Inclusion of Roma should start at birth (Interview – Florence Bauer, UNICEF Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Q: On the occasion of the International Roma Day, 8. April, every year UNICEF uses the opportunity to remind the public that despite the progress that has been made to realize the rights of Roma children, many Roma girls and boys still face extreme poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. What is the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
FB: The data we collected recently highlights huge equity gaps between Roma and the general population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For example, only 2% of Roma children attend preschool education versus 13% in general, and only 4% of Roma children are timely and fully immunized compared to 68% on average. Roma children are three times more likely not to reach their first birthday. Every third Roma school-age child does not attend primary education (attendance rates: 71% male and 68% female); and only 1 in 4 Roma children attend secondary school (27% male and 18% female). In Sarajevo 84% of street children are Roma, as shown by a recent study on begging in the country.
This data unfortunately confirms that Roma are amongst the most disadvantaged and socially excluded groups in the country, most of them suffering from chronic multi-dimensional poverty.
They also suffer from a high level of discrimination. A recent study, for example, showed that 16% of a representative sample of parents believe that Roma children should attend separate preschool institutions, which is against the principle of inclusive education. Moreover, 40% of Roma parents never heard about mandatory preschool programmes, which should be available to all children.
Other alarming facts are the large proportion of Roma women who are tolerant towards domestic violence (43% of women and 23% of men, compared to around 5% among the general population) and the large prevalence of early marriage, which has implications on Roma women’s future.
Q: UNICEF is committed to improving the lives of all children, so how exactly is UNICEF contributing to the improvement of the living conditions and social inclusion of Roma children?
UNICEF’s priorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina relate to child rights monitoring, social protection, child protection, young child wellbeing and inclusive quality education. In all these areas, UNICEF works with partners to reduce equity gaps. For example, we cooperate with partners to expand quality pre-school education with a focus on Roma children and we facilitate the inclusion of Roma in primary and secondary education. We also promote early childhood services for young children with home visiting and parenting education to reach Roma families and we support targeted immunization campaigns to protect Roma children against vaccine-preventable diseases such as Polio.
We also support data gathering and analyses to better understand the situation of Roma and influence policies. Next week at the occasion of the International Roma Day, we will present jointly with the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, the Guidelines for improving the position of Roma children in BiH. These guidelines, which enable the systematic gathering of data on the situation of Roma, should contribute to reduce social exclusion and to improve the overall condition of the Roma population.
The other day, during my visit to Brcko, I was delighted to hear about the continuation of a nice story UNICEF supported two years ago, in the extremely poor village of Prutace, where a majority of Roma children were not attending basic education. UNICEF supported the school in providing extended classes and free school meals in order to facilitate the social inclusion of all vulnerable children, including a large Roma community. Two years later, these children are not just regularly attending classes, they are competing for better grades! Previously the school facilities were often destroyed. Teachers and students did not feel safe in the school while now they live in harmony with the community who sees the benefits and great hope education brings for their children. This is just one example of an initially small targeted intervention that we are now working at replicating throughout the country.
Q: Despite the progress, Roma children still face challenges and the society still has prejudices towards Roma. In your opinion, what are the key steps to secure a lasting change and a better inclusion of Roma children into the society?
FB: The social inclusion of Roma children should start from birth: all children have to be registered, which may require ensuring free baby birth in all health institutions. This would reduce the number of children who are not registered timely, which would ensure their right to identity, nationality, passport and other identity documents as preconditions for the realization of all other rights such as the right to health or education.
In the Roma Summit organized by the European Commission in Brussels, UNICEF is proposing following key priority actions as necessary contributions to social cohesion and sustainable development as enshrined in the ‘Europe 2020 Strategy’: end malnutrition, secure access to quality inclusive health care services and information for women and children, expand supply of inclusive early child education and learning, provide family support services and encourage equal involvement of mothers and fathers in raising their children, improve the quality and inclusiveness of primary and secondary education, particularly for Roma girls and women, improve living standards and address the income poverty of Roma households, in particular of Roma women.
Social change requires some time to take place. As UNICEF we are committed to continue to support the social inclusion of all vulnerable children, including Roma, through the next 5-year programme of cooperation with BiH. What we notice is that: Exclusion starts at birth. And so does inclusion.