10 September 1998

Last May, during my field research in Greece, I found that thousands upon thousands of Roma possess ID cards on which the word 'agrammatos' (illiterate) looms beside the person's photograph. A degrading policy, reflecting a no less degrading reality. Roma of all ages who have never been in school - even for one day - travel the roads of Greece today, in the company of others who have been in school for a year or two.

In the former communist countries, complete illiteracy is rare among Romani adults. Under the communist policies of heading toward full social and ethnic homogeneity, featuring eradication of nomadism, unemployment and illiteracy, much at the price of wiping out traditional Romani cultures, Romani children were enrolled in schools as a matter of course. The result is that the majority of the current generation of grown up Roma have completed at least eight grades.

But this is history. These days, one meets more and more Roma youths in post-communist countries too, who have either not even attempted to start school, or have dropped out at some point during the first years. The communist time teacher who as part of his or her job would visit all "problematic" Romani homes in the days preceding the opening of the school year, to remind parents that their children are due in the classroom no matter what, under threat of punishment, has vanished from the picture. Even though primary education remains compulsory in theory, the law is hardly enforced anywhere in the region: families enjoy the sad freedom of illiteracy, together with the "freedom" to be unable to buy such items as school notebooks or shoes for their children.

Projects to bring Romani children back to school do exist. But they are just that: projects. More or less successful yet certainly marginal efforts to overturn a systemic pattern of exclusion and discrimination. Racism in the classroom is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle of reproduction of attitudes and behaviors. The Romani child, humiliated daily, made to feel inferior and unworthy, despairs and remains at home one day. We are told that Romani children start school less prepared to learn, less capable of sitting still, and that their command of the official language is poor. There exists a point of view from which this assertion is true and can even be quantified and measured: the point of view of the official culture, itself closed to difference and self-righteous.

Equal access to education is a right. Therefore, no accompanying duties or obligations of those who have the right should be invoked. Obligations fall on the state. Equal education is a right exactly because its validity must be upheld, regardless of anything that the subjects of this right are or were, do or have done. A Right.

Most Romani children in Europe will meet the 21st century in a de facto segregated educational system. In terms of funding, infrastructure, quality of teaching, even curriculum, segregated schools with over 80 percent of Romani enrollment are not simply worse than majority schools. They perpetuate racial walls even if they are otherwise good, even if they are "elite". They teach Romani students to "know their place", and ultimately discourage or directly disqualify them from full citizenship. However, this is not a shared understanding (yet) of Roma themselves, and no coherent de-segregation movement has emerged. Many prefer simply the comfort of their children being left out of a school system which humiliates, and many hope to build a separate educational system based on cultural specificity.

The most outrageous form of denial of the educational rights of Roma is, ironically, typical of the comparatively successful new democracies, the Czech Republic and Hungary. In these and some other countries, Romani children are streamed to so called "special schools", or "special classes". What is special about them is that they are designed as substandard educational programs for kids with developmental or mental disability. Rather than compensating alleged disability and integrating allegedly handicapped youths, they are a sure and final departure from equal opportunities, an unmistakable stigma for all who have been once referred to them. The fact is that Romani children are hugely over-represented and in some places make up to 95 percent of such institutions.

This issue of Roma Rights is about the invisible but scorching "agrammatos" stamped across millions of Roma lives.


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