Facing long road, Spain’s Roma make strides | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 17.09.2013
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Facing long road, Spain’s Roma make strides

The Gypsy community in Spain has had a turbulent history, frequently suffering repression and marginalization. But since the arrival of democracy three decades ago, it has made substantial progress.

A few years ago, Tabita Jimenez's prospects were far from promising. She was getting poor grades at school and often didn't even turn up to class. When she was 16, she dropped out altogether, without having graduated.

She wasn't the first member of her family to shun their studies. Tabita is from a family of flamenco musicians - her mother is a singer and her father a guitarist - and none of her close relatives had ever completed their school education. But she soon realized that her life was heading in a direction that is all too common for many girls from the Roma community.

"My female cousins all got married very young," she said, explaining that some of them had settled down as early as 15, having left school and ruled out the possibility of having a professional career.

"But I'm 18, I'm not married and I don't want to get married yet. I'll get married when I'm older, when I've got a job and a car and I don't have to depend on my husband the way other girls seem to."

Spanische Roma

Students at an administration class in the Fundacion Secretariado Gitano in Madrid

So she has enrolled in an administration and management course in Madrid at the Fundacion Secretariado Gitano (FSG), a foundation that helps members of the Gypsy community, or "gitanos", find work, by offering advice, training and mediation with potential employers.

"I love studying and I want to graduate and get a job," she said, during a class in which she was learning how to use the computer program Excel.

Tabita's story reflects both the substantial progress the gitanos have made in recent decades since democracy was restored and the social challenges that members of the community still face in Spain.

Major improvements

There are currently an estimated 750,000 Roma in Spain. Not so long ago, their situation was extremely bleak. Under the right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which lasted from 1939 until 1975, the Roma community was repressed and heavily discriminated against. It suffered, for example, the consequences of anti-vagrancy laws and the brutality of a police state.

But the arrival of democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought with it a modern welfare state that contributed to the transformation of the living conditions of many Roma, Isidro Rodriguez, head of the FSG, told DW.

Isidro Rodriguez, director of the Fundacion Secretariado Gitano, which helps members of the Gypsy community find work, in Madrid copyright: DW/ Guy N. Hedgecoe zugeliefert von Anne-Sophie Brändlin

Isidro Rodriguez helps members of Spain's Gypsy community find work

"Gypsies in Spain are still in a situation of more poverty, more social exclusion, more social rejection [than other communities], but overall their situation is better than that of Gypsies in other countries," he said, speaking at the foundation's headquarters in Madrid.

"The welfare state has been good for Gypsies because it's been very inclusive," he added. "This has been probably the main cause of the change."

In the 1980s and 1990s, new social housing projects for families with low incomes brought gitanos out of the ghettoes of improvised, rundown homes that many had inhabited until then. In 1978, three-quarters of Spain's Roma lived in sub-standard housing; today just 12 percent do.

Rodriguez argued that this change has fostered integration with the so-called "payo", or non-Gypsy community, as well as giving its members better access to other basic state services, such as education.

Until the mid-1980s, most Roma children did not attend school at all, according to the FSG. But now, virtually all of them complete primary education. This is due partly to legislation, but also to developing attitudes among parents, who are more aware of the importance of formal education.

Yet Rodriguez says "a big worry" now is the continued failure of many Roma children to complete secondary education, which is also obligatory.

"We know that if we can influence families and the policies of governments and make sure that Gypsy children complete their secondary education, then that will be the next step up, the next big change for Spain's Gypsies," he said.

Diego Fernandez, director of the Institute of Gypsy Culture, with the Romani flag, in Madrid copyright: DW/ Guy N. Hedgecoe zugeliefert von Anne-Sophie Brändlin

Fernandez is concerned that many Romani children don't make it to high school

'Long road'

The gitanos have a long and illustrious history in Spain, with elements of their culture - such as flamenco music, art and clothing - forming a fundamental part of the common image of the country as a whole. The persecution of the Roma in Spain over the centuries is also well known, but today they still face discrimination in the form of stereotyping, prejudiced attitudes and, sometimes more direct cases of racism.

A report by the FSG compiled 148 cases of discrimination in 2012, ranging from bullying of children at school because of their Roma ethnicity to the refusal of real estate firms to rent property to families for the same reason.

"If you apply for a job and they see that you're a gitano, they'll think twice about employing you," said Juan Bermudez, who is studying at the FSG. "We've got to change that kind of attitude."

Close-up of symbolic romany instruments and jewellery

The majority of Spain's best-known Roma are flamenco musicians and dancers

Members of the Roma community are now much more visible in Spanish public life than they were just a few years ago, a development reflected by the creation of the Institute of Gypsy Culture, which belongs to the Culture Ministry. However, despite forming such a large part of the Spanish population, the vast majority of Spain's best-known Roma are still flamenco musicians and dancers, and, to a lesser extent, soccer players.

Moreover, data from 2011 showed that unemployment among the Roma community was at 36 percent, compared with 20 percent among the total population (overall unemployment is now at 26 percent, two years on).

"We're not at the end of the road," said the Institute of Gypsy Culture's director, Diego Fernandez, who applauds the overall progress made in recent years, but wants to see much greater change.

"We Gypsies always use the Romani phrase 'lungo drom', our 'long road', which has many stages. We're still very far from getting the visibility of our people in all institutions, in the town halls and regional assemblies, we're still a long way from that."

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