The Czech Republic is often criticized for failing to address the problems of its Romany minority and give the Roma equal access to education, work and housing. While the authorities frequently point out that addressing these problems is a long an uphill task, the mayor of Obrnice, a small town in north Bohemia, has just proved that it can be done. She has been awarded the Council of Europe’s DOSTA! prize for innovative work in combating anti-Romany sentiments and assisting Romany integration.
When Drahomíra Miklošová first moved to the town of Obrnice, cohabitation with the Roma community was so bad and relations in the town so tense she seriously considered settling elsewhere. In the end she not only stayed, but became active in local politics. Seven years ago she was elected to the town council and has devoted all her time and energy to making the town a better place for everyone – first and foremost the long-ostracized Roma community. On Wednesday she travelled to Strasbourg as the only Czech mayor to receive the Council of Europe’s DOSTA! prize for assisting Romany integration. Ms. Miklošová says the way to achieve results is by working with whole families – and above all – by giving the Roma work.
“The Roma are given work opportunities in community service, they are active as street workers, as assistants to the local police force in helping to curb street crime. I feel it is important to give people responsibility for something. We also make a point of working with families, getting parents to send their children to school – and giving them access to extra-curricular activities, music, dance, painting classes. In the past two years this has brought results and I am proud of the fact that all the children who finish primary school in Obrnice now go on to study at higher-level schools."
All this requires money and Drahomíra Miklošová says she cooperated closely with the government’s agency for social inclusion and a number of NGOs in order to obtain finances and advice in implementing her plans. They were financed in part from EU funds and in part from state subsidies. One of the most important decisions was to secure council housing for Romany families, preventing real estate owners from sponging off the state by pocketing housing benefits. The mayor says that money alone would not have been enough had there not been enough will on the part of her co-workers and the town’s inhabitants to bring about change.
“It is essential for the town council to really commit to addressing these problems. This cannot be taken for granted and where there is no real will it’s just not going to happen. You have to work to build bridges and bring down existing barriers, to use every opportunity to present the Romany culture –on children’s days, at senior citizen’s events, on holidays – the more people know about the Romany culture the higher your chances of doing away with prejudice. Of course it doesn’t always work –you get all kinds of people. But you need to keep at it –rise above the cultural differences and address any problems that arise.”
Drahomíra Miklošova says that while she is proud of how much the town has achieved in assisting Romany integration in the past decade, plenty still remains to be done. Nevertheless, at a time of high unemployment and growing racial tensions in the north and eastern parts of the country the town of Obrnice is being set as a bright example to others.