In late 2007 the European Court of Human Rights emitted a spark of optimism for Romani activists around Europe. The historic ruling in the case of D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic, confirmed a number of key principles of non-discrimination in education which were expected to shape inclusion policies throughout Europe. The case, featuring Denisa H. and 17 other Romani children who suffered wrongful placement into special schools was the first challenge to systemic racial segregation in education to reach the European Court of Human Rights. When the case was brought, Roma children in the Czech Republic were 27 times more likely to be placed in “special schools” for the mentally disabled than non-Roma children.
Recent developments in the Czech Republic suggest that the ruling from 13 November 2007 is still misunderstood.
At a recent conference in the Czech capital, “Starting Early Means Starting Well II”, co-hosted by Open Society Foundations, ISSA and Open Society Fund Prague, one of the most discussed issues was the Czech government’s plan to enforce compulsory preschool attendance on all children in the year before they attend primary school. While many may applaud this step, forcing children to attend possibly low-quality, perhaps ethnically segregated kindergarten, may continue discrimination rather than find ways to address it.
It is worth noting, preschool attendance will be compulsorily enforced at a time when numerous studies from around the globe highlight that access without good quality can be eventually harmful. The proposal’s potential to conserve and limit early education only to kindergartens is also dangerous and can be detrimental. While we believe in the benefits of preschool attendance, it is crucial to guarantee high-quality standards, promote an inclusive environment and provide an alternative care structure to kindergartens. The “Roma Early Childhood Inclusion” report which was launched at the Prague conference, highlights the importance of quality kindergartens describing them as offering tangible compensation to children from families suffering from poverty and social stress. While it is commendable that the Czech government sent a representative to the conference, it is clear that they urgently need to work more closely with a variety of professionals to secure the top-quality early childhood development services.
On this the eighth anniversary of the D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic, it is important to highlight that as we try to promote inclusion we have in fact lost many Roma along the way. The original judgment spoke clearly about discrimination of Roma and the case files refer directly to ‘Roma’ 416 times. The Czech government, on the other hand, seems coy to call people by their name; strategic documents identify socially excluded localities and socially disadvantaged children, but do not mention that they are Roma communities or Roma children.
Eight years after the judgment by the European Court of Human Rights, the role of institutional racism and discrimination continues to be denied by national governments.