Adolescent mothers and bleak lives are the toll of one Bulgarian Romani community’s taboo against sex education.
SHUMEN, Bulgaria | In this small Bulgarian city, the Roma mostly keep to their own quarter, known locally as the mahala. Among women in the neighborhood, many married in their mid-teens and bore their first child within a year. Then came several more children in quick succession.
Daniela Metodieva, though, says she bucked expectations. She held off on marriage until 17, then gave birth to a girl the next year. She stopped there, at one child.
She’s exceptional in other ways as well: while raising her daughter, now 17, Metodieva waitresses in a bar. Other women in the mahala are either unemployed or sweep the streets of downtown Shumen.
Metodieva wants better things for her daughter, but worries the teen will follow in her footsteps. “I’m only 35 – I don’t want to be a grandmother yet,” says Metodieva, who’s standing, arms folded, in the middle of the road. Her neighbors gather around, listening in curiously.
“Some guy may lie to my daughter,” Metodieva continues. “She may get married and have her own family soon. But what will she understand about life? … For sure, if I could turn back the clock, I wouldn’t marry so young. It’s only when you’re older that you see what life is really like.”
Metodieva and other Bulgarian Roma say the community needs a dose of sex education, to fully grasp the consequences of teen pregnancy. They partly blame the state, which doesn’t mandate the subject in the school curriculum. Romani parents then amplify the silence: sex is as taboo a topic as there is.
As a result, the community doesn’t connect the dots of how teen pregnancy perpetuates the cycle of poverty. For starters, one of the first things a pregnant girl does is drop out of school. Lacking a basic education or vocational skills, she further limits her family’s earning potential, now and in the future. Enduring that daily grind of poverty adds fuel to social problems like alcoholism and domestic violence.
Soon after, early divorce dumps many young women onto the margins of an already-marginalized community, says Nikolay Nikolov, a Romani activist working on Roma integration in the Black Sea city of Varna.
That’s why Nikolov’s group, the Center for Strategies, has launched the “I’m a (Different) Woman” campaign for 12-year-old Romani girls: to teach them they have choices – and a path upward.
“We’re trying to wake them up, to open their eyes,” Nikolov says. “We need to break this system.”
While often stereotyped as a Romani habit, teen pregnancy is rising. Bulgarian professionals who work with teenagers here in the country’s northeast warn that they also see a growing number of abortions and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases – among Bulgarians and Roma alike.
In 2008 in Bulgaria, there were 471 abortions for every 1,000 live births, according to the World Health Organization. Of the 31 reporting countries in the WHO’s European region, only Romania and Estonia outpaced Bulgaria. But the country’s real abortion rate may be triple the official estimates, says Daniel Dimov, a gynecologist in Shumen. Dimov has also seen a rise in gonorrhea, syphilis, and early-teen abortions among his patients. This has sparked more cases of sterilization or infertility, which leads to his side specialty: in vitro fertilization.
“The questions I get indicate the level of sex education is near zero,” says Dimov, who’s been practicing for 15 years. “There should be compulsory classes in school, with grades given. Then we’d see results. Even irresponsible kids would have a minimal amount of knowledge.”
Without a mandate – or the needed resources – local school districts may choose to avoid even limited discussions of sexuality.
Bulgaria is hardly unique in the European Union. According to a 2006 WHO report, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the U.K. also allow local school districts to opt out of sex education.
In Shumen, home to many ethnic Turks as well as Roma, one school counselor says local teachers have pressed education officials for more health education in the curriculum.
“Their response was, ‘The kids are already too busy, with too many required courses,’ ” says the woman, who did not want to be identified out of concern for how her school’s head might react. “That’s true, they are busy. But the ministry is also not listening to the teachers’ voices.”
The counselor says that since some girls begin menstruating as young as 8 or 9, adolescents need sex education to know what it means – and where it all leads. Biology teachers partially fill the void by folding it into their courses, but only for a few hours. The counselor herself has lectured about it.
“Their parents may not know how to do it, so the schools should be responsible,” she says. “We make it easy for the students to understand it, so they know the consequences of their actions.”
Michail Okoliyski, a sexologist with the National Center of Public Health Protection, also says the government needs to understand the importance of public education on matters of sexuality. They don’t recognize, he says, the “lifelong process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values about such important topics as identity, relationships, and intimacy.” Without institutional backing, the result is an “unbalanced attitude toward sex and intimacy” that views “sex as taboo on the one hand and sex as a commercial, cynical [enterprise] on the other.”
For their part, Education Ministry officials say it cannot be entirely up to the schools to educate children to avoid unwanted pregnancy and disease.
But a wider discussion of the issue is stymied by a sex taboo that affects all Bulgarians, not just the Roma.
Okoliyski says the taboo is rooted in history and culture, shaped by five centuries under Ottoman rule and their patriarchal traditions. The Communist regime reinforced this taboo, he says, as it “considered sexuality only in its reproductive function.”
“There was no space left for the free, individual development of the concept of sexual expression, and anything that didn’t conform to an official concept was stigmatized,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding that a continuing prohibition on the distribution of erotic or pornographic materials has not helped.
In a 2001 country report for the UN Development Program, Okoliyski and fellow researcher Petko Velichkov wrote, “Bulgarian adolescents feel abandoned by their elders as far as their own sexual problems are concerned. They still get their sexual knowledge ‘in the streets.’ ”
One Bulgarian activist says she herself finds it difficult to shake this taboo.
Veneta Gospodinova is director of the Social Activities and Practices Institute, a center for at-risk youth that offers sex-education activities for 12- to 18-year-olds. During her upbringing, and even when she reared her own children, the subject of sex education “was never raised and simply not discussed, it was such a taboo,” she says. “But today we see change in many things, including family values.”
