Like any responsible parents, Marcela and Peter want to see their children succeed at school.
But unlike most, they – along with several other members of their community in the eastern Slovakian city of Levoča – have faced a long struggle with their local primary school to ensure their children get the same opportunities as the other students there.
Marcela and Peter are Roma, and in recent years two out of their four children attending the Francisciho school in Levoča’s Tehelna neighbourhood have been separated from their peers – segregated from the non-Roma children.
When the school reopens after the summer holidays on 3 September, Marcela and Peter fear their daughter Renata will be the latest to be separated from her classmates – just because of her ethnicity.
“I already have two children in segregated classes. I will not accept the same to happen to the third one,” Marcela angrily told Amnesty International.
The young couple’s problems with Francisciho school began in 2009, when their son Dušan and seven other Romani children were placed in a separate class on the first day of 5th grade. Only one Romani pupil remained in the “mixed” class they had all attended up to that point.
When in 2011, the couple’s youngest daughter Erika was placed in one of the newly created Roma-only first grade classes, Marcela and Peter, together with a small group of other Romani parents in Tehelna, questioned the school’s director about the practice, which places their children at a profound educational disadvantage and fuels discrimination.
But they failed to get a satisfactory explanation and none of the Romani children has been transferred to ethnically integrated classes yet.
Their older daughter Renata now fears that she will join her two siblings among the other Roma children who have been separated from their non-Roma peers.
When Amnesty International spoke with her recently, Renata said she likes her school and classmates and is adamant that she does not want to be moved into a Roma-only class:
“If I would have to go to a Roma-only class, then I do not want to stay in Francisciho school. I don’t want to go to a Roma-only class [where] we would be speaking only Romani, not Slovak. I would not have non-Roma friends. I want to continue in my class. It is important to have non-Roma friends and grow up together.”
Amnesty International will stand in solidarity with Tehelna’s Romani parents and children on 3 September as they petition the Francisciho school leadership – once again – to end the discriminatory practice of classroom segregation.
Slovakia’s Roma – a class apart
Across Slovakia, thousands of Romani children remain trapped in substandard education – the fruit of widespread discrimination and a school system that keeps failing them.
Thousands of Romani children are segregated in mainstream Roma-only schools and classrooms, and are disproportionately placed in special schools or classes, often aimed at children with “mild mental disabilities”.
Sometimes, Romani children are literally locked into separate classrooms, corridors or buildings to stop them from mingling with non-Roma students.
“Segregation in Slovakia’s schools is a huge obstacle for Romani children to access a quality education,” said Jezerca Tigani, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme.
“Besides violating their right to a discrimination-free education, in the longer term it deprives them of a wide range of other human rights, including the right to health, work and freedom of expression. Such systemic human rights violations exclude Roma from full participation in Slovak society and lock them into a cycle of poverty and marginalization.”
Very limited progress
In the past, NGO pressure has led the Slovak government to take limited steps to improve Romani children’s access to education, but widespread discrimination and segregation still remain.
A new Schools Act passed in 2008 bans segregation and other forms of discrimination, but little has changed in practice as its provisions have not been properly implemented.
In August 2010, the then Slovak government pledged on paper to ending ethnic discrimination in schools, but again, no concrete measures have been taken to follow through on their commitment.
A new government in power since March 2012 has worryingly dropped even such limited references to banning segregation in schools. Instead, the government programme adopted a month later mentions an initiative to set up separate boarding schools for children from “marginalized communities”.
Campaigning for change
For the past five years, Amnesty International has been campaigning for an end to segregation and inequality faced by Romani children in Slovak schools.
Last September, the organization began working closely with the small group of Romani parents from Levoča – including Marcela and Peter – when they sought to publicize their plight and end segregation at Francisciho school.
Their case piqued the attention of national media and international organizations – one of the Romani mothers, Jana, travelled to Geneva in 2012 to brief the United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. And the Romani parents have shown they are not prepared to back down.
As Peter told Amnesty International, “I don’t agree with segregation. My child should receive the same level of education as all the other children. I don’t agree with any compromise.”
Amnesty International will continue to support the Romani families in their struggle, to ensure their children are offered exactly the same opportunities as any other child at Francisciho school – and to set an example for all schools across Slovakia.
“If they think they have broken me by segregating my children, they are wrong. I will continue fighting for my children and also for other children, as they all deserve the best,” said Marcela.