A power to change lives

Kosovo, January 6, 2003

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    Kosovo villagers standing around a disabled boy. Photo:

Mercy Corps' Healthy Community Initiatives in Kosovo is working to improve the health of Kosovars through strengthening health knowledge and advocacy skills at village level and strengthening the ability of the Municipalities - four in northern and central Kosovo - to provide good quality care that is responsive to the needs of people. Mercy Corps is also involved in teaching nurses about community health, helping develop good teamwork between doctors and nurses and re-equipping health centers with basic equipment.

Working with municipal officials and community members, we undertake small and large projects to enhance health. These include the building of new health centers, water and sewerage systems and environmental improvements. The groups in these villages are known as Community Health Advocacy Groups (CHAGs). Generally, only the women participate in the beginning and some men join later to assist with the projects.

Angelina is an important member of the CHAG in a village called Ranoc in Kline Municipality in central Kosovo. When she was 22 years old, she was cooking with her child two-year-old Arian besides her, when people burst into her house and gave the family five minutes to get out 'with their lives.' She is from a minority Catholic village in Central Kosovo. Like many others in the area her family possessions were ransacked, stolen or burnt. A period of sadness, fear and confusion followed. She remembers Mercy Corps bringing food and assistance to them and what it felt like to know that people from the outside world knew of their plight and cared.

The family is now back in the village trying to put their lives back together. There are eight family members in the house. Angelina's brother-in-law is mentally disabled and only Angelina's husband has a job. They live on 15 euros a day which provides food only. Like most Kosovar families, they are a very close, loving family.

I asked Angelina how she knew about the Health Program. She tells me that her and some of the other women kept seeing Mercy Corps vehicles passing through the village, they asked the men what was happening and no one was sure. They became very excited when they heard that their area had been chosen for help but found that Mercy Corps educators were working with women in another part of the village. They found the educators and helped to create another group.

In Kosovar society, it is the mother's responsibility to pass on education about reproduction to their girls. Her mother had already had eight children with seven surviving and she knew very little herself. Through the health education sessions the women discovered they could take control over their lives in a way they had never imagined. Mercy Corps provided information about mother and child health, family violence, basic illnesses, diet and how to use the environment to create a healthy lifestyle. The trained women then became community health contacts to spread this knowledge to others.

Angelina became the teacher. Her confidence increased. She learned that breastfeeding was best for a healthy child and unlike her first child, she breastfed Gjok and says she feels like a "good mother" for doing this and giving her child a good start in life. She now tells all the women how important this is. All the women say that education about AIDS and other sexually transmitted illnesses have really been interesting to them. They had heard about such things and had no idea how they were transmitted.

Angelina's group was so enthusiastic they wanted to go on to the next stage and learn about advocacy and ways to bring greater changes into their lives. The rest of the village stopped joking about what the women were up to. They learned about how civil society works, how and why they are important as participants in it, how to decide what is needed in the village to improve health and how to include others in the decision-making. They gained the confidence to present their project to the Municipal Minister for Health and other high level people and argue when necessary. The rest of the village started to get involved.

The group is now working closely with Mercy Corps and the Municipality to undertake a very large project to build a road from the main highway to their village. This will provide access to the health center and school.

Angelina says that her greatest dream is to finish school. Like many others, she only experienced school in an informal way at a village house, done in secrecy with great risk by dedicated neighbors. As her knowledge has developed she realizes that she is limited without this education. They will be dependent on outsiders unless they can comfortably deal with information and present it to others. This knowledge would give them great power to change their lives.

She also says the group feels comfortable now to go and negotiate with the Municipality for other things in the future. However, when we talked about how she saw the future there was some despondency. Lack of basic needs like stable water and electricity supplies, the high crime rate and pervasive influence of the Balkan mafia and fear about the returnees coming back to the village next door. She said she was not sure she could face them without fear and anger.

Angelina says, "I don't know the words to explain what Mercy Corps has given to me. My life has changed and I have changed and that is a good thing."