07 April 2012

Roma Children's Right to Education

Children of a Roma family in Romania

I watched as the girl squinted at her book, looking closely and trying to pronounce the letters. I encouraged her to continue. She finished reading the sentence and looked up triumphantly with a big grin. The girl was learning to read for the first time, aged fourteen. She and her sister had joined a programme for those who had not been to school, and were getting extra help at an education centre run by an organisation in Sacele, Romania. The education centre helps underprivileged children in the area, the majority of whom are Roma. Tomorrow, 8 April, is International Roma Day.

The UN Special Rapporteur on education, Kishore Singh, has said:

"Education can break the cycle of Roma exclusion, yet Roma children are frequently in segregated and poor quality schools, and failing in education compared to others."

There have been various cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the state of Roma children's education in different countries. One of the better known cases is D.H. and Others v Czech Republic  (2007), which was the first of the cases to challenge discrimination against the Roma in state education systems. A disproportionately high number of Roma children were placed in "special schools." These are schools intended for children with learning difficulties. The applicants were from the city of Ostrava. Evidence given in the Written Observations included research which stated more than half of all students in special schools in the municipality were Roma, even though Roma children represented less than five percent of primary school-age students. A Roma child was 27 times more likely to be assigned to a special school than a non-Roma child. It was submitted that this degree of racial over-representation was unprecedented. 

This meant that the Roma children were receiving a sub-standard education within a system that was resulting in segregation. Having an inferior education has a life-long impact, as it affects prospects for further study and employment opportunities. The segregation of pupils whilst at school, and the further inequality in later life, resulting from receiving a low quality education, can only further frustrate tensions between Roma and non-Roma members of society. Inclusive schools would hopefully result in acceptance between pupils of different backgrounds, which would carry on into adulthood. I have previously posted about how higher rates of crime and violence exist in more unequal societies, whilst looking at Cape Town in South Africa. Here too, if Roma children were given equal opportunities in education and beyond, it would benefit them and the rest of society as well. This is not just an aspiration - it is the children's right.

The court found in D.H. and Others v Czech Republic that there had been a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. There was a violation of Article 14, the prohibition of discrimination, in conjunction with Article 2 of Protocol 1, the right to education. Assigning a disproportionate amount of Roma children to special schools, without an objective and reasonable justification, amounted to unlawful discrimination. The Court noted that such discrimination was also a problem in other states, not just the Czech Republic. An article in the Michigan Law Review, by Dr O'Connell looks at this decision and at other cases concerning Roma children. The author notes that while some progress has been made, a disproportionate number of Roma children are still being sent to non-mainstream schools. This shows the problems arising with implementing the Court's decision. It is also pointed out that such decisions do nothing to help the large number of Roma children who will receive no formal education at all. 

Roma children face discrimination in so many areas, from education to healthcare. For example, the sister of the fourteen year old girl I mentioned above, was also enrolled on the programme for those who had not been to school. At the education centre run by the NGO, the staff noticed she was making slow progress with reading and then realised it was because she could not see very well. They then arranged for her to get glasses, and she is now making good progress. 

A group of UN experts made a statement in advance of International Roma Day, saying:

"The time for action is now. We should not accept yet another lost generation of Roma girls and boys whose only expectations are lives of poverty, discrimination and exclusion and whose futures are dictated by negative stereotypes which commonly go unchallenged."

It is unacceptable that such racial discrimination is taking place in the twenty first century. Two of the organisations that my foundation, CHW, supports in Romania are concerned with the plight of Roma children and families. They run a range of initiatives from educational projects to building better homes in the Roma community. You can visit their websites here and here. If you are interested in supporting or volunteering with them, please get in touch with me. Now is the time for action!

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