International Roma Day: press conference focused on the rights of Roma children

April 8 is International Roma
Day. This year ADC “Memorial” organized two events to mark the
occasion: firstly, a long-standing tradition – a festival of children’s
creativity with the participation of Roma children, and secondly, a
press conference devoted to the problems of the Roma people.

The press conference, which
took place on April 7, 2008, focused on the rights of Roma children
living in compact villages. The head of the program “The Defense of
Roma Rights in the Russian Federation,” Stephania Kulaeva, spoke of
systematic discrimination against Roma children in many specific spheres
as well as of their general social exclusion. The conference touched
on the poor state of health of Roma children and on the difficulties
they face in attaining a formal education in the absence of the necessary
identification documentation. People rarely consider these important
questions from the children’s own point of view. Monitoring reveals
that in comparison with other children, the Roma lack many opportunities
from the earliest stages of their lives, a fact which naturally has
a strong impact on their future.

ADC “Memorial” employees
covered the issue of discrimination against Roma children in greater
detail. Il’ya Berdyshev, a doctor and expert in children’s rights,
outlined the extremely difficult conditions in which Roma children live:
in particular, they often suffer from malnourishment and lack access
to basic water, electricity, and gas supplies, factors which clearly
pose a risk to the children’s health. He further noted inadequate
progress in the establishment of health care for these children, particularly
in the sphere of disease prevention. Finally, there is the issue of
early marriages within the Roma community, which Berdyshev, as a doctor,
recognizes as threatening the health not only of those children born
into such marriages, but also of the young parents themselves. Moreover,
as a psychologist and educator, Berdyshev pointed out the incompatibility
of this tradition with children’s ability to receive secondary and
higher education. At the same time, however, it is understood that
the age-old traditions of the Roma people are to be treated with the
utmost respect and sensitivity.

Olga Abramenko discussed discrimination
against Roma children with respect to elementary-level education.
“For Roma children, especially those living in compact Roma communities,
access to education is extremely limited. Roma children are often separated
from other children and taught in what are known as “Roma classes,”
or even in entirely separate schools. In cases in which this segregation
is not educationally-motivated, i.e., when there is no specially-tailored
program in which the Roma children are to be taught or when no medical
or pedagogical expertise has been sought (that recommends separate classes
for the children for their own benefit), then the Roma children are
separated purely because they are members of a national minority. Often,
these “Roma classes” are composed of children of different age groups
who have different levels of schooling—and they end up in the same
class for years on end. Furthermore, the conditions in such classes
or schools are often worse than those that other children experience.
They are taught in ancient, poorly equipped buildings with no water
or sewage system, where the power supply is in disrepair, and where
the few teachers who work there are forced to work two or three shifts
in a row. Compact settlements are often far from any school, and there
are no school buses that the children might use. Roma families, particularly
those in compact settlements, often have many children and are, in the
majority of cases, poverty-stricken. The parents usually cannot afford
to send their children on public transport and are unable to pay for
textbooks and school uniforms. Taken together, all of these factors
mean that the majority of Roma children fall out of the education system
when they finish primary school. Indeed, it is rarely suggested, even
to those children who successfully complete primary school, to continue
on to secondary school and finish their education.

“The educational segregation
of Roma children should be officially proclaimed unacceptable, as should
be the automatic relegation of Roma children to classes for the mentally
handicapped in instances in which the children do not know Russian or
speak the language poorly. There is currently no special system in
place for the education of Roma children (no special primer for the
instruction of the alphabet, no other similar textbooks or learning
aids), and this situation is at variance with a number of international
norms, and in particular, with the Framework Convention for the Protection
of National Minorities, which recommends teaching children in their
native language, if only at a primary level. The native Roma language
is not taught in any form, although rubrics for teaching the Roma language,
for familiarizing teachers with the Roma language, and also for teaching
Russian to Roma children, are now being created. But these are grassroots
initiatives. It is essential that measures also be implemented to improve
Roma children’s access to education at the governmental level: financing
preschool teaching, additional hours of Russian teaching, and additional
hours for those teachers who work with Roma children. Finally, it is
vital to further motivate Roma parents to make their children’s schooling
a priority. This will require financial assistance, free school meals,
and free transportation for Roma children to and from school.”

Legal expert Marina Arefieva
spoke about legal problems encountered by the inhabitants of compact
“In every village, more than half of the members of the community
are young people, and all of the problems suffered by the adults have
an effect on the lives and the futures of their children. We have monitored
more than fifteen villages in various regions of Russia, and in each
instance we have found the same problems. Firstly, there is the problem
of access to suitable housing and the problem of housing registration.
Homelessness or a lack of formal registration of one’s home often
allows for the violation of educational rights, the right to the receipt
of identification documentation, and all other rights that proceed from
the aforementioned. Moreover, if a house is unregistered, not only
will many of the rights of the inhabitants potentially be hindered,
but the house itself also faces the threat of demolition. Many adult
residents of Roma settlements have no identification documentation,
and in such instances, where parents do not have identification, it
is quite difficult for their children to be issued birth certificates.
The issuance of a birth certificate is a very complicated process, especially
for those who are only semi-literate, particularly as it sometimes becomes
necessary to turn to officials who are not always well-disposed towards
the Roma for assistance. Furthermore, this all takes time. Children
who are unregistered are unable to attend school, even though school
attendance is officially required by law.

“Then there is the issue
of social benefits and medical insurance. Most Roma families have many
children and therefore are entitled to special benefits which help them
to take care of such children. However, if an individual does not have
valid documentation, it becomes difficult to register entitlement to
privileges granted by the state, including this monetary allowance issued
to a mother. Furthermore, those government institutions that are responsible
for issuing such benefits often illegally deny them to the Roma. When
this does happen, those Roma who are disenfranchised are often unable
to assert their rights, either because they do not understand the system
or because they lack the documentary evidence with which to defend their
rights. A recent example took place in Ivanovo, where Roma living in
a rather large village were forced to abandon their residences:
they lost their homes and were separated from their relatives and acquaintances,
but they continued to be registered as living in their former homes.
Thus, while they remain formally registered, in practice their registration
is invalid and useless.

“In another example, two
years ago in Kaliningrad, a mass demolition of Roma settlements took
place. The people who had lived in these settlements were left without
any place of residence whatsoever. Their homelessness was, however,
officially noted, and they were subsequently deprived of their registration,
meaning that they were left without pensions and benefits. Their children
also their lost access to any rights. We do not know what the future
holds for these children, whether they will be able to get an education,
whether their rights will be restored, and whether they will be able
to defend any rights that are restored in the future.

“Now that the Roma themselves
have come to realize the importance of identification documentation
and the importance of their children’s attending school, parents are
ready to fight for these rights out of concern for their children’s

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