It is difficult to describe the feeling of walking through a Roma community settlement in Eastern Slovakia. Roma are known by majorities as the” gypsies” or “travelers” of Europe living primarily in Eastern and Central parts of the Continent. Some sources claim that up to 10% of inhabitants in Slovakia are Roma, approximately 600,000 people. So how do Roma people in Slovakia live and what can social business do for them? Well, our week-long trip in Slovakia had the purpose of answering just that.
Slovakia is not a large country and since its independence in 1993 its total area is approximately 49,000 square kilometers with a population of 5.4 M. It is landlocked and bounded by the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Austria.
Roma communities face many different social problems starting with unemployment and poor housing conditions often forcing them to live without enough water, gas, electricity and proper sewage systems. Most Roma depend on social welfare, however, many of them are not registered in regional labor offices and fall below the official basic support level. As absurd as it may sound, the Slovak government pays a higher pension to people who have been on social welfare than to those who have worked. This is a strong deterrent for unemployed people to join the workforce.
Education is another serious issue as Roma kids are often sent to a special secondary school for the mentally handicapped and are not able to take A level exams and join higher education programs. This alienation by the curriculum further exacerbates their marginalization in the educational system.
Our trip led us through some of the most deprived Roma communities. We also visited a local elementary school with 53 pupils. The teachers told us that poverty, hygiene and healthcare are a big problem. There isn’t a doctor in the village and children are sent to school by their parents even when they are ill, knowing they will get a free lunch. One teacher also stated that 70-72% of government money meant for Roma is kept by non Roma or white people.
Throughout the entire trip in Slovakia we were blessed to be accompanied by the remarkable *Ashoka Fellow Mr. Michal Smetanka, with whom we are working on a bottom-up approach to increase economic development in some of the poorest regions of the country where the State initiatives have failed to provide sustainable solutions for marginalized communities. Michal is also an impressive musician of world music and can play just about any wind instrument he gets his hands on. We had the pleasure of hearing some of his music on CD and he promised us that next time we are in Slovakia he will play and sing for us!
In one week we visited 8 municipalities where we met with 10 different Mayors who are striving for better futures for Roma people. Some of these mayors are taking significant steps to benefit Roma people in spite of the government’s lack of interest in dealing with their situation.
They set up several social businesses owned by the municipality and without government aid, giving Roma people a chance to escape their dependent life so that they can build a better future for themselves and their children.
All in all we drew several conclusions from our journey in Eastern Slovakia. Many Roma communities urgently need better housing conditions, mobile healthcare and vocational training. Our project will promote non-racial discrimination for Roma in job applications as well as access to regular secondary school for their children. Through the creation of small income-generating social businesses we aim to remove barriers that isolate and segregate Roma people, fostering social inclusion and new job opportunities that will make them independent. Our trip to Slovakia provided the insight we needed on the living conditions of Roma communities in order for us to start working on the development of new social businesses we aim to build by the end of 2014 through our partnership with Epic. Time to get to work now!
To read the full article about Social Business Earth’s trip to Eastern Slovakia click here
* Ashoka is the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs —men and women with system changing solutions for the world’s most urgent social problems. www.ashoka.org