ERRC editorial in Dnevnik: Put the blame on me, Sir!

A Macedonian Minister has blamed parents for their children’s substandard education. This is not acceptable, says Dezideriu Gergely.

In Macedonia, Roma make up around 10% of the total population. By our last count, Romani children make up at least 46% of the pupils in the special education for children with mild mental disabilities. Let’s be clear what special education means. It follows a substandard curriculum. Children who get this type of education can’t progress; their chance to get into higher education is very limited, and they’re condemned to a working life of, at best, low-paid menial jobs. And, they are severely stigmatised. This is not a future that any parent would wish for their children.

So why are Romani children so over-represented in special schools? It’s certainly not because they have a higher rate of mental disability than the general population. The Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Spiro Ristovski, has the answer. He blames parents for forcing their children into special education to abuse the system that financially supports persons with a disability. According to the Minister Ristovski, some parents are forcing their children to act disabled during expert assessment to get into “special” school so that they can receive State benefits. He added that they documented dozen of such cases and all are from socially disadvantaged families, noting that criminal charges may be brought against such parents.

To be blunt: Minister Ristovski’s approach is missing the point. The entire system, which put Roma children into special schools, is at fault. The Macedonian government has a responsibility to educate its citizens - all of its citizens. To segregate children at such an early age sets them on a path of exclusion for their entire life. Romani children, like all other children, deserve better than that. The social cost of exclusion is more than any country should bear.

If, as the Minister claims, children are pretending to be disabled (and we haven’t seen the evidence that this is the case) what quality of expert or test is outwitted by a six-year-old? Only a biased testing regime that is predisposed to place Romani children in special education, and that has an agenda to segregate, could possibly be fooled by a child ‘pretending’ to be disabled.

Even more alarmingly, Minister Ristovski refers to “socially disadvantaged families” when speaking about this benefit abuse.  In Macedonia, the overwhelming majority of the population understand “socially disadvantaged” or “marginalised” groups as synonymous with Roma. This statement implicitly stigmatises the entire Romani community in Macedonia. Indeed, certain media outlets published the unsubstantiated claim that all parents who force their children to ‘act disabled’ were of Romani origin.

This is a very dangerous approach. Stigmatising a certain segment of the society will not help any attempt to solve a particular problem. On the contrary, it will just create scapegoats and divert wider attention away from where it is needed. And while the public is busy being outraged by the scapegoats, the authorities are free to sweep the problems under the carpet.

Thirdly, Minister Ristovski mentioned that criminal charges may be brought against such abusive parents, threatening the revocation of their parental rights. Minister Ristovski should understand that the instruments of criminal law are flimsy when addressing social issues. If criminalisation was a successful strategy for solving social problems, governing a country would be very easy. Criminal law should be the last resort, not the first step.

The situation of Roma in Macedonia is better than in some other countries. However, this does not mean that the situation of Roma is good in Macedonia. On the contrary, Roma still face discrimination in many fields of life. They are still marginalised to a great extent. Romani children face discrimination in education, as evidenced by their overrepresentation in the special education system. It’s not just the ERRC that says so. The European Commission also noted concern at the overrepresentation of Romani children in special education in its 2011 Progress Report on Macedonia.

Minister Ristovski, please answer this question: Do you honestly believe that it is fair and just, in such a discriminatory environment, to pick out a few families and place the burden of all of the problems and systematic shortcomings on their shoulders?

We hope that his answer is “no”.

Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

We hope Minister Ristovski will adopt Einstein’s wisdom and work on sustainable and fair solutions rather than chase shadows.

This article was published in Macedonian newspaper Dnevnik.

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