A Mostar court ruled against the practice of ethnic and religious segregation in public schools but analysts say the ruling will provide an impetus for sweeping reforms in the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) neglected educational system.
The court ordered education officials and two schools in the towns of Stolac and Capljina to abolish segregation as well as to establish mixed classrooms for Bosniak and Bosnian Croat children by September.
“The organisation of the schools along ethnic lines and the implementation of ethnic-based curricula segregated the children by their ethnicity, representing discriminatory practice,” the court said.
The two schools are part of a network of 52 schools across the nation, but mostly in the Federation of BiH (FBiH), under the controversial Two Schools Under One Roof system.
The OSCE mission in BiH initiated the system as a temporary measure to encourage people to return to their homes and to prevent ethnic violence.
Three FBiH cantons, inhabited by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, implemented it in 1999.
Under the system, children and teachers from the two ethnic groups have no contact — using separate entrances and facilities, ethnic-based curricula and, at times, schedules.
In Republika Srpska, Bosniak and Bosnian Croat returnees attend separate schools altogether.
The Sarajevo-based legal aid network Vasa Prava (Your Rights) filed an ethnic discrimination lawsuit in early 2011 to challenge the practice, likening it to South Africa’s apartheid.
“This discrimination targeting children, starting in kindergarten, has lasted for over a decade, and it is clear that politicians have no intention of changing it. Their goal is to cement the existing situation, which keeps students from inter-mixing. From this perspective, it appears that the war never ended,” Vasa Prava’s executive director, Emir Prcanovic told SETimes.
A March 2011 report published by Thomas Hammarberg, CoE commissioner for human rights, noted the divisions along ethnic lines appear to be more prevalent and decisive today than when the system was first implemented, and the leading politicians are openly advocating it.
“The policy of separating children according to their ethnic origin can only reinforce the prejudices and intolerance towards others and perpetuate ethnic isolation … Ethnically based, divided education systems also remain a serious obstacle to sustainable returns of persons displaced due to the war,” Hammarberg said.
Children are separated based on their first and last names, according to Aida Becirovic, manager of the Schuler Helfen Leben Foundation’s BiH office.
“They are being brainwashed to be nationalists and fascists. When these children talk, you can often hear phrases that came from their teachers and parents,” Becirovic told SETimes.
She said when the children are brought together, they realise they share the same goals and problems in life.
“The braver ones told us teachers and their colleagues punish them if they communicate with the ‘others’. All of this seems unrealistic for this part of the world and the time in which we are living,” she added.
Education, BiH’s least reformed sector, is a highly politicised microcosm of the country’s struggle with ethnic division, making schools battlefields in the fight for ethnic dominance.
The court’s ruling notwithstanding, Prcanovic is concerned ethnic segregation is too deeply rooted.
“Four or five generations of pupils have been educated in this ‘mono-ethnic’ system. New generations have had absolutely no contact with their peers from other ethnic groups. They do not know their own country’s history and geography. Most importantly, soon they will be an important electorate for the nationalist parties,” Prcanovic said.For a decade, the international community urged the BiH leaders to abolish the practice, and in 2004, the High Representative imposed the Law on Primary and Secondary Education, which stipulated suspending Two Schools Under One Roof.
However, the ministries from three cantons refused to implement the law. There is no law governing education on the state level while there are 13 laws in the two entities and different cantons in FBiH.
Becirovic and Prcanovic said abolishing segregation can be successful only if education professionals pursue that goal and if the ethnically biased curriculum is eliminated.
“We can not be satisfied while courts implement education reforms initiated by local and foreign NGOs, while schools are run by politicians and the heads of ministries who have no experience in education,” Becirovic added.
This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.