Roma who won lawsuit against Czech Republic still can't find jobs
It was a surprise in 2007 when 18 Romani schoolchildren from Ostrava won their lawsuit against the Czech Republic. The European Court for Human Rights recognized at the time that the state had discriminated against them in their access to education.
The young plaintiffs have since grown up and some have their own children by now. While they may have helped changed conditions in the schools, they are not having much personal success: All but one of them is unemployed.
News server iDNES.cz reports that the Ostrava-based civic association Life Together (Vzájemné soužití) discovered at the end of the 1990s that there were many similar cases in the Romani community. The association identified roughly 30 such children and began tutoring them.
Of those, 18 then completed aptitude tests in order to attend the mainstream primary schools. "That was clear proof that they had been unjustifiably assigned to the 'special schools'," recalls Kumar Vishwanathan, head of the association.
In 1999, those 18 children - 13 girls and five boys - sued the state, and when the Czech justice system did not agree with them, they appealed in the year 2000 to the European Court of Human Rights. "Our parents sued because we were not re-assigned to the special school for the normal reason," Andrea Bandyová, who was a plaintiff together with her sister Denisa, told news server iDNES.cz.
Julius Mika, now 26, still has unpleasant memories of third grade. He missed part of the school year because he had pneumonia, and when he returned to school, he remembers his teacher picking on him.
"Instead of giving me a chance to catch up, she began testing me on new material and slapping me," Mika told iDNES.cz. After the holidays, Julius had to enroll into a "special school" (today called a "practical school") designed for the instruction of pupils with "light mental disability".
Julius, of course, had never been diagnosed with any such disability. The lawsuit of which he was a part, known today under the name of "D.H. and Others vs. Czech Republic" (after the initials of plaintiff Denisa Holubová) was quite protracted.
The Strasbourg court initially rejected the Romani pupils' lawsuit in February 2006. They finally succeeded with a Grand Chamber appeal in November 2007.
"That final decision was a bit surprising, because the Grand Chamber overturned a previous judgment through it. It was a groundbreaking judgment that undoubtedly became the starting point for other cases like the judgments against Croatia and Hungary," says David Strupek, the attorney for the 18 pupils who recalls the case as a big turning point for his own career.
After completely primary school, Julius Mika graduated from a technical school with training as a decorator/painter. Now the father of two makes his living in Ostrava as a social worker.
He continues to share his personal experiences with others. As a social worker, he helps Romani pupils avoid enrollment into the "practical schools".
However, today he is the only one of the 18 former plaintiffs with a job. "The others are not employed, although some of the guys work under the table. Their living situations have not been changed much by winning the lawsuit. Most of them want to work and make money, that's their main desire today," Vishwanathan says.
Why are almost none of them working? "Because we were born Romani," Mika believes.
"I too have encountered this a great deal. You see a job available online, you call and are accepted for it, then you show up in person and they tell you the job is taken already," he says.
The other former plaintiffs describe similar experiences. "It's a problem to find work," complains 24-year-old Helena Kočková.
Her position on the labor market is also made more difficult by the fact that, just like all the rest of the former plaintiffs, she has only ever achieved a primary education. According to Andrea Bandyová, her troubles with finding work are influenced by the fact that she was unable to attend a mainstream primary school for her entire school career.
"We were all glad to win that lawsuit. However, instead of offering us additional education, they blindfolded us with money," Mika now says, referring to the EUR 4 000 the state had to pay each of the plaintiffs.
Experts had warned of a high number of Romani children being enrolled into the "special schools" long before the judgment came down. For example, a survey among schoolchildren in Ostrava conducted at the end of the 1990s warned that Romani children were 27 times more likely to be considered mentally retarded and sent to a "special school" than any other kind of child.
After the Strasbourg judgment, the Czech Republic pledged to change its practices. "The judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are binding, they cannot be ignored. In the Czech Republic, thanks to the judgment, the understanding of indirect discrimination has been transformed," Strupek said.
In November 2012, the Czech Education Ministry presented a list of its anti-segregation steps to correct the situation. The ministry is endeavoring to improve the work of the educational psychological counseling centers that determine whether children are disabled, as well as to improve the degree to which parents are informed when they make decisions on whether to enroll their offspring into a "practical school" or not.
Experts are also hoping a planned amendment to the School Act will improve the situation further. The amendment is meant to further distinguish between the arrangements for the education of disabled children and that of socially excluded Romani children.
Since 2007, moreover, the state must regularly report to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on how the situation is developing. "I definitely sense a certain change," says Vishwanathan, mentioning a more enlightened approach now being taken by several school directors.
However, Romani children continue to comprise a disproportionately large share of the pupils attending the "practical schools" given that they only comprise approximately 2 % of the population of the Czech Republic. According to an investigation by the Czech School Inspectorate, 28.2 % of the children being educated as intellectually disabled during this school year are Romani.
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