Advocating for Integrated Education for Romani Children in Bulgaria

 

Human Rights Issue: Educational integration of Romani children; the right to education; desegregation

 

Location: Bulgaria

 

Partner: Organization Drom

 

Background on the Problem: With an estimated population of 9 million, the Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority and the most stigmatized group in the continent. Historically forced into slavery, ghettos, and Nazi camps, Roma continue to face widespread intolerance, limited access to healthcare, precarious housing, and high poverty rates. Among the hardest hit are the Roma children - two out of every three Romani children do not complete primary school and two in every five do not even attend. “Particularly insidious,” according to the World Bank, “is the practice of placing healthy Romani children in schools for the mentally and physically disabled,” regardless of their intellectual capacities.

In Bulgaria, 70 percent of young Roma, approximately 30,000 children, attend sub-standard schools in segregated Romani neighborhoods. In November 2003, Dimitrina Petrova, then Executive Director of the European Roma Rights Center, described one of the schools:

 

"The Romani ghetto school was a cold, dirty, and horrible place. The classrooms were extremely run down, with the paint on the walls, floors, ceilings, and windows looking as if it had been exposed to both the deterioration of time and vandalism for at least a decade. The desks and the blackboards were a parody of furniture, all broken and decaying. The only sink, in the corridor of the first floor, had only ice-cold water. The toilets were clogged and overflowing."

 

The right to education is severely limited in these all-Roma schools, where inadequate material conditions and the poor quality of learning provided by unmotivated teachers contribute to low attendance rates of pupils. Altogether, they alienate Romani children from schools and perpetuate the cycle of illiteracy, unemployment, and poverty.  

 

Equal Access tells the story of two seventh graders in Vidin, one Roma and one non-Roma, who met and became friends only when Romani children joined their peers in mainstream schools through the desegregation program. More than 3,000 Romani children are bused daily to integrated schools in nine Bulgarian towns according to the Vidin desegregation model, whose features include: mobilizing primary stakeholders (parents, teachers, principals) to ensure thriving educational environment in mainstreams schools; hiring school counselors to assist Romani students; and organizing supplemental, multicultural, and extracurricular activities for students and teachers of all ethnicities. Students in the desegregation programs now go to school regularly, get higher grades, and have better prospects for continuing on to higher education.

 

Target Audiences: At the onset, the video advocacy campaign focused on Romani families, local school authorities, and teachers in mainstream school with an aim of securing effective participation in the desegregation program. Local media created an outlet and helped generate public discourse on desegregation.

Romani activists used the video with the national policymakers (Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science; regional Inspectorates of Education) to ensure support and funding for desegregation. Through a variety of media, Bulgarian and international publics were targeted to promote the values of social inclusion and multiculturalism.

 

Advocacy Goals of Video: The purpose of this video is to secure the Bulgarian government’s firm commitment to the educational integration of Romani children and implementation of established plans and policies, including the national plan of action under the Decade of Roma Inclusion Initiative (2005-2015). Additionally, it promotes the Vidin model of desegregation and social inclusion of the Roma, helping to counter fight hate, racism, and stereotypes.

 

Distribution Strategy: The video was first screened at a board meeting of Roma Education Fund in summer of 2006 to increase willingness among funders to support local desegregation initiatives. Equal Access was used to initiate public debate and round table discussions to generate the engagement of Romani communities throughout Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, setting the stage for advocacy with educational authorities at the municipal, regional and national level. In spring 2007, the video won the Decade of Roma Inclusion Award at the Golden Wheel Roma Film Festival in Skopje, Macedonia.

 

Advocacy Results: The video has helped dispel the fears and misconceptions that accompany the public debate about integrating Romani children in the school system. These concerns relate to improving the access to education (e.g., adaptation of “zero-enrollment” policy in all-Roma schools with increased opportunity to go to pre-school, to study in Romanes, and to receive tutoring, free transportation and textbooks), and to improving quality of education (e.g., funding for adequate facilities and human resources, improving curricular standards and practice). The comprehensive advocacy efforts resulted in funding by the European Union Structural Funds, marking the transition of school desegregation projects from grassroots initiative to state-supported activities.