Roma in today’s society
Educational tradition of Roma population
The Roma have lacked an educational tradition. On the other hand, education was not highly appreciated in the Finnish agrarian society, either, but professions were handed over from fathers to sons and from mothers to daughters. However, the structure of Finnish society changed surprisingly rapidly and technology transformed our country in a few decades. The change did not reach the Roma equally quickly. Some of them still travelled from one house to another without a permanent home till the 1960s. There was no time to think about education since it was a hard work to bring food to the table and find a roof for the night.
It was impossible to receive education while travelling by horse carriage. The Roma did not settle down until approximately 50 years ago, and they have had proper housing only for around 30 years. Education was also partly avoided because it was deemed to convey only the values of the majority population; the Roma needed to accept the alternatives offered by the school system as given. The values of the Roma have differed from those of the majority population in several respects. It is partly for these reasons that the Roma did not previously appreciate school education as much as the majority population. Nowadays the development needs of the Roma education are fortunately understood as well as the importance of education to the preservation of the Roma culture.
In 2008 the Finnish National Board of Education launched a still on-going project for supporting the basic education of Roma pupils. More than 30 municipalities have participated in the project. The level of education of Roma pupils has increased considerably over these years.
Working life and livelihoods
During the same 50-year period as the migratory Roma people settled down, Finnish society changed for good into an educational and industrialised society where professions and income are nearly completely tied to education. This has meant that the economic opportunities of the Roma have shrunk since former occupations no longer provide a living. Many Romanis have ended up in a professional vacuum.
The changed environment has compelled the Roma to consider their future prospects in a totally new manner. Time forces us to change. On the other hand, Finnish society has become more tolerant. The decision-makers have reached out to the Roma, and nowadays the legislation guarantees an accepted existence for the Romani culture and language. The Roma no longer need to be afraid of assimilation but they can educate themselves for various professions and still retain their own identity. At the same time, they have realised that a small minority group will not survive without education. It has been pleasing to note how many adult Romanis have started to educate themselves and thereby found a new zest in life. ’Even though obstacles are still abundant, we also have resilience and perseverance. We need to clear the path and will not give up.’ This is what several Romanis have told about their feelings when they have applied for a job or searched for suitable education.
Today Romani parents encourage their children to go to school more than previously. A few young Romanis are already participating in further education at upper secondary schools, vocational schools and different university faculties. The first generation with academic education has already entered the working life. Compared to the total number of the Roma population, the percentage is still not high. However, it is a bold start into tomorrow. Positive models are needed. It is important that young people see examples of Romanis who have the courage to reach out, educate themselves, find a good job and who are still able and willing to retain their Romani identity.
Administration of Romani affairs and Romani organisations
National Advisory Boards on Romani Affairs
The National Advisory Board on Romani Affairs has been appointed by the Council of State, and it operates under the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The task of the Advisory Board is to enhance the equal participation of the Roma population in Finnish society and to promote their economic, social and cultural living conditions. It functions as an important cooperation and expert body between the Roma and the authorities in Finland.
To make the cooperation between the authorities and the Roma more concrete, four Regional Advisory Boards on Romani Affairs were established in 2004 in Southern Finland, Eastern Finland, Western Finland, and in Northern Finland. The latter represents the area of Lapland.
Finland’s first National Policy on Roma was drafted in 2009. In 2010, the Government made a decision in principle to start the implementation of the measures included in the policy.
Education services for the Roma population
A Roma Education Unit has operated under the National Board of Education in Finland since 1994. Its activities are based on the opinions of the Parliament, Government and the Ministry of Education and Culture on the development of the education of the Roma population and implementation of their culture. The task of the unit is to represent expertise in the field of education and culture and to influence the planning and implementation of teaching in such a manner as to ensure that the basic and vocational education of the Roma population is realised on an equal basis.
Nationwide Roma organisations
Romano Missio organisation was established in 1906, and it is the oldest and largest Romani organisation. Its key activities consist of Christian child protection, welfare, consultation and social work. The organisation publishes its own magazine called Romano Boodos four times a year. Over the past recent years, it has specialised in the rehabilitation of Romani female prisoners.
Elämä ja Valo association (Life and Light) was established in 1964. The association is engaged in spiritual and social work among the Roma population in Finland and in different parts of the world. It publishes its own magazine called Elämä ja Valo five times a year
The Finnish Romani Association was established in 1967. It concentrates on advocating social affairs. Over the past recent years, it has focused on work with the aged Roma population.
The National Roma Forum of Finland was established in 2007. It seeks to empower small local Romani organisations. Its goal is to promote and monitor the realisation of fundamental rights and equality under the Finnish law.
Over the years, nationwide organisations have had various projects which have concentrated on supporting the education of Roma children and young people as well as on family work, alcohol and drug education, revitalisation of the Romani language and care for elderly people, etc.
Revolution of the Romani culture
To understand the Romani culture it is important to realise that the culture is build around the family, relatives and community. All minority cultures have specific binding factors, such as the sense of togetherness and solidarity towards other members of the community. The Romani culture also puts a strong emphasis on relationships between people, customs and old traditions.
An important aspect of the Romani culture is also the fact that, like the rest of society, it is in the midst of revolution and change. The traditional lifestyle has started to change along with the changes in the surrounding world. When the nomadic lifestyle came to an end around 50 years ago, this also meant a totally new era in the life of the Finnish Roma. All these great changes have in fact taken place during only one generation. Settling down after travelling for centuries has, however, required getting used to it.
