by Marian Chiriac
(IPS) BUCHAREST --
other children his age in the Bucharest suburb of Ferentari, 6-year-old Marcel Stanescu is supposed to start first grade in September. But his parents are too poor to send him to school.
"I would like to send him to school, but where could I get two million lei ($70) for books, clothes and boots?" asks Stanescu's mother, Geanina, who is unemployed.
"I want him to be like the others," she says. "But it is virtually impossible for us to raise that kind of money."
Stanescu's family is one of the estimated 7 million Romanians who live below the poverty line of a dollar per day. Like Stanescu, some are members of the country's Gypsy (Roma) minority community.
The Roma have gained prominence in Eastern and Central Europe as the countries in the region seek EU membership. Under minority rights provisions, steps to improve conditions for Roma people must be in place before the applications for EU membership can be processed.
Romania has the largest Roma minority in Europe. According to the 1992 census, 400,000 Roma live in the country.
Unofficial sources say the Roma population could be as high as two million, representing 10 percent of Romania's people. Most Roma refuse to register their race for fear of discrimination.
The Roma are the poorest of the poor, with the lowest level of physical health and generally deplorable housing. They have the largest number of people who are unemployed, unskilled and uneducated, with large families.
"The problems begin at school. Their low level of education is the Roma's biggest problem. Many of the Roma children here fail to attend school at all for more than a year or two," says Gheorghe Sarau, of Romania's Ministry of Education.
According to official statistics, 40 percent of Roma drop out of school by the age of eight.
Under pressure from the European Union (EU), the government has been increasing spending on Roma education since 1998. The government has, for example, reserved 373 places in universities for Roma children this year.
And starting last April, the Roma began getting free health care under an agreement signed by the country's health ministry and the Roma community representatives.
Under the accord, the representatives agreed to pay health care contributions, with Roma receiving cards certifying that they have the right to free medical care.
In April, the new Romanian government, which took office in December, presented a report to the European Union setting out its strategy for integrating the Roma.
The strategy focuses on social security, child protection, training, programs to stimulate economic development, and public administration.
"We are doing our best to address the issues of Roma poverty and marginalization," says the Minister of Information, Vasile Dancu, who is the coordinator of the strategy. But Dancu says nothing about the costs of implementing the project.
Initial funding to improve the lives of the Roma has just been released by the European Union. About $900,000 was given to the Phare project, through which the European Union channels its aid to the Central and Eastern European countries.
Phare is sponsoring sustainable projects and encouraging local governments to develop partnerships with the local Roma leadership in the resolution of local problems.
"We have selected 40 projects, ranging from job creation to changing stereotypes of Roma people," says Rupert Wolfe Murray, team leader of the Phare project.
"Determining a positive change in public opinion of the Roma people, on the basis of tolerance and social solidarity principles, is one of our main goal," he says.
The image of "the dangerous Gypsy" is still common in Romania. A recent poll shows that three out of four Romanians do not want to live next door to Roma people.
With their distinct language, cultural values, traditions and darker skin, a legacy of their Indian heritage, the Roma have borne the brunt of xenophobia in Romania and other Eastern European countries, despite having lived in the region for generations.
Foreigners do not always understand their customs. The Roma, for instance, regard begging as simply another way of making a living. Daughters can be sold in marriage -- sometimes for the price of a second-hand car -- and it is hard for women who want to escape these customs to do so.
"The majority of Romanians should stop generalizing the Roma people, and realize that we have, like any other community, both good and bad people," says Ciprian Necula, an activist at Romani CRISS, a non-governmental organization (NGO).
Necula is coordinating Roma Media Center, a communication agency supported under the Phare program, which plans to fight the cultural stereotypes and all forms of discrimination against the Roma people in mainstream media.
"This is the first initiative of its kind in Romania. We hope to build bridges between the majority of Romanians and the Roma community," says Necula.
September 3, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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