On April 8, the 40th annual International Day of Roma, we celebrate the culture and achievements of the Roma, while recognizing the enormous challenges they confront. Commonly called "gypsies," the Roma are Europe's largest minority and fastest growing demographic, numbering nearly 10 million. Nevertheless, the Roma are largely excluded from political and civic life, battling centuries of discrimination and persecution, and living on the margins of society.
Throughout Europe the Roma are suffer disproportionately from poverty, illiteracy and lack of access to basic services. Often portrayed as beggars and thieves, treated like second-class citizens, many Roma opt out of the formal economy and disengage from politics entirely, believing - sometimes rightly - that these avenues offer no viable hope for bettering their lives. Communities, like Ostrovany in Slovakia, have built walls to separate the Roma settlement from the rest of the village. Romani children are still routinely placed in schools for the mentally challenged and mistreated by their classmates and teachers. Romani camps have been dismantled throughout Europe and their inhabitants relocated, hundreds of them forcibly deported from France last year.
The plight of Roma must not be ignored. The protection of basic human rights is a staple of any democratic society and a legal requirement of any European Union member or applicant country. Yet, the rights of Roma are routinely denied across the continent. Government institutions created by many European states to address Roma issues are underfunded, understaffed and powerless. And, as many countries are learning, the cost of ongoing social exclusion of a largely impoverished minority carries a heavy price tag for already weak economies.
Politicians should be held accountable for their unfulfilled promises to resolve these problems. Political parties must be more inclusive of Roma candidates, members and voters. Civic organizations must play a more proactive role in engaging Romani citizens and raising their issues in political discourse. Stereotypes within mainstream society must be broken if any progress is to be made. Lastly, the Roma themselves must be involved and represented at every level of society. In fact, having worked with Romani activists throughout central and eastern Europe for seven years, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) has found that political empowerment - giving Roma the tools to solve their own problems - is the most effective way to fight discrimination and lift these communities out of poverty.
Through its work, NDI is working with political leaders in the region to highlight the importance of these issues and to encourage constructive dialogue. For example, NDI's recent summit brought together top Roma policymakers from eight countries to compare challenges and best practices, and to seek solutions to common problems facing their communities. NDI has also actively engaged mainstream political parties to improve outreach to Roma, and approached non-Roma civic leaders to promote partnership with Romani activists on key issues such as human rights and education.
At the same time, NDI is working with Roma at the grassroots level, helping them to make their voices heard. Throughout the region, NDI is expanding the pool of Romani civic and political leaders through workshops and leadership academies; encouraging greater political participation through the ballot box; strengthening the abilities of Romani elected officials to become more effective in their positions; and supporting community projects that help democracy deliver.
NDI cannot do this alone. In order to make an impact, we must make a greater effort and commitment to empower Roma. Please watch this video to learn more about the Roma, the challenges they face and the opportunities to help support their cause.
International Day of Roma is an opportunity to learn, to celebrate, and to take action. Forty years is long enough to wait.