November: Reasons to Remember

The commemorations, reflections and ruminations around the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet revolutions overshadowed another November 20th anniversary of profound historical significance: the United Nations adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We would do well to pause and remember the fates of three Roma children this year. In February five-year-old Robika Csorba and his father were shot dead as they fled their firebombed house in Tatarszentgyorgy in Hungary. In April, in the Czech town of Vitkov, two-year-old Natlka Sivkov sustained 80 percent burns when her home was attacked with Molotov cocktails. In the Hungarian town of Kisleta in August, 13-year-old Ketrin Balogh suffered multiple gunshot wounds in an attack on her home that killed her mother Maria.

The Convention which proclaims that "the child shall enjoy special protection... to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity" rings tragically hollow for these three victims of racially motivated violence. Beyond the appalling fates of these three children, there lies a wider history of discrimination and neglect. National governments who have ratified this legally binding Convention stand accused of failing and continuing to fail in their obligations toward millions of Roma children right across Europe.

When it comes to the rights and well-being of Roma children, the gap between rhetoric and realization is an affront that should, but somehow does not, inspire outrage and indignation among all right-minded citizens. Within and beyond the European Union, masses of Roma children subsist in conditions of marginalization, poverty and exclusion more akin to the developing world. The children stranded to this day on the lead-contaminated camps in Mitrovica in Kosovo bear terrible testament to the failure of national and international agencies. Thousands of others, displaced by conflict in the western Balkans, lack basic registration documents, and as a consequence are denied the very basic right to have rights. Many other Roma children across the continent have experienced the traumas of deportation, forced eviction, and from a tender age, too many Roma children have acquired the intimate knowledge of what it's like to go hungry. Research conducted by UNICEF and other agencies in the countries of former Yugoslavia indicated that when it comes to Roma children, 47 percent were considered as "food insecure with hunger," and many had never consumed milk or milk products, or ever tasted fresh fruit and vegetables. The experience of hunger is debilitating and humiliating. A hungry child cannot concentrate in school, and a hungry child feels shamed when seated alongside well-nourished peers. For many Roma children acute material disadvantage is compounded by ethnic segregation in schools. Research conducted by the Roma Education Fund (REF) has confirmed that "separate" remains profoundly unequal when it comes to schooling, and succeeds only to amplify disadvantage and reinforce prejudice.

We are almost five years into the Decade of Roma Inclusion, heralded at its launch in 2005 as an unprecedented political commitment by 12 European governments to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma, and close the gap between Roma and non-Roma in the priority areas of education, employment, health, and housing. At the mid-point of the Decade and twenty years after the adoption of the UN Convention, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the rights and well-being of Roma children. All talk of integration is futile as long as children across Central and Eastern Europe are denied equal access to quality education on the basis of their ethnicity. Integration will remain an elusive goal as long as Roma children continue to be disproportionately and inappropriately classified as mentally handicapped, and sent to special schools; as long as Roma children continue to be dispatched to so-called gypsy schools situated in Roma ghettos; or placed in "gypsy classes."

The decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of D.H. and Others vs. the Czech Republic dramatically highlighted the persistence of such discriminatory practices. The court ruled that segregating Roma students into special schools is a form of unlawful discrimination. Evidence and research conducted by the Roma Education Fund confirms that despite the ruling, the routing of Roma children into special schools persists in many countries, including Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro. The most recent study conducted by REF provides the first comprehensive picture of the overrepresentation of Roma in special education in Slovakia. The report confirms that approximately 60 percent of children in special schools are Roma, and the report asserts that it is clear that the vast majority of these children do not belong in special education.

De facto segregation is more than an abuse of human rights. It amounts to a willful and malicious squandering of Roma communities' most precious assets—the intellectual capacities of future generations. Substandard segregated education leaves young people unable to progress beyond elementary levels of schooling, and unable to compete in the labor market. Further it isolates Roma children from wider society from an early age. Segregation perpetuates and exacerbates existing divisions and inequalities in society.

UNICEF found that the National Action Plans (NAPs) for Roma inclusion devised by participating countries in the Decade failed to reflect a holistic, multi-dimensional understanding of children's lives and well-being. Examples cited included the issue of upgrading settlements: none of the NAPs account for the needs of children, such as outdoor safety, spaces to play, access to transport, recreational and sports facilities. No role is foreseen for children and young people's participation in helping to improve their own environment. In the sphere of education, beyond the focus on enrollment and attendance rates, more attention must be paid to the conditions for learning within schools: the quality of teaching, respect for diversity, coping with bullying and violence among students, stimulating parental and community involvement.

A multi-dimensional and complex approach to the well-being of disadvantaged children also requires an approach to education that prioritizes early childhood interventions. Participation in well-designed early childhood programs significantly enhances children's physical well-being, cognitive skills and social and emotional development. It lays the basis for better learning achievement, school completion and lifelong learning; and crucially it enhances the process of transition into mainstream primary education. In a region characterized by aging populations and falling birth rates, the Roma population is the youngest and fastest growing demographic segment of the citizenry. Our societies cannot afford another lost generation of excluded and marginalized young Roma. And our states must not fail in their declared commitment in Article 10, that every child "be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men."

Twenty years on, it is clear that the Velvet revolutions failed the Roma. The advent of democracy and free market economies did not herald a new dawn of liberties and opportunities. Rather "the price of Velvet" was increased segregation, racial violence and poverty for Roma. Twenty years after the adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child we need to take stock of how drastically Europe has failed Roma children, so many of whom comprise the continent's youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

On the occasion of the anniversary on November 11, UNICEF stated "The Convention demands a revolution that places children at the heart of human development—not only because this offers a strong return on our investment (although it does) nor because the vulnerability of childhood calls upon our compassion (although it should), but rather for a more fundamental reason: because it is their right." If European Union values are to mean anything, new and old democracies alike should revisit their international and binding commitments under the Convention. They must rise to the challenge to ensure that the Convention's four core principles of non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child apply equally to all children, Roma and non-Roma alike.

Add your voice