Positive parenting amongst the Romani Communities in the Slovak Republic

- Blog | Adrian Marsh

Miroslav Sklenka, MA

Miroslav Sklenka is Chairperson of the Way Of Hope Foundation and Director of the Slovak Step-by-Step organisation, Wide Open School Association. He has worked as a coordinator for the Slovak government’s Roma Health Mediators Programme and the Roma Plenipotentiary Office. He is a member of the REYN Advisory Group. Miroslav is of Romani origins.

The earliest settlement of Romani people in the Slovak lands can be traced back to the 14th century (1322) when these were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Romani Studies scholars identify the Roma migrations from the Balkans to the Central Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, as the pressure of the Ottoman Turks grew, succesively expanding their territory from the former Byzantine Empire to the Balkans and later to the central Europe. In the 19th century, numerous further Roma groups came to Slovakia from Wallachia, Moldavia and the Russian lands.

In the most recent population and housing census in Slovakia, carried out in 2011, 105,738 people registred themselves as Roma, that is 2% of the total population; however, it is widely believed that the national census data does not reflect the actual total number of the Roma minority, as a large number of Romani people do not register their ethnicity, for fear of persecution and discrimination. Some estimations suggest that a much higher percentage of the population may be of Romani origin, as those Roma who have a comparable income levels to the majority population are not registered as “Roma”, further compounding the numercial disparity. Due to higher birth rates amongst Roma communities than amongst other population groups, this share is likely to rise in the coming years. Recent demographic projections even suggest that, given current trends, Roma could become a majority in the country by 2050.Roma Confident Parents Project

Recently, there has been an Atlas of Roma Communities in the Slovak Republic produced. The resulting data are envisaged to serve the public administration in evidence-based policy making and service management. The Atlas also has a direct political impact – as an ex-ante conditionality for distribution of the EU funds for 2014-2020 programming period. Estimates here suggest a Roma population of 402,840. According to the census by the Statistical Office, of the Slovak Republic at December 31st 2011, the total population of Slovakia was 5,404,322 inhabitants – thus the percentage of Romani people, according to the Atlas… is 7.45%:

  • 187,285 Roma live amongst the majority. In other words 46.5% of Roma population in Slovakia live in mixed communities;
  • 51,998 Roma live in settlements within municipality areas – 12.9% of Roma population in Slovakia;
  • 95,971 Roma live in settlements on the edges of the municipality areas, in what are marginalised communities – 23.8% of Roma population in Slovakia
  • 68,540 Roma live in entirely segregated settlements – 17.0% of Roma population in Slovakia.

Of the 2,890 municipalities in Slovakia, Romani people live in 1,070 municipalities:

  • There are 804 settlements in 584 municipalities
  • There are 246 settlements inside villages/towns, in 179 municipalities
  • There are 327 settlements on the edge of the village/town in 305 municipalities
  • There are 231 segregated settlements in 195 municipalities (average distance of segregated community is 900 m, the longest distance is 7 km from the majority)
  • In 153 municipalities the Roma population does not live dispersed amongst the majority at all – they live in segregated settlements only.

The social inclusion of Slovakia’s Roma minority is an unresolved issue and has been a topic of on-going debate for many decades. Several attempts have been made to improve the socio-economic conditions of the segreated, impoverished Roma communities, with only moderate success to date. One reason for the continuing failure is that previous programmes did not concentrate on the long-term social needs of Roma. Roma in Slovakia are overrepresented among the poorest section of the population and lead the “worst off” statistics in terms of nearly all basic social indicators, with overall low social status, inadequate levels of education and qualification, high rates of unemployment and increasing unemployability, poor housing conditions, lacking basic infrastructure, and extremely poor health conditions, further degraded by inaccessibility or low accessibility to health services.

There have been several initiatives to help Roma people relieve this gloomy situation in recent years, particularly led by the Roma NGO (non-governmental organisation) sector. One such example is the work of the civic association, Way of Hope, based Ziar nad Hronom, central Slovakia. They have implemented a successful early years care and education project working with the most disadvantaged Romani communities, with the “Roma Confident Parent’s Project”. This project has been implemented in partnership with the Step-by-Step association in Slovakia and funded by grants from the Open Society Foundations and their Early Childhood Programme.

The main goals of the projects are to promote awareness of the importance of early childhood development and education amongst highly marginalised, poorly educated, young (sometimes very young) Roma parents living in poverty in excluded, segregated communities in central and eastern Slovakia. At the core of the project in these communities in six municipalities, is the imperative to improve the life opportunities for infants and young Romani children, through a series of workshops and associated activities promoting positive parenting, through increasing knowledge of child development and providing ideas about ways to enhance children’s holistic growth. The interventions are delivered in community settings (preschools within these settlements) and are reinforced by home visiting programmes.

Workshops in the preschool and community buildings are held, using an adapted version of the Parenting With Confidence materials (developed by the Open Society Foundations), delivered to groups of Roma parents and supported by parent-to-parent networks across the different settlements. An important factor in the success of the project is that more experienced parents (identified in the first year of the programme), advise the newer parents, and are mentored by the project workers. The project has reached 1,600 families in its second year (4,000 Romani adults and children mostly under four years). The project focuses upon families with children 0-3 years old, in order to maximise the impact of early intervention through positive parenting models and begin to break the cycle of less confident parenting amongst these young, vulnerable Roma mothers and fathers.
The focus upon fathers in this second year of the project was intended to address the identified needs of young Roma men who began to attend the project in year one, in surprising numbers. The erosion of traditional gender roles with the economic collapse of Roma society in Slovakia, especially in these communities, has led to an increase in substance and alcohol abuse, violence towards women and towards children. The project seeks to prevent this by offering positive models of men involved in childcare in their children’s lives.
The project has also, in this year (2013-14), established a national Romani Early Years Network to support the professional development of Roma people and other, non-Roma early years practitioners, linking into an international Romani Early Years Network and the wider Early Childhood Development professional world. This has opened up new opportunities for Romani people to work in the field of early years care and education and to develop their skills and knowledge through training and skills exchange.

The project thus far has engaged with preschool teachers in each of the municipalities and supported them to reach out to the Roma parents, through participation in the Parenting With Confidence workshops, that took place in their preschool classrooms. As a result of this engagement, almost all Roma parents with children five years and over in the municipalities where the project has been implemented, now send their children to the mainstream preschool or kindergarten, as a result of increased trust and support for both pedagogues and families. It is anticipated that this trend of increasing school enrolment will continue in the next phase of the project. Work to support positive parenting has also had a big impact upon the self-confidence of Roma parents, who see themselves as both successful in their own terms, with regards to existing “best practise” in the communities and able to develop that “community-based” knowledge with additional resources and input.

The prejudices regarding the “abilities” (or lack of such) amongst the Slovak majority population as regards Romani parents, has also been challenged through this project, as the evidence for existing “best practise” documents the skills and knowledge that Romani communities have and how that knowledge can be enhanced through additional education and resources, demonstrating that examples of so-called “bad parenting” are the product of poverty and exclusion, not culture and ethnicity.