Initiatives across the region to improve literacy could also have a positive impact on the economy.
By Katica Djurovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 04/03/13
A Serbian adult literacy programme that started in 2008 includes more than 5,000 students. [Katica Djurovic/SETimes]
In a Belgrade classroom, with walls covered with posters of the Serbian alphabet, 11 men and women are filling out test papers. A white-haired man in his 50s sits at a desk next to a young man, both peeping at each other's papers.
The two classmates are among 5,000 people in Serbia who are learning how to read and write through the education ministry's Druga Sansa (Second Chance) Project.
Berisa, 57, who would not give his last name to a reporter, enrolled in the programme because of his job requirements. Under recently enacted regulations, Serbian workers must meet minimum education requirements in order to receive pensions.
"I [have] worked in Belgrade's water supply and sewage company for 22 years, but in order to [get my] pension I need to finish elementary school," he told SETimes.
Druga Sansa started in 2008 with the goal of helping adults finish elementary school. The EU provided 4.2 million euros, and the ministry of education added another 3.5 million.
"The project was planned to last until September. However, we have plans to include Second Chance in a regular education system, not only because there is an obvious need for it, but because this project gave fantastic results," Aleksandra Kokanovic, spokeswoman of the Druga Sansa Project, told SETimes.
Similar initiatives are under way across the region as Balkan countries try to reduce high illiteracy rates.
In Romania, the ministry of education organised a programme for 731 unemployed people who went back to elementary school to finish their studies.
Save the Children Romania developed a programme to prevent the tendency to withdraw from school. The initiative has involved 1,779 children who participated in educational activities and 1,602 parents who attended periodic information and counseling meetings in nine cities.
Romania is taking steps to reduce its 10 percent illiteracy rate. [Gabriel Petrescu/SETimes]
"We have a duty to look beyond labels, stereotypes and stigmatisations and to see the children as they really are. Our project does exactly that by the actions we will take in the next three years," Gabriela Alexandrescu, chief executive Save the Children Romania, told SETimes.
But in some countries, a straightforward approach to illiteracy is not successful.
Experts in Turkey said civil society initiatives are more effective in raising literacy awareness, especially among girls and women in rural areas. Two such campaigns, Hey Girls, Let's Go to School and Dad, Send Me to School, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of girls attending school since the early 2000s.
One of them was Hilal Akcan, now a university student in her 20s.
"I concretely witnessed that a brilliant future was waiting for me by being integrated into the educational sphere," she told SETimes. "I was lucky because my parents, who were used to complying with local traditions, didn't resist to send me to the school."
In Macedonia, a study conducted by UNICEF showed higher levels of illiteracy in rural settlements and families with a lower economic and social status. So in 2008, Macedonia's government formed the Centre for Education of Adults, which aims to decrease illiteracy in this category of citizens.
"The centre is currently working on implementing the programme for education in six municipalities, Shuto Orizari, Dolneni, Prilep, Bitola, Veles and Topana," Konstantin Hristov, who oversees creation of the centre's programmes and policies, told SETimes.
"Heroes of Everyday Life," is the slogan of a campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina's (BiH) primary schools in Zenica, Kakanj, Vojkovici, Sarajevo, Mrkonjic Grad and Banja Luka.
The programme was launched by the German Society for International Co-operation, for the almost 8,000 illiterate adults in BiH.
Macedonia aims to make sure all children attend both elementary and secondary school. [Tomislav Georgiev/SETimes]
Ljupka Trpcevski, an adult learning specialist at the Branko Pesic Primary School in Belgrade, said these projects will not only reduce illiteracy, but will also help reduce unemployment and poverty.
"This is not only about education. This is also a very important [factor for] employment and social aspect since we are talking here about socially vulnerable and marginalised groups," Trpcevski told SETimes. "Most of them truly believe that the ability to write, read and have education would help them find jobs and eventually live better."
Some governments, however, still have a ways to go to fix the problem of illiteracy.
"Although primary education is compulsory by law and the number of illiterate people increased after the war, authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have not done much on literacy of the population," Selvedin Satorovic, president of the Union of Basic Education and Training BiH, told SETimes.
According to experts this problem has to be solved gradually by changing laws and educational policy.
"A big potential for the solution of this problem lies in NGOs that work with [illiterate] groups to lead comprehensive projects that would include large number of users and trained teachers who can continue the work after project is finished. After that, the responsibility lies with the government," Sandra Zlotrg, executive director of the Association of Linguists in BiH, told SETimes.
Correspondents Ana Lovakovic in Sarajevo, Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul, Gabriel Petrescu in Bucharest and Marina Stojanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.