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Gypsy child brides need an education, not marriage: a school built by Catholic Charities gives Romany children a chance.

Run From The Church" read headlines of one of Romania's leading newspapers last month after a 14-year-old Gypsy bride made a romantic plea by running out during the ceremony of an arranged marriage.

The story brought chuckles here in the streets of Bucharest where it is common knowledge that many Gypsy women marry before 16. Even though Romanian law prohibits such practices, the authorities commonly turn a blind eye. That eye is also shuttered when it comes to Roma truancy. According to a 2002 report by the U.N. Development Program, nearly 50 percent of Romany (Gypsy) children fail to complete or even begin primary education.

But for the Gypsy community in the Valley of Stan, 120 miles north of the capital, Bucharest, the new school built by Catholic Charities is changing attitudes toward early marriage and education.

"The children are becoming more anxious to learn because they understand that education opens new doors for them," said Marius Hodea, director of the local Catholic Charities program.

The school's success caught the eye of officials of U.S. charities, who after a recent visit, donated 12 new computers and $25,000 toward the building of a library and more classrooms. Building is set to begin next summer.

"Not a day too soon," adds principal Radu Stoian, who meanwhile accommodates 180 students in a school built for 100 and with fewer teachers than he needs.

The isolated community is made up of 360 Gypsies living in shacks that house as many as 10 people and up to 4 generations. Water is gathered from the stream that runs through the village. Homes are heated by wood that the children bring down from the forest as part of their early morning and after-school chores. With few opportunities for girls, who are considered a burden on their families, they begin to marry as young as 13. A walk down the main dirt road will reveal plenty of teenage girls nursing their young. According to Hodea, education has begun empowering these young women and many are now continuing school past the ages when their mothers were married.

The U.N. study reports that just over 20 percent of Romanian Gypsies attend secondary school and fewer than half of those will graduate. But in the Valley of Stan, 17-year-old Codruta Grozavu and Iulia Prundaru are continuing their education into high school--something none of the adults had achieved. The school is also influencing parents like Claudia Lingurari, who married at age 14 and today can barely read and write. About her 16-year-old daughter, who looks more like a sister, Lingurari says, "She has received many proposals, but I have convinced her to stay in school and continue her education."

Meanwhile the child bride debate goes on.

The recent incident of the runaway 14-year-old bride may have been ignored again but for European Union envoy to Romania, Emma Nicholson, who immediately called on authorities to remove the child from the marriage.

She particularly chastised Romanian police who directed traffic outside the wedding but took no action to prevent it.

Inside the Roma community, opinions are split. Madalin Voicu, the Roma communities' only member of parliament, has called the wedding "barbaric." Others in the community have come out strongly defending it, calling it a tradition that needs to be protected.

"Only in time and with the continuing of education and the end of discrimination can this tradition be stopped," said Violeta Dumitru, president of Roma Women's Association of Romania. A recent study by her organization found that 35 percent of Roma women marry before the legal age of 16.

But in the Valley of Start these young marriages are not a tradition, says Ion Grozavu, but a result of their deep-rooted poverty. Grozavu, who cannot read or write, is the father of two teenage girls at the new school. Both plan to attend high school within the next couple of years.

"We have much gratitude for those who opened the school," said Grozavu. "It is helping my children. And I would like to keep them there as long as they want to learn."

Freelancer Chuck Todaro is reporting while on a three-year tour of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Todaro, Chuck
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Nov 14, 2003
Words:700
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