Switzerland fights illiteracy in Albania

Children learn from the safety of home in northern Albania thanks to television (HEKS)

A Swiss aid organisation is helping thousands of illiterate Albanian children to learn to read and write via the television screen.

This content was published on November 20, 2003 - 14:46

The Protestant churches’ charity, HEKS, says poverty, a lack of teachers and fear of gang warfare are the reasons for widespread illiteracy in the country.

While the education system was fairly advanced under the country’s communist dictatorship, fewer children have been attending school since the opening of Albania’s borders in 1991.

HEKS says many poor families do not send their children to school because they are ashamed that they cannot afford nice clothes, good shoes or even schoolbooks.

“There are not enough schools in the north of the country. Teachers no longer want to work in remote areas, where conditions are bad and wages low,” Madeleine Hirsch of HEKS for Albania told swissinfo.

Gang warfare

Hirsch named gang warfare as another reason for the low school attendance. “Families that are involved in feuds worry about the safety of their children and don’t let them out of the house.”

According to a survey conducted in 2001, in the region around the northern city of Shkodra more than 600 children are currently under virtual house arrest and some of them have been locked away for several years.

The women’s organisation Useful to Albanian Women (UAW), one of HEKS’ partners, recognised the problem and has set up a teaching programme with Switzerland’s assistance.

Fabiola Laço-Egro of UAW told swissinfo that many of the children locked up for their own safety were traumatised.

“The only thing their parents talk about is revenge – and the only thing their depressed fathers do is clean their guns.”

To teach the children and get them out of their isolation, UAW broadcasts lessons in maths, Albanian language, culture and human rights three times per week.

On top of that specially trained teachers and social workers visit the needy families and help the kids with their homework.

Window on the world

“Television is a very useful medium,” said Laço-Egro. “During communism many Albanians could only dream about owning a television. Now every family, even in the poorest rural areas, owns a TV – it’s a window on the world.”

The project, which is partly funded by HEKS, is restricted to the northern regions of Shkodra, Lezha and Puka. Between 40 and 60 children take part in the learning programme.

“We know that we only reach a very small fraction of the children,” Madeleine Hirsch told swissinfo.

Laço-Egro said the children had already benefited from the distance-learning course.

“The children have become more open and talkative. Thanks to the programme they are better integrated.”


HEKS has supported the project dubbed “From Isolation to Education” since its early beginnings in 2001.

It funded the project to the tune of SFr50,000 last year and SFr25,000 this year. However, as of next year no more funding is expected to go towards the Albanian project.

“We cannot find any more funding, even though we received a French award for our programme,” Hirsch lamented. “And the fact that no other HEKS project has ever received so much publicity does not help either.”

From next year the children will have to do without their educational television programmes, but Hirsch is still hopeful that the trained teachers will keep in contact with the schools and authorities involved in the project.

swissinfo, Gaby Ochsenbein (translation: Billi Bierling)

Key facts

Illiteracy has risen since Albania’s borders opened in 1991.
46.6 % of the Albanian population lives in poverty, 17.4 % lives in extreme poverty and survives on one dollar per day.
The current official unemployment rate stands at 18 %, but is estimated at more than 40%.

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In brief

HEKS funded the “From Isolation to Education” project between 2001 and 2003.

Gang warfare in Albania is based on Kanun – a code of behaviour that has been around for centuries.

Most of the fighting is no longer about traditional revenge but about ownership of property.

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