Genuine and real Romani culture emphasises good manners and getting along with all people. The Roma regret that the majority population often categorises inappropriate behaviour of an individual as a characteristic of the Romani culture.
The Romani culture is based on respect for the elderly, and most of the customs and rules are somehow connected to this. Older people always eat first, go to sauna first, etc. The elderly are regarded as mental capital and an asset due to their life experience. Respect for older people is manifested in the use of decent clothing and respectful forms of address. The family usually looks after the elderly and seeks to take care of them at home as long as possible for health reasons.
Traditional Romani families have been large. In addition to parents and children, the family often consisted of grandparents, uncles and aunts, and sometimes even included cousins. The Romani family emphasises the position of the man, but women are also aware of their value and have a lot of power within the family. It could be said that the man is the head of the family and the woman its heart.
There are clear roles within a Romani family. The man has the main responsibility for the family’s income, while the woman takes care of the family’s well-being and home. Parents are primarily responsible for raising children, although close relatives also have rather a significant role in their upbringing. In addition, the grandparents have an important role.
The Roma seek to raise independent children who are responsible towards their own community. Children become gradually committed to their community and start to appreciate their own roots and culture. This is one of the most important tasks of parents since outside their community, children are subjected to a lot of negativity and prejudices. If a child does not have a strong identity, he will collapse under stress. A Romani child needs, in particular, a lot of acceptance, encouragement and support to develop into a balanced adult with a strong self-esteem.
The Roma appreciate internationally-minded people who can appreciate difference. An old Romani has expressed it this way: ’A real Romani has to know how to live in three ways: as a master, as a peasant and as a Romani.’ The ability to adapt to different situations is one of the strengths of the Roma. Warmth of feelings, family unity and contacts with other Romanis are considered as virtues.
The Roma do not greet each other by shaking hands or introduce themselves by their family name. A loud greeting at the doorstep ensures that everybody in the room will be greeted at the same time. Romanis also greet other Romanis who they do not know, and if they have time, they exchange news. A traditional Roma greeting is ’Tsihko diives’ (How do you do), to which the other person answers ’Deevel mo del’ (May God allow it). When saying goodbye the Roma say ’Aahhen Deuleha’ (Let God protect you).
The Romani culture includes strict manners related to hygiene and modesty. When they were living a nomadic lifestyle, they had to take care of hygiene as well as possible. On the other hand, manners have maintained internal order and unity. Hygiene manners also function as guidelines in life. Cleanliness is both physical and symbolic. The hygiene tradition originated from the concrete need of the nomadic people to separate people and animals for health reasons in housing, eating and health care. The hygiene concept is also reflected clearly in the attitudes towards food and cutlery, which are not put in places where people sit or walk. On the other hand, nothing is lifted from the floor to the table. Tea towels and table cloths are not washed with other laundry. Table cleaning cloths are not used for wiping chairs or floors; there are separate cloths for them. The principle has always been that everything that is put in the mouth has to be clean.
The Romani customs emphasise unity. Clothing expresses the originality and culture of the Roma population. The most visible external symbol is the traditional dress of a Romani woman. It is not insignificant what a Romani woman wears since she has to take into account traditional customs and the opinions of those belonging to another clan. When a girl grows into a young lady, she usually starts to wear the traditional Romani dress, which symbolises her adulthood. After this she is treated as an adult and has the corresponding rights and obligations. As daughters have grown up in a community where nearly all women wear a traditional dress, wearing it feels natural to young girls.
Even though the Romani dress does not alone make a person a Romani, it is one of the most important items that strengthens identity. However, everybody will make their decisions themselves. If a Romani woman does not wear the traditional dress, she still wants to wear a decent dress to show respect to older Romani in their presence. The dress of a Romani woman is an everyday dress which does not prevent her from participating in education or working life.
The Romani men also have traditions related to clothing although they are not as visible as those of the women. Men do not wear a short-sleeved shirt or only a shirt and trousers in the presence of older Romanis. They wear either a vest, jacket or pullover over a shirt. The clothing for the upper body may be of any colour, and neither is the material important. However, men usually wear dark straight trousers.
The Roma are deeply religious. They have probably always believed in a great God and the hereafter. Even though a family were not religious, it still respects spiritual affairs. Religiousness is a part of the Romani culture, and the Roma talk openly about religion. There are probably no atheists among the Roma.
Preservation of the Romani culture and identity is a proof of resilience and perseverance in the midst of difficulties. Today’s Finland is a multicultural and international country. It is great that the Roma have gradually been accepted in Finland and efforts are also taken to preserve their culture.
The distinctive lifestyle of the Roma is a way to exist and survive. This way of existence nowadays includes the will and possibility of educating oneself, working for common goals and living according to common rules. The Roma must be given equal opportunities and resources for achieving all this: education, cooperation channels and services.
Reference material and links:
Romano Missio http://www.romanomissio.fi
Elämä ja Valo http://www.elamajavalo.fi
The Church and the Roma working group http://www.evl.fi/kkh/to/kdyk/roman.htm
Ministry of Education and Culture/legislative proposals (minority languages) http://www.minedu.fi/lakialoite/23.html
Ollikainen, Marketta: Vankkurikansan perilliset – Romanit, Euroopan unohdettu vähemmistö, Helsinki 1995.
Strategies of the Policy on Roma, Reports of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health 1999:9, Helsinki 1999.
Hernesniemi, Päivi & Hannikainen, Lauri: Roma Minorities in the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Rovaniemi 2000.