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It's Time Roma Had A Voice In Discussions Of Human Rights

04/07/2017 01:45 EDT | Updated 04/07/2017 01:45 EDT

April 8 is International Roma Day -- a day dedicated to the celebration of Romani culture and an opportunity to raise awareness about the continued human rights abuses faced by Roma throughout the world.

In what seems like an ever-expanding list of international days dedicated to noble causes, there's one date that usually slips past Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's calendar. Our purpose here is not to patronize, blame or point fingers, but rather, to inform and offer some reasons why this year, you may want to choose to celebrate it, too.

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Roma children stand behind a fence near the so called "Sheffield Square" in the town of Bystrany, Slovakia, Nov. 28, 2016. (Photo: David W Cerny/Reuters)

The hesitation for sympathy, let alone empathy, for Roma don't find their roots in a vacuum. For centuries, Roma have been divested of their means of livelihood. Racism towards this ethnic group has become so normalized that human rights discussions on human trafficking, police brutality and other issues affecting refugee populations rarely include the plight of Roma.

Indeed, while human trafficking and early marriages do continue to take place in some communities around the world, usually as a result of the low status of women in those communities, they are often attributed to Roma culture overall and left unaddressed. The culturalization of human rights issues affecting Roma is largely to blame. Portrayed either as "criminals" or "beggars," Roma are often perceived to be unworthy of these rights. Too often we hear: "It is in their culture to roam the world from camp to camp; it is in their culture to marry their daughters off or sell them to the highest bidding party; it is in their culture to steal."

Throughout history, nations have systematically directed their efforts to normalize the stereotypes of Roma, all of which have directly served as cultural justifications for violating their rights. According to the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), "the Roma of Europe have never had meaningful access to their socio-economic rights. For women in particular, the picture is especially bleak. They remain trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, social exclusion and unemployment."

Modern-day segregation laws persevere in their exclusionary tactics.

During the Bolshevik reign, Roma had to self-identify as social outcasts in order to have access to land. Accessing rights thus meant self-victimization. This kind of victimization, once internalized, becomes a source of blameworthiness. But this should be no surprise. With regard to Roma, there is a long history of slavery, anti-gypsy laws, and forced nomadism that still needs to be heard and recognized by governments and citizens alike. The Roma genocide, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of European Roma, remains unrecognized by too many governments around the world -- including our own. No reparations and no effort to tell the story of Roma have been made.

Today, racism against Roma is widespread. Last week, in the outskirts of Gheorgheni, Romania, Roma victims were forced out of their burned homes after an arson attack, which mayor Zoltán Nagy addressed as "[...] a consequence of local Roma regularly begging, sending their children to steal and even making one city shopping centre a 'place of terror.'"

Modern-day segregation laws persevere in their exclusionary tactics. Roma children are ostracized from the means to a proper education and inclusion within society at large, a compelling reason for why education levels are unacceptably low. Instances of housing and camps for Roma set up on contaminated land cause families to be exposed to toxic waste. Institutional violence against Roma in prisons has led to deaths. Roma women have been the victims of wartime rape, sexual violence and forced sterilization.

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Yet, while the veracity of these breaches of fundamental human rights cannot be denied, there are also powerful stories of Roma survival that too often remain untold. Rarely does one hear praise that, despite persecution since the earliest days of their history, Roma have been able to survive and keep their language and ethnicity alive without bellicosity, territorial conquest or acts of war. Rarely is it mentioned that despite the portrayal of Roma as criminally violent, the systematic violence has been committed against Roma rather than by Roma. Rarely has it been stated that rather than revolt, the Roma response has overwhelmingly been one of survival.

This is precisely why April 8 is so important. Countering the racially charged narratives that keep Roma excluded from the rest of us and challenging pre-conceived ideas about Roma are important -- but standing with Roma to find solutions is essential. It is only by allowing us to have a voice in the issues that concern us, whether in government or in a social or economic context, that the path forward for Roma can be paved and tread. The scant presence of Roma in discussions and debates on inclusion processes within the EU only perpetuates a mechanism of excluding Roma from the very policies that supposedly attempt to address OUR plight.

International Roma Day will show who the real champions of social justice are and who, under that veil, fall short.

Including Roma in general human rights discussions would be a start, as Roma are, despite years of people saying otherwise, part of the only race to ever exist, that is the human race. Consulting Roma when knowledge is produced about us is pivotal, too, in ensuring that no falsehoods can be used for further social exclusion. Halting misuse of the word "gypsy" and the large role it plays in advancing misinformation and reinforcing the idea that Roma are indeed the Other, is critical also -- Roma did not emerge from Egypt, and the word "gypsy" has over time become synonymous with someone who cheats, steals or, for lack of a better term, "gyps."

And no, using the term for one's clothing line as an ode to the social outcast or to the romantic nomad doesn't make it right. In fact, it continues to feed the very sentiment that has cast Roma to the margins of society.

International Roma Day is an occasion to detach ourselves from this toxic way of thinking and choose instead to discuss with Roma the issues that affect us. Most importantly, it is to find a way forward together. This April 8 we dare you to empathize. We dare you to reflect on the reasons why millions of people, not just Roma, live in squalid conditions, or resort to petty theft. During this time of political and social uncertainty, International Roma Day will show who the real champions of social justice are and who, under that veil, fall short.

What will you choose to do?

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