Juliya Dimova, the Shumen gynecologist’s 17-year-old-daughter, has become something of a guru to her friends, by dint of her father’s occupation.
“He’s told me everything since I was 6,” she says with a laugh. As for her friends, though they have access to information about how their bodies work, “Some boys and girls are ashamed to ask questions [wondering] what will their friends, parents, or teachers think of them?”
Some friends turn to the Internet or a trusted teacher. Or to Juliya.
“They ask me to help,” she says. “Or I ask my father.”
One friend got pregnant two years ago, was afraid to tell her parents, then aborted. “She’s really clever,” Juliya says. “But she didn’t know anything about how she could get pregnant.”
Also filling the information vacuum are those who see an opportunity for profit. The school counselor says a tampon manufacturer, for example, sponsored a lecture in her school on female hygiene while pushing its products and handing out samples.
Similarly, Dimov says he has given school lectures sponsored by condom companies, which naturally have an interest in spreading the gospel of safe sex. “It’s mutually beneficial,” he says. “We learn about new products the students would be interested in, and of course we take advantage” of the materials they provide.
Within this broader Bulgarian context, the Roma situation has its own specific characteristics. Observers say the Romani tradition of marrying daughters off as soon as possible is stubbornly rooted in a concern about protecting the virginity of unmarried girls.
Nikolov sketches a portrait: “A 12-year-old girl gets pregnant; at 13, gives birth; at 15, gives birth again; at 17, divorces, marries another husband; at 18, gives birth again; at 22, has a fourth. In another three or four years, her first child will be 12 – ready to follow in her mother’s footsteps.”
In lectures to young women, Nikolov says he presents positive role models of women who have “integrated into society,” with vocations of their own. Perhaps they got married at 18 or 19, but took a course. They’re not a simple street-sweeper but may work as a cosmetician or hair stylist. Instead of only working in a stall in the bazaar, they own a modest kiosk.
“We need to encourage people to get better skills, to be more competitive in the marketplace,” he says. “Imagine a young woman with no motivation to go to school. ‘Why should I study?’ So I ask them: ‘Do you know how much a cleaning woman or street sweeper makes? Two hundred leva. Do you know how much a cook makes? Five hundred. Is that a difference? If her sister or neighbor is a cook, she’ll see that their kids are better fed, better clothed, living a better lifestyle. I ask them, ‘Is that important to you?’ And the answer 100 percent of the time is ‘Yes.’ ”
At the grass roots, activists experience challenges of their own.
Irina Ivanova is a sexual-health advocate in her Varna neighborhood, the mahala known as Maksuda.
Men in Maksuda long ignored condoms, Ivanova says, and women typically bore four or five children, none of them planned. With many mouths to feed, and meager resources, parents could not properly care for all of their children.
Supported by her husband, she says, she took on a mission to educate her neighbors.
Five years ago, she joined the organization Sauchastie – Bulgarian for “participation” – to spread the word about how to prevent HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, early pregnancies, and repeated pregnancies.
When Ivanova, a young woman, approached people for discussions there was obvious unease. Men, particularly, coped with their discomfort by cracking jokes, she says.
“I’m the first person who’s talked about it with them,” says Ivanova, 33, the mother of two daughters.
With her eight years of schooling, though, neighbors consider her educated. In time, her persistence won their trust. Today, she can talk face to face with her neighbors, who listen – especially the women and girls. Many now understand the link between unprotected sex and its consequences.
“They want to protect themselves and be healthy in their sexual lives,” Ivanova says.
She also holds open seminars about safe sex in the local health clinic and is often approached by teenage boys and girls with questions about their sexual lives.
Gospodinova, the Shumen activist, traces a line between a lack of sex education and her newly renovated, brightly lit center, whose “This Is My Health” club offers information, films, and activities to help young people sort through questions like the appropriate age to begin having sex, how to select a partner, and how to prevent pregnancy and STDs.
“We’re dealing with the consequences of not having sex education at an early age,” she says, citing early pregnancies, early marriage, and multiple or unwanted children. Many parents of the children who come to the center “don’t have the skills to raise their kids, or the time to relate to them, or to keep an eye on them.”
Leery of perpetuating anti-Romani stereotypes, Gospodinova will not say what proportion of her clientele is Roma. She will say that many were expelled from school for violence, or are candidates to drop out for other reasons. They come from various troubled backgrounds. Some are orphans. Others come from families with as many as 10 children and not enough parental attention to go around. Still others have a parent who is an alcoholic or in prison.
Even so, they stand apart from their peers in another way, says Silvia Milkova, a young Romani social worker at the center.
“Girls who come here have already made up their minds about getting married later,” says Milkova, 24.
For the girls from more traditional homes, Gospodinova says, “We do sometimes have difficulty bringing them to our courses.”
While she says she now sees more girls graduate from high school, Gospodinova concedes that for other families, urging them to resist early marriage and dropping out of school “opens a Pandora’s box” with the parents. “Especially if the girl feels it’s not up to her to decide.”
Back in the Shumen mahala, Daniela Metodieva’s friend, Sevda, has emerged from her home and weighs in.
“When I was young, we knew nothing about condoms,” says Sevda, 33, whose children are 13, 11, 8, and 4. “When we make kids, we don’t plan them. They just pop out.”
However, Sevda’s 13-year-old, Lili, suggests things might be different for her.
Her sixth-grade teacher, she recalls, once raised the subject of condoms. The class didn’t understand, at first.
“We were laughing, but at least now we know about it,” says Lili, shyly. “But we’re not interested in any of that anyway, because we’re not doing ‘it.’ ”
Michael J. Jordan is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Bratislava. He blogs about Central and Eastern Europe at Jordan Ink. Ognyan Isaev is a freelance journalist in Shumen.