Empowering Roma mothers to break the cycle of illiteracy

August 3, 2006
A group of mothers with their children in Jaszbereny, celebrating the completion of phase one of the project.

THE JASZSAG REGION, Hungary — Before she started studying with the Mesed Project, Agi Racz was ashamed of the fact that she could not read -- and afraid to try to learn how.

"At first I had doubts, fears," said Ms. Racz, a mother of four and a member of the Roma ethnic minority.

But with the encouragement of the Mesed literacy project volunteers and other participants, she overcame her anxieties.

"I felt good with my friends, and it helped me to get over my feelings of shame," she said. "If someone couldn't read she got encouragement from the others. They said, 'Never mind, go on.' I realized that I can do it, that they won't laugh at me."

Ms. Racz is one of some 40 participants in the Mesed project, which was started by the Baha'i community of Hungary in 2003 with the goal of teaching reading and writing to disadvantaged Roma women.

Currently operating in eight towns and cities, the project is distinctive for its use of storytelling in the teaching of reading and writing. The word Mesed is an acronym for "Meselo Edes Anyak," which means "storytelling mothers."

The project aims to help Roma mothers to overcome their fears of reading by encouraging them to read and tell stories to their children -- thereby not only giving them encouragement in the path to literacy, but also to create a culture of reading at home -- and so help break the cycle of illiteracy between generations.

"Many of the Roma women lack basic skills in reading and/or the confidence to read aloud," said Furugh Switzer, the director of the project. "They usually become mothers at an early age and the distance between them and book learning increases.

"They tend to develop feelings of inferiority which, in turn, affects their view of life and of their own self. They are not in a position to help their children with school work, neither are they able to transfer enthusiasm and appreciation for books and book learning, and a cycle of illiteracy is perpetuated," said Ms. Switzer.

Hajnal Racz, a participant of the project and a mother of three, described how initial feelings of shame and embarrassment were replaced by a sense of confidence.

"In the beginning it was strange that we had to read," said Hajnal Racz, who is not related to Agi Racz -- Racz being a common surname among the Roma. "We tried not to make mistakes, but being anxious we made more mistakes. But, after a while, we realized that we don't need to be ashamed. Halfway through the project our reading improved a lot and by the end of the project we could read quite well."

Graduation ceremony held in Torokszentmiklos in 2003. Slideshow
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Graduation ceremony held in Torokszentmiklos in 2003.

In 2003, Mesed was selected as one of the five projects that were presented at the European Parliament as a supporting program of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World.

The project has also drawn notice from local officials. Leko Belane Malika, the deputy mayor of Jakohalma -- one of the villages in the region of Jaszsag where a large population of Roma reside and one of Mesed's main areas of focus -- recently described the facilitators as "dedicated professionals who take it to their heart to bring about equality which is a key question in today's world."

"I think this is a pioneering effort in this field," said Mr. Malika. "And I would like to express my gratitude for this work."

The Roma, which constitute roughly six percent of Hungary's population, are considered to be the most disadvantaged and most discriminated against minority group in the country. Literacy rates for the Roma are distinctly lower than for the Hungarian population at large, according to the United Nations Development program. This is especially for people over 45. While 97 percent of that age group are literate in Hungary as a whole, just 77 percent of Roma men and women are.

What matters more, perhaps, are the statistics on educational attainment for Roma children. According to Balazs Wizner, writing in the Hungarian Quarterly last year, about 36 percent of Roma children failed to complete elementary school in 2000, versus 5 percent for other Hungarian children. That gets worse as they move up the educational ladder. In 2001, approximately 20 percent of the Roma entered secondary school, versus 73 percent nationwide.

By stressing the literacy among mothers -- and focusing on reading at an early age -- Mesed hopes to break that cycle by providing a course of free weekly literacy classes.

"At a basic level it empowers women," Ms. Switzer said. "It affects the mother's relationship with books and learning by creating a positive association which, in turn, and naturally, will be passed on to her children. Women begin to see themselves as active agents of change."

Participant Andrea Racz said the course had indeed helped her see the importance of motherhood. "The role of a mother is very important in a family," she said. "If in a family the mother feels good, then that family is a happy family because a mother not only thinks about the day to day life of a family, but she also prepares them for life. We are mothers, but we raise future mothers and fathers."

One of the main goals of the project is to create a forum where Roma mothers can feel safe and comfortable to express their feelings, grievances and hopes. "The most important thing," said Andrea Racz, "was that we had found a new family because the atmosphere was very warm."

Ms. Switzer described the process of bonding and sharing that took place between the mothers. "The mothers started by sharing experiences from the childhood," she said. "Having found an accepting, loving and secure milieu -- an experience otherwise unprecedented in their life within a deeply prejudiced society -- they poured out their hearts and shared their past experiences."

The first phase of the project focuses on the development of basic literacy skills through the reading of children's books -- and the teaching of moral virtues as contained in them.

Each week the mothers receive and practice with a new children's book, which they then take home and read to their children every night during the week. In this way, skills that are learned are immediately put into practice.

"Our task in this was that when we went home we read the story to our children," said Andrea Racz. "Every night we read to them. They eagerly waited every night to see what story they would get."

In all, the mothers read 15 books, which are given to them as gifts, and which ultimately becomes a small library for the family in each home.

"Research shows that the more children are read to before they go to school," said Ms. Switzer, "the more likely they are to be academically successful. Thus the Roma children will become the mutual beneficiaries for this project. They will enter school mentally more equipped for the written word and will have a positive association with books and reading.

"They are also more likely to be supported by their mothers at home who, by now, have gained a sense of pride in their ability to read and are more equipped to help track the progress of their children at school," said Ms. Switzer.

Julika Kovacs, a mother of three, described her children's enthusiastic response to reading. "They always waited for me to arrive every week asking what new story book I brought. They always read, all three of them, and fought with each other to be the first one to read."

The emphasis on educating children in virtues is directly linked to the books. The mothers are taught to use the stories they read in their day-to-day life to teach children moral and spiritual qualities, such as honestly, trustworthiness, kindness and generosity.

"When there were behavioral problems with my little son or he didn't understand something," said Andrea Racz, "I read a story to him and talked about the main characters in the story and we discussed how they behaved and whether it was proper behavior or not. There were situations where all I had to say was, you know 'Franklin Helps' [the name of the book] and he knew what I meant."

Participant Marika Farkas said the act of coming together to read has a positive effect on her whole family. "Every week...the whole family sits together to read. It brings the whole family together. Mother, father and the children sit together and read and in this way the home becomes a warmer place because of these stories."

So far ten groups of mothers throughout Hungary have completed the first phase of the project, which was funded by the Baha'i community of Hungary. The Mesed project plans to expand, and the next step is to organize trainings for facilitators who will then act as coordinators for the Mesed meetings. Once a core number of women have been trained, the project will start experimenting with phase two: the development of writing skills.

"By all means I recommend the course," said Andrea Racz. "Roma and Hungarian mothers alike, get to know each other, and think together, and they will see how nice it is to think together, and from this they will see that not only is it possible to live together, but we must.

"Let us all be proud that we are mothers, that we make every effort for the benefit of our children," she said. "For the children the only task should be learning, learning, learning."