A Roma Education

What comes to mind when you hear the word “gypsy?” Do you picture the beautiful, kind-hearted Esmeralda from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or women begging on the streets of Europe, whom travelers are told to avoid?

“Gypsy” is a racial slur used to describe the Romani people, an ethnic group dispersed throughout Central and Eastern Europe, which falsely attributes their origin to Egypt. The word “gypsy” also carries the negative connotations that Roma are cheaters and thieves—the people responsible when you have been scammed or “gypped.” This kind of wide generalization and stereotype has historically bound the Roma to racism and exclusion from mainstream society.

The years between 2005 and 2015 were deemed “The Decade of Roma Inclusion” by 12 European countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Spain— which pledged to close the gap between the Roma and the rest of society. In an interview with the HPR, Robert Kushen, Director of the Decade Secretariat, the main facilitation body of the Decade, stated that by implementing the Decade, “the EU has, in a very public and political way, acknowledged that this is an issue that demands a concerted political response.” It is now timely to analyze whether this ten-year initiative has had an impact on the lives of the long-marginalized Romani people.

A pattern of discrimination

About 1,000 years ago, the Roma migrated from Northern India and settled in Europe. Since then, they have faced discrimination in many forms. Persecuted and subjected to laws that restricted their language, dress, and culture across Europe, the Romani people were also enslaved in Hungary and Romania during the 15th century and targeted for extermination by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. Perpetually on the fringes of society, the Roma remain second-class citizens in Europe.

Today, between 10 and 12 million Roma live in Europe, comprising the continent’s largest ethnic minority. Although the Roma are spread out, they face similar social, political, and economic challenges throughout the continent. One in three Roma are unemployed, and 90 percent live below the poverty line according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights. Denied fair and equal access to secure employment, housing, and education, the Roma are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and social stigmatization that effectively excludes them from mainstream society.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion sought to address these issues with priority areas focusing on health, employment, housing, and education. Justifying his support of education initiatives in particular, Kushen explained, “In the long run, they are probably and arguably the most important thing to do because they are the easiest to do.” With the least amount of legal and political resistance, tackling educational discrimination is the logical first step in fixing the overall problem. Moreover, substandard education at a young age restricts Romani children from reaching higher education, finding work, and ultimately entering society as full and competent participants. Thus, through disparities in education, Roma face early limitations and obstacles to inclusion into society, which impact their lives in the long term.

Systemic segregation

Institutional discrimination results in poor educational outcomes for Romani children. UNICEF data shows that in most of Central and Eastern Europe in 2011, only about 20 percent of Roma children enrolled in primary school, a stark difference from the 90 percent of their non-Roma peers that did. Moreover, two out of three Roma children do not complete their primary education, with dropout rates only increasing as they get older and less than one percent attending university. In general, Roma students also perform worse in terms of grade average than their non-Roma peers and take longer to complete their primary education.

Surveys conducted in Romania by the Romani Center for Social Intervention and Studies found that financial burden was the main reason for non-enrollment in kindergarten and high dropout rates. Those who are able to enroll face further discrimination. A report released by the European Commission in 2014 describes how Roma students are segregated; some attend essentially “Roma-only” schools in ghettoized neighborhoods, and some are purposely placed into different ‘Roma’ classes at more heterogeneous schools. In the most alarming scenario, through inaccurate examinations, many Roma children are declared to have learning disabilities. A New York Times article explains that they are then disproportionately streamed into remedial “special schools,” where inferior teaching quality and poor learning objectives ensure a substandard education. Once placed in a special school, there is virtually no way to transfer back into the mainstream education system.

Margareta Matache, Roma rights activist and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the HPR that Roma children already “come into this world with a heavy baggage of historic inequalities and stigmatization perpetuated by generations of non-Roma all over Europe.” Such stigmatization combined with the aforementioned efforts of exclusion fosters hostility against Roma children. Constantly reminded of their inferiority through low academic standards held by their teachers and unaided by their parents who cannot provide assistance to their children due to their own lack of education, Roma children have very limited opportunities. In this way, government school systems strip them of their inalienable right to education, stifling their social mobility and capacity to break out of their cycle of poverty.

