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When the Kids Came Marching In

A Roma girl at school: discrimination is still life

by Iana Bejaniyska , UNICEF Consultant

Saturday, 20 November 2010, was a day of colour and costume, of petitions and promises, of fun and fanfare. The day had been long in the making. Back in January FONPC (The Federation of NGOs for Children) joined forces with a number of committed partners, including UNICEF and the French Embassy, and started getting in touch with Romania’s kids up and down the country. Kids were wanted to mark a special anniversary: twenty years since Romania signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Kids were wanted to speak up for kids and use the occasion to propose a way forward for the children of Romania.

When Romania signed the Convention in 1990 the country was in disrepute over the state of its orphanages which had been brought to the attention of the international community in the wake of Ceausescu’s execution and the collapse of Communism. Today the country’s image has not recovered entirely. Foreign observers still identify big omissions and a lack of professionalism in the child care system, often unfairly. In mid-November the British press reported continuing negligence in some Romanian institutions. The day of celebration in Parliament on the 20th was in stark contrast to that other darker reality.

Formerly the House of the People, the Parliament building is a mammoth structure, a tribute to Ceausescu’s megalomania. It is imposing, then oppressive, before one can start feeling human again upon entering it. UNICEF organiser Dana Petcovici had been there since early morning: “It was so eerie and crushing here until the kids started coming in. We had invited 250 of them. They transformed the place. In fact, they took over completely.” The clamour, whispers, giggles and singing filled the vast ground floor, putting even the grim looking security at ease.

When preparations began in January, twenty-four children from three counties and the city of Bucharest were selected to form an action group to campaign for the rights of children in Romania. Ten months later it looks like this group might have an important presence on the country’s political scene. The group had hoped that several key politicians would turn up on the day to hear what Romania’s children consider important and how they would like to be treated by politicians, local governments, teachers and parents. A couple of MPs were in the audience and the President of the Senate, Mircea Geoana, was also present.

The first person that catches the eye in the crowd is not one of the VIPs but a lanky boy who wears a shiny crown. The ten-year-old king of the Kingdom of Children’s Rights is in huge demand and impossible to pin down for an interview. He will be opening the event. Near him is a girl wearing a loud gypsy outfit. Gabriela, as it turns out, is one of the twenty-four young activists who are determined to make the voices of children in Romania count. She is Roma and knows what it is like to have one’s rights disregarded, even violated. At the same time she comes across as a confident fifteen-year-old who has a clear sense of direction in life and formidable understanding of the issues that are being raised today.

Gabriela wants to be a vet. She attends Foundation Phillip in Bucharest which provides after-school care for Roma children. The Foundation’s homework club has supported her studies as well as providing social and career advice. For her the time spent with the group of twenty-four has been a life-changing experience: ‘I made lots of friends and collaborated with everyone. We were from all over the country but got on really well and had great laughs putting together the sketches which we are showing today. In Romania there are many children who are discriminated against. They do not have good social skills and cannot communicate. They feel lonely and forgotten. The Government and local authorities have the responsibility to take care of them. They should be involved in projects like the one in which I am taking part. I would like to ask kids anywhere in the world to have faith in themselves and know their rights’.

Multi-coloured hope released into the grey November sky

This girl is an accomplished public speaker. Later she goes on stage with her group. Three short plays are acted in front of the eager audience, debating in turn the right to life, inclusion and every child’s right to education. The script is every bit the children’s work as is the music. Eighteen-year-old Anda has taken care of all the songs. She too is passionate about a Romania which empowers its young people: ‘We have to act together to make sure all our rights are respected. I would like to see our group expand and lobby for a change in the law so we have greater decision-making power instead of always taking orders from the authorities’. The musical highlight of the event is the Children’s Hymn with lyrics composed collectively by the group:

Hello, we are from Romania.
We have equal rights. We are like everybody else.
We are not selfish, we are optimistic.
We care about the poor kids,
the kids in the street,
city kids and country kids.
We all want to have a better life.

Even singers Lisa, Vero and Simona from girl band Wassabi, join in the hymn with dozens of children, big and small, who spontaneously climb up on stage and hold hands together. Among the spectators there are representatives of pupil councils from elite schools, young athletes from sports clubs and children from homes. They are all equal today and they want to learn how to help each other.

Even though by now the party is in full swing, Gabriela has the audience sitting on the edge of their seats while she is reading out the open letter addressed by the group of twenty-four to Romania’s politicians. They demand very categorically to be involved in child policy making and have a say in decisions made by local governments on behalf of young people and families. The letter sets out seven specific goals that need to be achieved by 20 November 2011.

Some in the audience are sceptical. One says: ‘Politicians cannot be trusted. Parents should try harder to improve the lives of their children’. A mother is hopeful that even if half of the demands are met, it would be a great achievement. A young man is quite impressed that the President of the Senate made time on Saturday morning to attend the event. Mr Geoana’s rhetoric is moving: ‘At a time when there is so much pessimism, we, adults, have to unite and make Romania a truly developed country in which children have equal rights’. FONPC president, Bogdan Simion, is proud that the day became a unique example of child participation in the political life of the country. Children’s opinions were heard at the highest level and their platform was the building which symbolises the Romanian people.

Despite the hurdles that lie ahead for both children and adults, the day concludes on a high. Acrobats and jugglers from Parada, a foundation, which teaches circus and confidence skills to street kids, give a fantastic show in front of the grand main entrance of Parliament. The grey cold facade comes to life. Children and adults are on their toes with excitement. After the Parada troupe spellbinds the audience with juggling and balancing acts, the biggest treat of the event is in store. Five hundred brightly coloured balloons, carrying over a hundred messages from children, are released into the grey November sky. One of them seems to sum up the rest: ‘Every child has a dream. And every child should be given the chance to fulfil this dream, knowing that he or she has the right to make mistakes and still be loved and cared for’.



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