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Analysis: Slovak opposition politicians tour Romani settlements

Prague, 13.8.2012 21:21, (ROMEA)

The 800 Romani settlements in Slovakia are too numerous to ignore, as are the living conditions of the considerable proportion of Romani people in them. There is no doubt their conditions are notably worse than those of local non-Romani populations. Opposition politicians from the Hnutí Obyčajní ľudia (Ordinary People Movement), together with independent MPs Alojz Hlina and Igor Matovič, launched what they called a "Tour de Roma" in mid-July. Hlina and Matovič's dissatisfaction with the direction of the social climate toward Romani people in Slovakia and the current government's laxity toward the situation got them out of their parliamentary offices to spend five days among the people directly affected by this unsatisfactory state of affairs.

So far, so good. The inequality between the lives of the Romani settlement residents and the surrounding majority population is evident, so the interest of government actors and the opposition should be welcomed, but the MPs' action has prompted both applause and criticism. Since those are the two forms of reward that usually await anyone who decides to focus on this topic and do something about it, I did my best from the start to try to view this effort impartially and to give a chance to those who claim they want to learn firsthand about this long-term, systemic, unsolved problem.

I let slide the method chosen by these men, which otherwise bothered me greatly due to its lack of respect for the people in whose homes and private lives the "tour" was supposed to take place. I let slide the fact that no one (not even a public official) has the right to enter someone else's home, which is naturally considered an intimate, personal space by those who live there, and to expect to be automatically received. I did my best to find a difference between how certain travel agencies have approached such "tours" of the Romani settlements and how these two MPs approached them. I let slight the light whiff of populism which is very often the intention of discussions on this topic. Lastly, I completely ignored the facile naiveté of the entire plan, which hoped to understand, in a mere five days, the situation of Romani settlements in Slovakia, places which have such a convoluted history of creation and endurance. Everyone has to start somewhere, not everyone is an expert whose word can be trusted, and the effort to speak with the people who are born and die in these much-criticized conditions should be appreciated and not taken for granted.

Of course, when I read the press release published a few days prior to Hlina and Matovič driving their rented caravan to the Romani settlements, and them when I read the 14-point proposal for solutions which resulted from their eyewitness adventure, I suspected that criticism of this daring "Tour de Roma" is entirely appropriate. Prior to their departure, the MPs said they wanted to "go among people, speak with them, eat and sleep where they do". This might have been an expression of openness and willingness to listen, but their subsequent remarks made it clear that they already knew what to expect and that they intended to address the Romani people's souls (in however friendly or well-intentioned a manner) because the whole event, from their point of view, was designed rather to confirm their suspicions than to expand their horizons - to say nothing of fixing these situations or even transforming them altogether. How else are we to interpret the MPs' declaration that they wanted "to personally tell the Romani people that the only road out of the situation in which they find themselves is a genuine interest in work, that money can't just be found waiting for them at the post office anymore, but has to be exchanged for work, and that people will no longer be rewarding them for attending school, but rather punishing them when they do not attend"?

The politicians would not be telling many Romani people anything new about work which Romani job seekers have not already known for some time (naturally, not all of them). Efforts like these run into the limits imposed by people's lack of qualifications, the generally high unemployment rate, and employer preferences for non-Romani workers. After all, the high number of Romani men who travel to Bohemia from Slovakia for seasonal work is nothing if not a "genuine interest" in work. During one of my summer visits to a certain settlement in eastern Slovakia in 2005, almost all of the able-bodied adult males had gone to the Czech Republic, while many women were increasing their family budgets by going to "activation work". I meet other such men on the streets of Prague, not only as ditch-diggers, but also on the regular Friday train connection from Prague to Košice. Yes, sure, many Romani people take advantage of being unemployed and are dependent on easy sources of financing from the social welfare system (or have gotten used to it), but many others do not, and some are doing their best to address their situations their own way, even at the price of rather long separations from their families.

