Roma children continue to be left behind from progress that other children have seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Without far-reaching changes in the treatment of minorities in many segments of the society, like Roma families, the road towards progress could be filled with many visible and invisible obstacles.
Poverty and unemployment are the biggest problems Roma people face, and that is reflected in the upbringing and education of their children, which consequently prevents them from breaking the barriers of poverty and get the chance to survive and learn.
Already from a young age, Roma boys and girls are excluded from essential services. Many of them are legally invisible, have never been registered in the birth records, thus being deprived of social welfare and healthcare. They are rarely provided with kindergarten services. As an illustration, in Brcko, where Roma are the biggest ethnic minority with over 2,500 people, not a single Roma child is in a preschool institution.
The series of obstacles remains when the time comes to enrol in schools - children undergo assessment in Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian language. A child that grew up in a Romani speaking family, and did not attend preschool, will probably demonstrate poor results due to lack of language understanding.
Problems continue with transportation to school, buying textbooks, lunch, sports, afterschool activities... While for many children this comes without asking, for Roma families these are all hard areas to conquer. As school goes on, the gap between majority children and kids from marginalised and excluded groups grows bigger and bigger. Number of those who persist dwindles, and by the end of elementary school the number of Roma pupils will have decreased significantly. In Tuzla, for example, where according to some estimates, the Roma community consists of 5,000 people, less than 2% of them have permanent employment and only 15% of Roma children complete elementary schools.
Girls face special difficulties in breaking this cycle. Some parents do not send them to school and instead get them ready for marriage or send them out to work in the streets. Lack of social care and absence of comprehensive and long-term strategy maintain the status quo.
Is there a way out?
Begzada Jovanovic is an example of how education can be a solution. “It was very hard at the beginning, I have been volunteering since I was 16 in the Association, and today I am employed as a Roma mediator”, says Begzada who works in a civil society organisation that promotes education for Roma children in Bijeljina.
She is aware of the prejudice that they have to fight, and says that she herself suffered discrimination from her peers when she tried to get an education. “My mother died when I was in elementary school. I remember being bullied for my appearances. Life circumstances forced me to halt my education but I do have plans to go to university” said this girl.
Now, her day-to-day job is to assist Roma families with administration, schooling of children. Begzada is also an assistant to teachers in elementary school, helping the youngest Roma children to master the materials.
A sophomore student at the Faculty of Philosophy in Banja Luka, Mersiha Manjic, plans to be a class teacher. She has a good relationship with her colleagues and she does not allow discrimination to be a barrier anymore. She is aware that her Roma origin could be seen as a problem by some parents of her future pupils. Mersiha, who calls herself a proud Roma girl, already has an answer prepared - “I can, I will and I am capable of doing everything”.
Youth in Action
Begzada and Mersiha are only some examples of resilience to thrive in these situations. Since 2013, a new generation of Roma youths, who do not want to accept deep-rooted prejudices, have formed a network calling themselves - Leaders - Young Roma in Action (LYRA). Save the Children facilitates trainings for Begzada, Mersiha and other 40 youths so they are able to develop the skills to work and achieve their potential. This network was established by Save the Children with support of US State Department and after initial success, its second phase is now funded by the European Union.
Young people from the cities of Mostar, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bijeljina and Banja Luka, are trained to empower themselves and know how to identify discrimination and violation of human rights, to report it and gather evidence.