Recently, the Irish Independent’s Barbara McCarthy wrote an account of her experiences in pretending to be a Roma beggar. She got a well-earned social media slating for dressing up her impersonation as a “first-hand” experience of “what it’s like to be amongst society’s most persecuted”:
Did you really need to “dress roma” love or could you have spoken to an actual romani person? What next, black face? http://t.co/gtHtv9Eb2Q
— Sonya D (@HunterSony) November 3, 2014
As a corrective, some first-hand accounts might be useful. I am no better-placed than McCarthy to offer one. Instead, I’ve consulted this report drawn up by City of Dublin VEC in association with the Pavee Point Travellers Centre and the Roma Support Group – based, notably, on extensive interviews with actual Roma people from a broad range of communities. I’ve added diagrams to make this as digestible as possible (in light of the fact that there is demonstrably at least one person out there who thought the best way to understand Roma was to write an article about herself mimicking them).
I’ll add one important caveat before we start: these diagrams are not comprehensive accounts of Roma experiences. They are diagrams. On the other hand, an Indo journalist playing dress-up for a day and writing about it is not a comprehensive account of Roma experiences. It is an Indo journalist playing dress-up for a day and writing about it.
Collecting data on Roma populations is challenging; as a result, the numbers of Roma are underestimated in state census statistics across Europe. There are a number of explanations for this: the erasure of ethnic identity in census forms and statistics collection, difficulties in identifying the Roma people by their living situation when not all are nomadic, and an understandable reluctance to tell officials that they belong to a group continually subjected to state-sanctioned racial discrimination.
Compounding this issue is the fact that Ireland has never produced official statistics on its Roma population. Estimates place the number of Roma in Ireland between 2,500 and 3,000. The majority appear to be predominately from Romania (though it is important not to conflate the two). Others come from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Poland. Roma have migrated to Ireland since the early nineteenth century, but were first recorded as asylum seekers in the 1990s.
Roma in Ireland are made up of diverse groups with a shared pattern of ethnic belonging. Many experience racism on a daily basis. Historically, Irish state policies aimed at the Roma have been characterised both by outright human rights violations and by a more passive (but damaging) lack of cultural awareness. An OSCE report notes that “countless programmes for Roma have been destined to fail because they were developed without Roma participation, and correspondingly, with scant awareness of the specific culture and needs of the intended beneficiaries”.
Ireland’s largest Roma population concentration is in Dublin city and county. Other groups live in Louth, Monaghan, Limerick, Athlone, Kilkenny, Carlow, Sligo, Mayo, Meath and Donegal. Urban Roma groups frequently live in substandard and isolated accommodation far from public infrastructure. These factors contribute to lower life expectancy and education participation, and to higher infant mortality and poverty.
Barriers to participation in education
Barriers to Roma adult participation in education (primarily, language and literacy development) include stress of the asylum process and an inability to plan for the future, non-literacy in both native and non-native languages, limited and/or no English language skills development, traditional gender roles, cultural attitudes to mixing in non-Roma sectors and fears of losing Roma culture, and limited and/or negative experiences in formal education provision.
Traditional gender roles also hamper children’s participation; other factors include a lack of family support for school, parental inability to help with schoolwork, difficulties eliciting accurate information on children’s previous school experiences and/or enrolment, peer group relations in schools, and problems to do with literacy and familiarity with a formal learning environment.
Majority societies often propagate negative stereotypes of Roma women, e.g. that they are subservient to men and confined to the domestic sphere. While many Roma groups assign traditional patriarchal roles to men and women, women are allotted the responsibility of versing children in Roma traditions and culture, a task the Pavee Point report notes as vital to the preservation of the group.
As a consequence, Roma women sometimes contend with fears that if they engage too much with formal education then they will lose their ethnic identity.
Because their parental role is that of primary healthcare provider, Roma women are often the familial contact point with governmental administrative offices, healthcare provision and education structures. However, they continue to experience a three-fold exclusion: as women, as members of the Roma community, and as having little or sometimes no formal education.
In order to tackle these issues, the report suggested a number of approaches designed to foreground the “importance of the extended, intergenerational family-group learning environment in Roma culture”. These suggestions include establishing/building a link between the home and education institutions for adults and children, understanding traditional social and cultural roles maintained by the majority of Roma families in Ireland, providing programmes for Roma men that have specific work-related outcomes and programmes for women that reflect childcare responsibilities and socialisation roles, and taking a family learning approach to language and literacy development.
While acknowledging that the educational access issues facing the Roma in Ireland are “long-standing, complex and multi-faceted”, the report ultimately highlighted that “innovative and inclusive education services, projects and programmes for Roma adults and children are emerging throughout Europe and Ireland” and that such provisions are achievable “if cultural and social factors as well as historical experiences are taken into consideration”.
In other words, majority populations and their policy-makers should ask more and presume less.
In other words, that thing Barbara McCarthy didn’t do.
Illustrations: Naoise Dolan