Brno, Czech Republic – Olga Polakova is a 32-year-old social pedagogue from Brno, the second largest city of the Czech Republic, with an estimated Roma population of 16,000. “I just want my children to go to a good school. But when you are a Roma woman in the Czech Republic, that’s not so easy,” she says.
“I experienced the problem myself when I was a child,” Polakova explains. As a little girl, she loved books and learning. But her Czech was deficient because her parents only spoke Romani to her at home.
When she went to a Roma-only school, she found herself confronted with a teacher who did not correct her Czech, she says.
“For example, she never explained to me that the Czech language has seven cases. So I continued to make mistakes. The school did not encourage me to use my brain or to think critically.”
As a result, throughout her education, Polakova says she found herself constantly lagging behind her peers.
Together with a group of about 10 other Roma mothers, Polakova has launched a campaign called “Go to a Good School” to fight for better schooling for Roma children. In the Czech Republic, these children often go to Roma-only classes or schools.
“But the big problem is that these schools often don’t offer a sound education,” Polakova says.
A 2015 Amnesty International report confirmed that Roma children in the Czech Republic are often sent to Roma-only schools and classes with lower academic standards than the rest of the country. Those who do attend ethnically diverse schools are often subject to bullying and harassment, according to the report.
The action group of Roma mothers is raising awareness among their own community and are broaching the subject with non-Roma parents and teachers.
‘Take it or leave it’
“In theory, the educational system isn’t segregated,” Polakova told Al Jazeera. “Roma children have the right to go to white schools. But in practice, they are very often refused,” she says.
Hoping to protect her daughter from undergoing the same childhood experience, Polakova enlisted her in a “white” school. At first, the girl was accepted, however, early on in the semester, she was transferred to a Roma-only branch of the school.
“There was nothing I could do about it. When I complained, they said, ‘Take it or leave it’.”
A theoretical option for the Roma mothers is to enrol their children in a white school in another neighbourhood, Bikarova told Al Jazeera.
“But when a Roma mother tries to get her child accepted at a ‘white’ school, she is refused and told that children are not allowed to enrol at schools outside the neighbourhood – or she is given some other excuse, for example, that there is no space,” she says.
Addressing the problems of segregation
The mothers from Brno are not alone in their struggle for better education of their children. In 2014 the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic for systematic discrimination against Roma children in schools.
Amnesty International issued a press release earlier this month, citing unequal access to education in the country.
Roma children are not only sent to Roma-only schools and classes, but a disproportionate percentage of these children are being placed in schools for pupils with mild mental disabilities. An estimated 30 percent of Roma children are still educated in these so-called “practical” schools, compared with only 2 percent of their non-Roma counterparts.
Last year, the Czech government announced reforms: The curriculum for the so-called practical schools will be abolished as of this school year, which means that schools now have to teach students based on individual ability.
However, these practical schools continue to exist, and only around 205 Roma pupils will be transferred to regular schools this month.
Jarmila Balazova, spokeswoman for the Czech Ministry of Education, told Al Jazeera in an email that the new measures “do not distinguish between children … on grounds of their ethnicity”. Balazova added that: “The Czech Republic intends to continue the principle of joint education without distinction of children, pupils and students according to their ethnicity.”
The ultimate dream of the mothers from Brno is the abolishment of Roma-only schools entirely, but they understand this change could take some time.
“The first step to solving our problem is better education in the Roma schools,” says Dana Krokova, who works for the Czech NGO, IQ Roma Servis and is the coordinator of the action group.
“Because even if a Roma child could get accepted at a white school outside their own neighbourhood, it would still be very difficult for many parents to commute with their children. So we are talking to school heads about better education and are also planning to talk to local politicians,” Krokova says.
We are now only at the beginning. In the end, we would like to talk to the minister of education.”
Finding the courage to speak up
To raise general awareness about the importance of abolishing segregation in the Czech school system, the mothers have started a campaign on Facebook called “Together in one classroom”.
The campaign consists of a series of photos of non-Roma parents holding signs that say they support the idea of Roma and non-Roma children going to school together.
“We also talk about this subject to Roma mothers,” says Polakova. “Many of them do not even realise that their children are disadvantaged by the school system. They accept that what white people tell them is best for them.”
The action group is also working to encourage Roma mothers to speak up and defend what they expect from teachers and the education of their children.
“We explain to them that, as a mother, you can change things by becoming active, and that you can apply for a school other than the one in the neighbourhood.”
“As things are now, many Roma children are not ready to go to secondary school when they come from a Roma-only school,” says Krokova. “If the kids want to continue their education, they need to be taught proper Czech to begin with. Otherwise, they will end up unemployed and on social benefits.”
“I would love my children to have vocational training,” Bikarova says. “Because I didn’t have this opportunity, and I know what that feels like.”