3 February 2004
Roma living in Bosnia and Herzegovina were registered in the 1991 population census under the category "other nationalities".
(OSCE/ Nermin Podzic)
It's election day. A Romani man enters a polling station and walks up to the voter register. He can't read. He can't find his name on the list. He's turned away, robbed of his chance to take part in the democratic process.
In another country, a Romani woman gathers her children; they leave their shanty home in this squatters' village and head to the polling station. No official residency status? She is turned away, losing an opportunity to play a role in deciding who will govern her and her family.
Forced to abandon their homes during years of fighting in the Balkans, a Romani couple, with no permanent home, heads to the polling station to cast their ballots. Internally displaced persons? Electoral officials don't know what to do with them, so they send them away, depriving them of their fundamental right to vote.
High levels of discrimination have left Roma and similar
communities on the fringe of society. This has contributed to a sense of alienation from political life in their countries, resulting in a pervasive lack of awareness of how to influence their own circumstances through political participation.
As a result, many members of these marginalized communities do not vote; they don't play a role in the decision-making process; they have no voice in choosing their leadership, no influence on the policies that affect their lives.
Encouraging Roma to take part
With funding from the European Commission, the ODIHR's Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues is conducting a project called "Roma, use your ballot wisely!" The aim of the project is to encourage Roma and related groups to become more active participants in public life at all stages of the decision-making process, including by exercising the right to vote.
As part of this project, the ODIHR's Contact Point and Election Section trained a group of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians from five OSCE participating States to be short-term election observers. While the trainees were taught skills necessary for working as domestic or international election observers, a special focus was placed on the electoral behaviour of Roma and similar communities and the problems related to their political participation.
"Training individuals to take part in the electoral process is an important step in and of itself," says ODIHR Director Ambassador Christian Strohal. "What is potentially more important for overcoming the barriers to political participation, however, is the information gathered by these and other observers."
One of the keys to removing barriers to the political participation of Roma and similar communities is first to have a better understanding of those obstacles and their causes. The short-term observers trained by the ODIHR can make an impact by monitoring elections in their own countries. The data they collect about the problems facing national minorities is necessary to fill in the details about how and why such communities are excluded from the electoral process. Only when that picture becomes more complete will it be possible to find solutions.