Last but not least, the fact that these gentlemen have chosen to demonstrate more of their pre-conceived notions with reference to the field of education does not make for happy reading. Be that as it may, they are pointing the finger at a system (whose details and rules of operation I am unfortunately not familiar with) that has been created and supported from above and which obviously aims to use a positive tool (rewarding school attendance) to motivate Romani families to monitor their children's attendance and thereby increase the likelihood that their offspring will find work in the future (although here we must add that they will only find work if other circumstances which are in state hands are favorable as well). Naturally, we can discuss the appropriateness and effectiveness of such financial compensation, but the blame for this situation does not lie only on the parents' side. Statements such as these obscure and silence other factors, such as the segregation of Romani children in the schools, which for Romani pupils do not represent a process leading to the next level of education, but rather are a ticket to the realm of the long-term unemployed - or to be more precise, the unemployable. Moreover, this sense of a double standard and "special" treatment (and not only in the schools) probably does not strike many Romani people as something that motivates them to cooperate with or desire to be a part of Slovak society.

Since both MPs view the situation as so critical, we can also discuss what the root causes are of these matters that bother them (and certainly not them alone) so much. Their entire declaration says not one word about this, except for their understandable criticisms of previous governments. Only someone who believes Romani people have chosen the position in which they find themselves can hold opinions that are so comfortable, ignorant (willfully so), and superficial. There are many stories of individual families doing their best to get out of the environments of the settlements, only to have the authorities and municipalities prevent their efforts through systemic moves that force them to lower themselves back down. There are also quite a few Romani people who live well in the settlements despite their conditions because they feel like human beings there, not like second-class citizens as they do in many majority-society situations. Let's now take a closer look at the observations and proposals that were the result of the MPs' five-day tour:

"1) By failing to assure proper child-rearing from the very start, we are leaving children in the hands of incompetent, irresponsible parents who let them run wild in the streets until the age of seven. That is the kind of child that usually ends up in a special needs class or school."

Let's leave aside the way in which the MP's have evaluated some Romani parents, who have come in for some defamatory labeling here. In the first place, no one has the right to tell someone else how to raise their children. In the second place, the fact that children do not attend nursery school, or do not spend time at the village playground, or don't do anything else "meaningful" (?) - and many non-Romani children do not do any of these things - does not mean that their upbringings are not "proper". Yes, such an upbringing might be different, depending on culture, environment, etc., but that does not make it better or worse than the upbringing the MPs are familiar with. However, both men would have to spend much more time among Romani families in order to find out how unfair their opinion is. Of course, we can discuss why Romani children very often find themselves behind others in the first grade and how to help them to overcome their handicaps (which are usually linguistic and have to do with their fact that their knowledge is based on their different life situations, etc.) so as to increase their chances of being educated in mainstream schools, not "special needs" classes or schools.

Point No. 1 does not discuss this, just as no one thought to add that Romani children are also sent to "special needs" schools later in their educational careers, at which time it really has nothing to do with the concept of upbringing. This is not just about the Romani parents' desires alone, even though given their own experiences, or their opinion as to what is best for their children's psyches, the choice of a "special school" may be understandable. Many cases have been documented of the fact that it is often the diagnostic counseling centers, the non-Romani parents in a community, the school administrators themselves or the teachers at those schools who make sure Romani boys and girls are not educated in the mainstream. Much has been already been written about this, most of it about the situation in the Czech Republic, but practices in Slovakia will obviously not be much better.

"2) Through the way our social welfare system is financially set up, we are motivating the children in deprived families to immediately leave school once compulsory attendance ends and to start drawing welfare as this is financially more advantageous for the family."

Granted, the arrangement of the social welfare system very often does not motivate employment. However, it is not as simple as all that. We can view the social welfare system as a tool through which the state compensates for what it was unable to ensure for some of its citizens in the past (or even today - for example, non-segregated education, employment opportunities for the handicapped, etc.). We use this tool to purchase social reconciliation. Without it, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia would evidently be addressing much more difficult problems than Romani unemployment. So much for the MPs' generalized oversimplifications regarding the social welfare system.

This system could be set up in various ways. It could be even more strict, but only if we were able to assure beforehand that Romani pupils would not be programmatically shunted into "special schools" where they will not receive a full-fledged primary education; only if we were in a position to guarantee that most Romani children would be considered desirable, natural candidates for primary school in Slovak society, only if we were in a position to guarantee that priority would be given to individual assistance and an effort to educate such children properly should problems arise, instead of just easing them out of the mainstream and into worse schools.Were it within the realm of possibility, within our power, to guarantee that the young Romani men and women who graduate will have a real opportunity to get a job irrespective of their ethnic origins, then we could make the welfare system more strict - if we could guarantee that these are aims about which society agrees and which it will support.

