Roma children

Many Roma children are excluded from the services and support enjoyed by others. In line with its mandate to prioritize the most marginalized children and empower communities, UNICEF upholds their rights by addressing their lack of opportunities.

Headshot of a Roma girl looking directly at the camera
UNICEF/UN041336/Pirozzi

The challenge

The Roma are one of Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged minority groups. Of the 10 to 12 million Roma people in Europe, around two-thirds live in central and eastern European countries. While some have escaped from poverty, millions live in slums and lack the basic services they need, from healthcare and education to electricity and clean water. 

Discrimination against Roma communities is commonplace, fuelling their exclusion. Far from spurring support for their social inclusion, their poverty and poor living conditions often reinforce the stereotyped views of policymakers and the public. And far from receiving the support that is their right, Roma children face discrimination that denies them the essentials for a safe, healthy and educated childhood.  

Discrimination against Roma children can start early, and have a life-long impact.

The problems facing Roma children can start early in life. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, Roma infants are four times more likely than others to be born underweight. They are also less likely to be registered at birth, and many lack the birth certificate that signals their right to a whole range of services.  

As they grow, Roma children are more likely to be underweight than non-Roma children and less likely to be fully immunized. Few participate in early childhood education. They are less likely than non-Roma children to start or complete primary school, and Roma girls, in particular, are far less likely to attend secondary school. Only 19 per cent of Roma children make it this far in Serbia, compared to 89 per cent of non-Roma children. 

There are also disparities in literacy rates across 10 countries in the region, with rates of 80 per cent for Roma boys and just under 75 per cent for Roma girls, compared to near universal literacy rates at national level.   

Roma children are too often segregated into ‘remedial’ classes within regular schools, and are more likely to be in ‘special’ schools – a reflection of schools that are failing to meet their needs, rather than any failure on their part.  

In Roma communities, child marriage may be perceived as a ‘valid’ way to protect young girls, and as a valued tradition. In reality, such marriages deepen the disparities experienced by girls, and narrow their opportunities in life. 

In many Balkan countries, half of all Roma women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18, compared to around 10 per cent nationally. Child marriage and school drop-out are closely linked, particularly for girls, and such marriages also expose girls to the dangers of early pregnancy and childbirth, as well as a high risk of domestic violence. 

The solution

Improving the lives of Roma children requires the rights-based approach that characterizes the work of UNICEF in the region. We focus on the most marginalized and excluded children, including those growing up in Roma communities, to uphold their rights to a fulfilling childhood.

UNICEF helps to link Roma children and their families to the services to which they are entitled.

Our support for home-visiting programmes informs new parents about -- and connects them with -- health, early childhood development, education and social protection services. In a number of countries, including Serbia, Roma Health Mediators – trusted and trained professionals from Roma communities – provide a bridge between the communities and the services to which they are entitled.

And our support for education aims to bring down the barriers to pre-schooling, enrolment, completion and quality learning for every Roma child.

UNICEF works to ensure that Roma children are protected against rights violations.

Our work on child protection aims to keep families together where possible, ensure that all children have access to justice, and safeguard all children against violence. Working with Children’s Ombudsman’s offices and the justice system also supports the realization of the rights of all children, including those from Roma communities. 

Addressing child marriage requires a multi-pronged approach, from increasing agency and resources for adolescents at risk (especially girls), to enhancing legal systems and services that respond to the needs of adolescents at risk of, or affected by, child marriage.

In Bulgaria, following on from UNICEF research on child marriages, three family centres are now running programmes to prevent such marriages and promote access to secondary education for Roma adolescent girls. These programmes, which transform attitudes towards gender, have reached hundreds of Roma adolescents to date with health and education advice and support.   

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Roma Health Mediators are educating Roma children on the risks of child marriage, with UNICEF support, and public discussions have been organized between members of the Roma community and representatives of local institutions.

In Montenegro, we have worked with social workers to build their capacity to tackle discrimination and increase access to social benefits among Roma communities.