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 policymakers 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. …