Lack of impact

The Decade of Roma Inclusion attempted to provide a framework that would help member state governments set and meet their goals for Roma integration in education. States drafted National Action Plans that detailed measures such as data collection, support programs, and monitoring systems. The Decade also helped mobilize new resources for the inclusion of Romani people, such as the Roma Education Fund and other projects focusing on desegregation, pre-school enrollment, and secondary school scholarships. The incorporation of these policies on a national level contributes to raised overall awareness of Roma exclusion, which the Decade stated as one of its chief positive impacts in its policy option paper.

However, weak implementation of policies on a regional level demonstrates a lack of impact that seemed unavoidable, given the Decade’s weak structure and lack of financial backing. Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Roma Initiatives Office for the Open Society Foundations, explained to the HPR that member states could not deliver on the budgetary commitments and strict implementation they intended when they endorsed the Decade in 2003. As years passed and momentum faded, some states lost interest in their commitments. The pledges of the Decade became nothing more than broad promises and soft declarations without mechanisms of real enforcement at the societal level. Kushen also admitted, “The impact on the ground for the majority of Roma has not translated as well. It has translated into a little more money, a little more attention, a little more programming, but it hasn’t had a major impact on the lives of people just yet.”
The lack of systematic change for Roma was evidenced in the 2007 landmark case of D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic. The European Court ruled in favor of 18 Roma students who challenged the Czech Republic for indirectly discriminating against Roma children and placing them into special schools. Yet, eight years on from this decision, some of those 18 students have children of their own, who will unfortunately face the same system of deep-rooted segregation. Nearly 30 percent of Roma children in the Czech Republic still attend special schools, compared to two percent of their non-Roma peers. Similar weak enforcement persists in other European countries such as Slovakia, where 43 percent of Roma are still enrolled in segregated classes, according to Amnesty International.

Matache thinks that one reason major gains in legislation have not translated into a greater lasting impact is that “states have missed the opportunity to tackle strong anti-Roma beliefs that have been perpetuated by generations in Roma-related policies.” Such systemic segregation seems out of place in 21st century Europe, but Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Roma Initiatives Office for the Open Society Foundations, explained to the HPR that, “racism against Roma has elevated to the political level.” He went further, saying that some politicians even fuel anti-Roma attitudes to gain votes, making change seem out of reach no matter how well legislation is enforced. Exclusion of Roma will persist as long as prejudice does.

Hope for the future

When asked by the HPR about the importance of resolving discrimination in education, Matache responded earnestly, “Roma children need role models, positive Roma stories, and inspiration for success and pride, to prove that it is possible.”

Anna Mirga, a young woman of Polish and Romani descent, is an example of such an inspiration, demonstrating the possibilities for Romani children taught in environments where their differences are celebrated rather than targeted. Now a successful graduate student and a fellow with the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, Anna grew up in Poland, where she encountered few minorities. In an interview with the Federation of Roma Associations in Catalonia, she explained that since she was somewhat exotic, her experience in school was not of discrimination. “It was like a fascination.” Her teachers would encourage her, “‘Tell us about your family and about your culture!’” Never ashamed of her Roma identity, Anna greatly benefited from this learning environment, gaining confidence and cultural pride that later helped her to achieve.

Stories like Anna’s offer hope for a future in which Roma can be integrated as full members of society, a future that is only possible if Europe pushes its efforts past simple legislation. Even as the Decade of Roma Inclusion draws to a disappointing close, Europe must concentrate on stripping away the stereotypes and prejudice that have surrounded Roma for centuries. They have only started the long process of adjusting their understanding of this culture and community, so tightly woven into the fabric of European history and so tightly trapped in a system of segregation. Real change will occur when the Roma are no longer compared to Disney characters, dismissed as street beggars, or degraded as “gypsies,” but when they are viewed for what they are—people, who deserve to be treated as such.

Source: Harvard Political Review
Date: 11.02.2015