Unless conditions are created for Romani children to firmly take hold of these opportunities, the proposed changes to the social welfare system will not lead to a greater desire among graduates to find work, but will lead to their further social decline. If they are not finding work today, they probably will not find work with a few hundred crowns less a month to live on (at least some of them definitely will not).

"3) The educational, legal and social welfare system does not protect teachers from aggressive, vulgar behavior by individuals. This is a sick system which is seriously demotivating high-quality teachers from instructing children who come from troubled families."

This point in particular demonstrates the authors' sensibilities. It contrasts supposedly unproblematic teachers with troubled children. Aren't schools the place where educated, trained personnel encounter the younger generation, still so unaware of so many things, in order to help members of that generation find their way in the world? Isn't it in the nature of the profession to know how to cope with children whose behavior falls outside the norm?

I recognize that the teaching profession is highly demanding and that not everyone is up to the task when many difficult factors combine, but why don't the authors ask WHY some children behave this way? Even a total lay person could list at least a few possibilities. How can it be that some teachers know how to cope with and manage these situations such that they get to the root of such behavior, while others do not? Doesn't this mean that being a high-quality teacher is not the sort of fun the authors believe it is? Doesn't this mean that a good teacher knows what to do while a worse teacher will be baffled and desperate? Lastly, there might even be an aberration in the way a specific teacher behaves toward any given child, an aberration in the kind of reflection the teacher gives the child of his behavior.

While I am not a teacher myself, I have lectured in the schools. I often meet inspiring teachers whom I would be glad to have educating my children. Unfortunately, I also meet teachers who, even though they specialize in the education of Romani children, have no problem referring to them as "demented", or implying their own superiority in other ways. It is really hard to enjoy attending a school with such teachers.

"4) A system that makes it possible to pay irresponsible parents a cash contribution upon the birth of their child without linking that money to a specific goal is perverse. Irresponsible parents will not use such a contribution to cover the costs of their children's needs, but only their own."

Let's take a look at this automatically repeated use of the notion of an "irresponsible parent". The authors do not explain what sort of a person they are imagining here. On what do they base the claim that such parents will spend money on themselves instead of their infants? If real background evidence for this impression exists, how many cases are there on which these authors are so fearlessly basing this generalization? If such contributions are to be restricted depending on parents' behavior, how do the authors imagine the authorities will measure that behavior and set the conditions? Aren't both MPs here rather repeating the often-reproduced stereotype (an extremely false one with respect to most Romani people) that Romani families have larger than average families in order to draw welfare and such contributions for their newborns? If the authors are referring here to the really pathological phenomena that prevail in socially excluded conditions, such as alcoholism, gambling, etc., then child welfare authorities should step in and address such situations individually for the benefit of the child and the integrity of the family. It is hard to judge from these two unspecific sentences what the authors mean.

I don't know under what conditions these monies are assigned in Slovakia, but in the Czech Republic only families whose incomes fall below a certain level are entitled to them. Is there some proven correlation between a family's material standard of living and their (ir)responsibility? A one-time contribution can significantly assist such people after the birth of a child, when the family budget is strained more than usual. Whether they use that money to acquire something the fa ily as a whole really needs (i.e., not just diapers or a pram) is purely their own business. From my own experience in many Romani settlements, I can say that parents there are no more or less evil than parents in the majority society.

"5) The system of jointly assessing family members' incomes financially motivates parents dependent on welfare not to marry so as to secure more welfare."

A couple of years ago, when several of my [non-Romani] acquaintances were getting married, they seriously did consider the option of just living together because it would be financially more advantageous should a child then be born. It was an alternative, and it was their purely personal decision whether to get married irrespective of how financially beneficial it would be. Is the behavior these authors are describing in the Romani case somehow different? If we are talking about the same thing, why is there a double standard here? The reader should be more concerned about how these two MPs are making their arguments than about how Romani parents are behaving.

I noticed one more proposal by one of the MPs which would send our society backward by about a century. According to Matovič, it would be good if there were not one equally weighted vote per individual citizen: "[The weight of a vote] could depend on who contributes what to society, but these are ideas which all constitutional lawyers will immediately put a stop to as anti-democratic and unconstitutional." Thank God there are such interventions! Thank God also for the fact that Matovič's ideas have seen the light of day. More than anything else, this proposal tells us what kind of a person set out to visit the Romani settlements in order to "save" them, and we can start reflecting on why he made the trip. We can only hope he never gets the opportunity to act on these proposals.

Gwendolyn Albert, Radka Steklá, Radka Steklá, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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