by Margareta Matache
“A worldwide recognized right has progressively been recast into something those with only privileged status can enjoy.”
“I am proud that my son is graduating from high school this year. There are few Roma children in our community who finish high school. If my boy had had an education where he was separated from other (non-Roma) children, he would no longer be in school now, he would hardly have finished eighth grade. He would have been a child without an education.”
These are the words of a Romani parent from Romania, taken from a Harvard FXB and DARE-Net report on desegregation. In Europe, in countless instances, a non-segregated education is not a right Romani children can exercise freely. Often, if it happens, it tends to be happenstance – like winning the lottery – the benevolent act of a schoolmaster, teacher, or non-Roma parents.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on this date 67 years ago, articulates the right of all people to access a nondiscriminatory education, along with other fundamental rights: “All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” Segregation in education on racial or ethnic grounds is outlawed in Europe. Furthermore, Europe’s governments claim that the right of all children to a nondiscriminatory should be reflected in both policy and law.
In practice, though, an integrated education is a privilege typically enjoyed by those belonging to Europe’s dominant majority groups. A large proportion of Romani children and youth – as well as those belonging to other marginalized groups (poor and rural families, children with disabilities, and so on) continue to be forced, by teachers and school administrators, into segregated or inferior school environments. A worldwide recognized right has progressively been recast into something those with only privileged status can enjoy.
In line with such strong structural discrimination, families belonging to the majority show little or no awareness that a universal right has been reframed as a privilege for their children. Majority population families seem largely oblivious to the fact that, as opposed to Romani children, the education their children are granted is non-discriminatory: majority children are not bullied, discriminated against, or denied access to mainstream schooling because of their ethnicity; majority parents can send their children to school confident that the teacher speaks the same language and shares similar cultural values; and that teaching materials will reflect their children’s history and culture. The deep-rooted stereotype that Romani families do not value education contributes substantially to this general lack of awareness and interest in working to ensure equality in education for all.
In the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Greece, Romani children continue to learn in segregated classes. Romani children are simply not receiving a just education, and so far the outcomes of the ongoing fight for access to non-segregated, nondiscriminatory education are not reassuring. Apart from financial remedies received by families involved in landmark cases in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) or in national courts, the Roma benefit from no restitution, compensation, or rehabilitation schemes. For example, in the Czech Republic, where in 2007 the ECtHR accepted statistics showing that Romani children in Ostrava were 27 times more likely to be placed in special schools than their non-Romani peers, a small financial compensation was awarded to only 18 child litigants. But the fact is that more than half, 50.3 percent, of Ostrava’s Romani children were enrolled in special schools. Yet despite the wider implications of the court ruling, no collective compensation or restitution was offered.
Restitution, if seen as aiming to “restore the victim to the original situation,” should translate into restoring the right to equal, non-segregated education for Romani children. It has not. Moreover, governments have not even begun to conceptualize the collective measures needed to correct the damage – which includes educational, economic, and emotional hardships – to which Romani children have been exposed by segregated schooling. It’s utopic to think national conversations on this matter will start soon, as there is little to no effort taking place to even stop the phenomenon of rampant segregation occurring in most CE European countries. To end school segregation, a set of mandatory steps must be applied by local and national governments.
In “Segregation of Roma Children in Education – Successes and Challenges,” a policy brief launched this month, Gwendolyn Albert, Marius Taba, Adriana Zimova, and I call upon European governments to put in place both combative and preventive measures to end segregation. Among the mandatory measures we stress are solid teacher training on equal treatment, anti-bias, and anti-bullying, as well as employment of Romani educators and administrators. The universality and urgency of diversity in education are much more obvious now in the midst of the global refugee crisis and the wave of anti-racism protest sweeping college campuses across the entire United States.
At the 67th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, quality and inclusive education for all children and youth, as well as diversity of teachers and faculty, are global demands. The United Nations, intergovernmental and governmental institutions, as well as academia should address these issues as a matter of urgency and as soon as possible.
This article is adapted from the findings of the 2015 Harvard FXB and DARE-Net report on school desegregation.
Ten Years to Make a Difference? Reflections on the Lacunae of the EU Roma Strategy 2020 (European Review Journal, forthcoming)