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Crystal balls, horse-drawn carts, headscarves and tarot cards. If we were playing a word-association game, what group of people would spring to mind? If your brain is leaning toward ‘gypsy’ then you get a point. In Europe, gypsy is a common way of describing Roma and travellers; however, this fairground fairytale image of a freewheeling and carefree traveller is for many – and if I should hazard a guess, perhaps a majority of – the Roma community about as close to reality as cigarettes being good for your health.
The term “Roma” is an endonym and refers to persons describing themselves as Roma, Gypsies, Manouches, Kalderash, Machavaya, Lovari, Churari, Romanichal, Gitanoes, Kalo, Sinti, Rudari, Boyash, Travellers, Ungaritza, Luri, Bashalde, Romungro, Yenish, Xoraxai, and other groups perceived as Gypsies (see European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, 2006). For a short introduction, try “Who are the Roma people?” or for a much more detailed perspective, the University of Graz has a collection of factsheets.
There are around 10-12 million Roma living in Europe, subject to discrimination on account of their heritage and ethnicity. Roma women are located in the overlapping portion of the Women and/or Roma Venn diagram which places them in an even more discriminated-against position. Surdu and Surdu (2006) describe Roma women as the “most deprived category of the Romanian population” and this is probably echoed across Europe.
The UN Human Rights Council, in a paper from November 2011, stated that “The issues and concerns of minority women are frequently given a lower priority than the efforts made to ensure minority rights for the group in general” while also highlighting that the existence of “entrenched gender roles or local customs does not relieve the State of its responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of minority women.” Roma are undoubtedly a minority, and Roma girls and women expected to play a set gender role, one which focuses on the household and family. Girls are often pulled out of school early and encouraged / expected to marry very young.
A traditional Roma girl attending school beyond puberty is not considered compatible with Roma values and lifestyle: a young woman must be prepared for the role of a ‘good housewife’ for her family. She must learn to cook, clean, take care of relatives, serve guests – as her husband, and only her husband, will be the breadwinner. As a 2011 research paper examining wage differentials notes, “Young Roma women may invest less in human-capital formation than their non-Roma counterparts because of rational, racial–based expectations about their future partners and domestic arrangements.”
Earlier this week, the 4th International Conference of Roma Women took place in Helsinki, attended by around 150 Roma women from across Europe. The main aims of the conference were to improve networking between Roma women, activists and NGOs, and also draw up a strategy document underlining the importance of involving women in policy implementation.
A position paper produced for the conference clearly confers that Roma women need to contribute to their own destiny and not be passive observers: “Roma [w]omen need to take stock of their status and condition in life and be prepared to play a role in bringing changes within and outside their communities.” The position paper takes education (or more specifically, lack of) as a key area for improvement for the community and argues that “An educated Roma community is sheltered from marginalization and poverty and can play its role in society.”
Some Roma communities have adopted this way of thinking and girls are allowed (if not always encouraged) to complete compulsory schooling, a welcome development. When it comes to ensuring progress continues through activism and awareness-raising activities, Alexandra Oprea raises the point that Romani feminists are in the difficult position of having a dual task: while they are criticizing internal patriarchal structures, they are simultaneously trying to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes about the community. And, the criticism has been raised that there is a “glaring absence of Romani men” in European gender equality policies. Oprea rails against the claim that Roma women have been ‘privileged’ in discourse on the intersection of ‘gender and Roma’ by saliently highlighting that this is not a “zero sum game such that attending to the experiences of Romani women and girls results in a loss for Romani men and boys.”
Roma women (and men) have been known to hide their heritage to try and attempt to overcome the frankly huge discriminatory barriers they face in social, economic, civic and political life. Romani feminists need our support to ensure that equality does travel across boundaries and they and their children have a brighter future to look forward to – without prejudice.
Originally published here by the Foreign Policy Association.