Equal Opportunity In Education: Eliminating Discrimination Against Roma

In 2002, on my way to the United States Congress where a hearing on the education of Roma was being held, I was asked by the taxi driver where I come from and what was the purpose of my trip. I told him I was going to testify before the Congress about the problems faced by Roma in education. His reaction was, "Ah, you mean those petty thieves?" I was surprised that prejudice against Roma existed even in the United States, where they live among hundreds of other minority groups.

In the European context, where Roma -- widely known as Gypsies -- comprise the largest minority of more than 12 million people spread over almost every European State, prejudice and anti-Romani sentiment have always been a defining feature of their experiences -- from the early years of their arrival from India in the eleventh century to the present. Throughout history, anti-Romani sentiment has peaked in campaigns for the extermination of Roma, their enslavement, forced sterilization and assimilation. Nowadays, it keeps many Roma away from the rights and opportunities available to others.

Emerging in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Roma rights movement, which includes non-Roma civil society organizations and individual activists, has being instrumental in breaking the silence about the systematic abuse and discrimination against Roma. Throughout the 1990s, the international community saw abundant evidence on past and ongoing injustices against Roma. Today, most international organizations and national governments have formulated commitments to end the discrimination.

In the past decade, the Roma rights movement has articulated equal rights and equal participation as the primary goals to be pursued. Equal opportunity to education, employment, health care and housing, and participation in public life are the demands that Romani communities' advocates are pressing for from their Governments. Despite formal equality in law and legal protection against racial discrimination, equal opportunity for Roma is not yet a fact in Europe.

Contrary to popular stereotypes that Roma do not value education, many Romani activists in Europe are united by the understanding that education is crucial for the advancement of their communities. Equal opportunity to education in Central and Eastern Europe means, first and foremost, dismantling the segregated educational system.

For several decades, starting in the 1950s, segregated schooling of Roma has deprived generations of the chance to live in dignity. Romani children attend separate schools as a result of residential patterns. They are placed in schools for children with mental disabilities or in classes separate from non-Romani children. In many instances, the attempts of Romani parents to enrol their children in mainstream schools are blocked by school authorities, sometimes with open racist arguments. In all cases, the effect of separate schooling has been inferior education and social exclusion.

Although school segregation has never been sanctioned by law in Central and Eastern Europe, it nevertheless still persists, tolerated by inaction on the part of Governments. In Bulgaria, an estimated 70 per cent of Romani children attend separate schools based in the Roma-only neighbourhoods. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, between 70 to 80 per cent are taught using a curriculum adapted for children with mental disabilities, and the majority of children enrolled in these schools are Romani. In Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and elsewhere, one or more types of segregated schooling exists. Schools where Roma are the majority, or the only students, are branded as "Gypsy schools" or "ghetto schools" by non-Roma and are avoided because of the low standard of teaching and the poor material conditions. Although the gap in educational achievement between Roma and non-Roma is widely acknowledged by policy-makers and educationalists, government policies were not aimed, at least until recently, at desegregating Roma education as part of the ongoing reforms of the educational systems in the post-communist period. Policy interventions have been -- and still are -- dominated by the stereotype that Roma do not want to go to school, so that the fault for the disastrous educational levels prevailing among Roma appears to stem from their culture, and not from the educational system. Accordingly, programmes were aimed at keeping the children at school, rather than giving them the chance to go out of the ghetto schools and study in an integrated environment. For over a decade after the fall of communism, such policies did not result in any improvement of the educational status of Roma. On the contrary, their educational achievements deteriorated.

This was the background of the first Roma-led school desegregation initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe. The breakthrough was made by the grass-roots Romani organization Drom in Vidin in Bulgaria in 2000, with donor support by the Roma Participation Programme of the Open Society Institute, Europe. For the first time, several hundred Romani children left the Roma ghetto school in their neighbourhood and enrolled in mainstream schools in the town of Vidin. The Romani organization carried out motivational campaigns among Romani parents, raised awareness among the majority community and local institutions, and took care to ensure Romani children received the educational support needed to catch up with their peers. The success of this initiative, which continues in its eighth year today, has dispelled many fears and misconceptions about the integration of Romani children in educational institutions. First of all, it demonstrated that these children do not need adapted curricula and can achieve as much as the non-Roma when proper educational support is provided. It also demonstrated that Romani parents are not indifferent to the education of their children and when they have information and support, they choose integrated schooling. The example of the Drom organization was followed by seven more in different parts of Bulgaria.

The Romani grass-roots initiatives sent ripples, changing the policy discourse about Roma education. European and international institutions, such as the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and various United Nations bodies urged Governments to undertake measures to end educational segregation of Roma. School desegregation has been formulated as a goal of government policies on Romani education by several Governments, such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. It is one of the distinct priorities of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 -- an international initiative to promote integration of Roma -- launched by the Open Society Institute and the World Bank in cooperation with nine governments in Central and South-eastern Europe. The Roma Education Fund, set up in the framework of the Decade to support the inclusion of Roma in national education systems, provides funding, advocates and also supports school desegregation initiatives.

Reversal of school segregation, however, is still far in the future. Currently, school desegregation action by national governments is minimal or non-existent. Visible progress has not been achieved due to insufficient government involvement to ensure sustainability of the process and resistance from educational institutions at local levels. School segregation is so pervasive in the countries with substantive Romani populations that challenging it requires long-term mobilization of resources at all levels of government, as well as the sustained efforts of Romani activists. I am aware that our movement has a long way to go before equal opportunities in education become a reality for Roma, but I believe that we have made the first steps in the right direction.