Roma, also known as Romani, are a traditionally itinerant people whose journey began in northern India. Today, they live all over the world – mainly in Europe. Yet, due to their travelling status (often referred to derogatively as ‘Gypsies’) and lack of personal documentation, Roma continue to face arguably the worst social stigma on the continent.
In Romania, despite being the largest ethnic minority in the country, some of the most abject poverty and human rights problems remain with the Roma people. They are worse off in almost every aspect of life, with an estimated 90 per cent of Roma households facing material deprivation.
And though a national strategy by the EU commands the Romanian government to better integrate its Roma population, progress is slow. Many still reside in dirty clay hut settlements and cannot afford to send their children to school – stuck in a relentless cycle of shame, exclusion and hardship.
Backed by research
In 2012 Dorcas began working with Roma communities in Tarian, a village located in the western part of the country. The Roma Inclusion and Development programme – run in collaboration with regional partner Betania Christian Center and with local stakeholders (schools and the city hall) – provides learning and employment pathways and community-based care and protection to some of the most vulnerable Roma groups in the region.
During initial programme mapping we learned of several key aspects that are essential for sustainable change to take place in these communities. Our findings highlighted that an inclusive approach is more effective than a Roma-specific one as it encourages people, particularly children and youth, to reject stereotypes and mix from an early age – therefore working to break the cycle of isolation and stigma. In Tarian, the evidence-based programme is split into several Roma Inclusion projects – each with a specific focus.
Roma Women Self-Help Groups
As primary caregivers, Roma women and mothers play a vital role in the healthy development of the children in their care. Yet the stresses and physical threats they face often affect their ability to protect and care for their offspring.
Most of the women in Tarian are unemployed and over half of those interviewed had not received any form of education. Roma women also typically stay at home while the men hold down day labor, meaning that women carry much of the burden and play a big role in their children’s upbringing.
We work to empower Roma women through self-help groups – specially designed to bring local women together to learn and support each other. Sessions take place once a week and through group projects and peer-to-peer activities see Roma women develop personal skills and values that help them deal with problems at home, manage stress and boost self-esteem. We also offer entrepreneurial training and income-generating activities that help participants act on their aspirations and bring money home. At the same time, women follow learning modules on (early) childhood development – how to support the healthy development of their child and utilise positive parenting techniques.
Roma Child Development (Education)
Lack of education, exacerbated by poverty and social exclusion, has become one of the greatest hurdles for many young Roma. Historically, the little support they have received continued to separate Roma children from the main schooling system making it harder and harder for them to follow standard curricula and meet the required grades.
While the women attend our self-help groups, their children take part in other activities and after-school programmes alongside poor Romanian children. Our life skills trainings and Future 4 Children programme – based on the Aflatoun method – equip children with the interpersonal skills to promote peace and stability. The programme also prepares them for the developmental demands of their communities. Through financial literacy training, children learn about saving and budgeting and are encouraged to develop a small-scale business plan or micro-enterprise. Children also develop emotional intelligence and learn how to express themselves, reject stereotypes and care for their wider environment – skills that empower them to change local mindsets.
Children following the programme also gain critical thinking skills and follow educational modules on human-trafficking in order to critically assess the biggest threats they face and avoid exploitation. They also learn about the forms that abuse and neglect can take, helping them exercise their basic rights at home and in social situations.
In Romania, there are many organisations that, while inherently diverse and working at different levels, share our vision. In our Roma Inclusion programme we actively work to bring these different stakeholders together by organising collaborative workshops and meetings. Community halls, schools, churches and child rights organisation ERIKS are just some of the institutions who make up the partnership.
One of the aims of the collective is to develop and test the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) strategy for sustainable community-driven development. We mobilise individuals and local actors (formal or informal) in a shared forum to build on the assets and capabilities that already exist in their communities. This requires that they not only tackle immediate needs, but also work together to bring about long-term socio-economic change.
The end goal? Dorcas is working towards the creation of an integrated ABCD Roma Inclusion programme active across Romania – and housed under one Managed Service Provider (MSP). If we can achieve this, we can develop a viable local resource mobilisation model and associated funding plan – all with the aim to one day eliminate the need for our presence altogether.
27 July 2020