UNICEF: 13 pct of Roma children finish school

BELGRADE -- Only 13 percent of Serb Roma complete primary education, as 90 percent of Roma over 15 is illiterate.

Study by the UN children's agency UNICEF conducted in the Balkan states showed Roma are the largest minority group across the Balkans, but most of them spend their life in poverty, illiterate, underfed and marginalized by society.

Census data from Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria put the Roma, or Gypsy, population at some 3.7 million people. The World Bank says it is over 15 million in reality.

Half of the 600 settlements in Serbia were categorized as "unsanitary slums" in the survey, which noted that Roma children in Serbia were six times more likely to be underweight than their Serb counterparts.

"The environment of a Roma child is one of marginalization, poverty and exclusion," said Svetlana Marojević of UNICEF's Belgrade office that coordinated the survey.

"They are in fact invisible, living on the margins of societies that don't care," she said.

Only 13 percent of Serb Roma complete primary education, often ending up in special schools for children with learning difficulties because of their poor language skills.

“Our goal is to help Roma children overcome difficulties they face every day, including discirimantion and poverty. A state that strives to curb poverty has to provide education for the poor and integrate them into the social community,” UNICEF Director for Serbia Ann Lee Swenson said.

According to the survey, only 4 percent of Roma children go to preschool, as the state has plans to increase the percentage each year by 5 percent.