The night had fallen on the village Pobërgjë, near Deçan vicinity in the Western part of Kosovo, and all were asleep when a girl had the courage to leave home. At that time, the 17-year-old could not consent to the fate predetermined by her family – no education and having to accept an early marriage.
Fleeing was the only alternative.
The girl’s 87-member household – living in hereditary traditions and customs – would in no way accept that she had the right to an education and gender equity.
Many years later, the girl, Xhejrane Lokaj, would start the non-governmental organization, “Women Initiative of Dragash”, where she tirelessly works to prevent early marriages and advocates for girls and women in her village to have access to an education.
“Regardless of the pleading by my teachers, my school director and the head of the youth organization in the municipality of Deçan, my parents were never convinced that I deserved an education,” she said. “When all possibilities for my education were exhausted, and I was told I was to be married early by my family, I left everyone sleeping at home and did not see my family for a whole year.”
Unfortunately, Lokaj is not alone. There are many young girls in the village of Restelicë, a municipality of Dragash in the southern part of Kosovo, who share the same fate.
“In Restelicë, girls and women continue to live by village rules,” Lokaj said. “They are uneducated and brought up to be married at a very young age.”
Early marriages are still a chronic issue in the country, which brutally violate the rights of minors, especially girls. As a consequence of early marriages, many other human rights are denied as well, such as the right to an education.
“I told my parents all along not to plan an arranged marriage for me and that they would encounter many problems if they did,” Lokaj explained. “I had made it clear to them that I did not want to get married according to the customs, traditions and their will.”
Lindita Piraj, officer for gender equality in the municipality of Dragash, shed light on the prevalence of early marriages in Kosovo.
“Early marriages are a phenomenon that unfortunately is present in our community, especially among the Goran-Bosnian community, which has the largest number of cases in Restelicë,” Piraj said. “The largest number of early marriages are among girls ages 15 and 16, and are mainly influenced by their parents or family members.”
When girls face gender discrimination in society, it creates an environment where they feel as if the world is habitually against their wills. It prevents them from raising their voices, thoughts and opinions about issues in the world and their overall lives. When girls are married at a young age, gender discrimination is heightened and further prevents them from exceling in life.
Thus, the girl-child “turns” into a woman, who ultimately carries on her shoulders the burden of taking care of her husband, children, and herself. Although a wife, she is only a girl and is surely not prepared physically or mentally for marriage.
However, there are other officials in Dragash such as Astrit Baxhaku, the director of the Registrar, who acknowledge that early marriages exist in the municipality, but claims that they are very few and far between.
“There are many cases of early marriages, but very few of them are registered. Within a year, we have had two official marriages under the age of 18,” said Baxhaku said.
Hajri Ramadani, the director of education in the municipality of Dragash, also says that there are no cases of parents banning their children’s access to education and that all children in this municipality attend primary and pre-primary schools. However, the data he provided shows that only a small number of girls attend high school after completing their primary school education.
“In the municipality of Dragash, school is attended by all boys and girls, where there are 2,144 boys and 2,149 girls. The number of boys that attend high school are 57 percent in the 10th grade, whereas 43 percent are girls,” Ramadani said.
Civil society activists – in conjunction with municipality of Dragash – are conducting awareness-raising activities to prevent early marriages and promote girls’ education.
In 2012, Lokaj held events about the importance of educating girls and conducted house-to-house visits in villages. She succeeded in some villages such as Krusha, where six girls enrolled in high school. However, she was very disappointed when she failed to do so in the Restelicë.
“I went to every house in the village of Restelicë, urging parents to send their girls to school,” Lokaj said. “The girls were fully willing to continue their education, though they did not even dare to express their will.”
Parents did not agree, she continued. “I was told that the priority for them was to get married and start a family,” she said. “According to their parents, the girls were at the ideal age for marriage, and school was an unsafe place for them. They still live under the old traditions.”
Unfortunately, Restelicë continues to live with its notorious label of a village where not a single girl continues onto secondary education…yet.