnia and Herzegovina can generally expect. For Sanita Smajić, however, simply accepting this as her fate was never an option. Today, she is the first Romnija to register at the University of Bijeljina. Without a nongovernmental organisation backing her struggle, she might never have achieved her goal.

It takes just eight steps to reach the Faculty of Education in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina. It’s only a short distance, but to Sanita Smajić it still feels special. In Bosnia, this 22-year-old Romni is an exception. Not only has she finished school, she is now in her second year at the University of Bijeljina, a town in the northeast of the country. Before her, no woman from the Roma community has ever made it into this institute of higher education.

Even at other Bosnian universities, Roma students remain the exception. There are an estimated 70,000 Roma living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, most of them on the fringes of society with no access to the state education system. And for Romnija (women from the Roma community) life is doubly hard. While they suffer discrimination from mainstream society as members of the Roma community, the communities themselves are patriarchal and women are generally not allowed to decide for themselves about the life they wish to lead. Formal education is not valued and girls are expected to marry early or otherwise contribute to the family’s income.

‘What is she doing studying at university? Shouldn’t she be getting married at her age?’

Sanita became the first Romni student at Bijeljina University, primarily thanks to the support she received from the NGO Otaharin, an organisation that strives to increase the number of Roma children attending school. Further support came from the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups, implemented in the countries of the Western Balkans mainly to improve the lives of socially disadvantaged groups. Sanita, who grew up in a predominantly Roma neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bijeljina, had to fight doggedly with her family just to finish school. In this community, it was not common for children to go to school. ‘At the most, there were just ten Roma children at my primary school,’ she recalls. Sanita was first given school textbooks at the Otaharin community centre, which receives funding from the GIZ regional project called Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups. However, the social workers at the centre, who eventually convinced her parents to allow her to finish secondary school were just as important.

Sanita is certain that her parents would never have allowed her to study. They wanted her to earn a living after secondary school. Instead, she secretly enrolled at university, leaving her parents little choice. When they found out they were initially furious, but they eventually let Sanita have her way, in spite of a barrage of negative comments from friends and neighbours, who argued that university was no place for a woman, let alone a woman of marriageable age.

From student to teacher

Sanita now uses her newfound confidence to speak to other children about the support she received at the Otaharin community centre and through the GIZ regional project on Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups. She spends her free time at the community centre teaching homeless children and those at risk of ending up destitute. Today she is the one knocking on doors in her community to convince parents that their children are better off at school than on the streets. It’s also thanks to her perseverance that around 100 children from Roma families now attend the local primary school.

Over the years, her family has got used to Sanita doing things her way. Today, even her parents are extremely proud of their high-flying daughter, who has become a role model for many children in the community. Girls, in particular, admire the student. Many tell her: ‘I want to be just like you.’ This gives Sanita hope that things will eventually change and that, in future, more young Romnija will have the self-confidence to make their own choices. ‘This is why ensuring they have access to education is so important,’ she says. ‘It’s the only way girls can have the opportunity to do something other than get married and stay at home.’ After graduation, Sanita wants to work as an educator. ‘It’s the best way for me to help girls follow in my footsteps.’