My daily walks along the Vltava River watching a setting sun catch the ripples before it slowly dips behind the myriad of rooftops and church spires, are numbered. The cloud that looms over my head has grown in the months that have passed. I’d underestimated the extent of the “Gypsy problem” before arriving in Prague…having since seen for myself just the tip of the injustice iceberg, my idealistic (some would say naive) temperament has taken a battering. Yet I am able to find solace of sorts in the knowledge that the inspirational people I have met who dedicate their lives to Roma rights remain undeterred; setbacks are not cause to give up hope, but additional reason to fight.
I had the opportunity once again to meet with Kumar Vishwanathan, head of the NGO Life Together when he travelled to Prague to discuss the problematic new law making welfare payments partially conditional upon doing community service. Sitting in an authentic local in the backstreets of Malá Strana we were joined by Radka Soukupová, former Director of the Czech Government Council for Roma Community Affairs and Klára Laurenčíková, Deputy Minister of Education. As the conversation turned to existing frictions between central and local government, the party politics infiltrated civil service and the pervasiveness of stubborn mentalities, I was reminded once more of the shortcomings of democratic reality. As an undergraduate European Studies student I had been taught of the power that the lucrative reward of EU membership could potentially wield. The discussions I now eagerly followed confirmed much of what I had read but also highlighted ‘europeanisation’s’ limitations. The EU has been able to influence domestic policy and programs on the treatment of minorities with the ‘carrot’ (of Phare financing/EU accession) and ‘stick’ (of conditionality) approach and has given specific attention to improving the condition of the Roma. The question is what happens when much of the carrot has been devoured? European Structural funds provide an incentive of sorts, yet the money has failed to reach those who are in desperate need of assistance and progress has stagnated. “What would the Europe’s tax payers say if they knew their money was being squandered?” asks Kumar. With the Czech Republic now an EU member state it seems as though a major motivation behind the provision of Roma support has elapsed, without which political will is simply insufficient.
We were joined by the political artist Tamara Moyzes and Vera Roubalova, psychologist and signatory of Charter 77 – the profoundly important human rights movement in Czechoslovakia. As I tried to hide the enormous sense of privilege which now enveloped me, talk turned to the issue of institutional care. Research suggests that out of every 10,000 newborn children, 62 are placed into care in the Czech Republic…in the UK the figure is just 2. Hitting Roma particularly hard, it is one legacy of an overly paternalistic state which lives on in the unquestioning minds of many occupying positions of trust Kumar Vishwanathan argues. According to him, the astonishingly high figures are not an indication that Czech children are more neglected; but that the system is not tuned to properly help families hold on to their children when faced with crisis. Most children are taken into care for ‘social reasons’ such as housing rather than a result of abuse or neglect. Caring parents are left childless and the institutions into which their offspring are placed overrun…the practice is unjust, cruel and a drain on resources.
Time has caught up with me once again, but I leave you with the work of Tamara Moyzes. She collaborated with other artists to put on an art exhibition to draw attention to the extent of the problem of excessive institutional care. Rodinná Pohoda (Family Happiness) ran in the Nostický Palace in Malá Strana until May of this year. Her life-size poster visualising the act of placing children in care captures the emotions involved better than words ever could:
Posted By Christina Hooson
Posted Sep 2nd, 2009