International Women's Issues

International Women’s Issues: Romani Women in Romania

We return to Europe this week in International Women’s Issues. And really, if you’re going to write about the worldwide struggle for women’s rights, and this is a Europe Week in your globe-hopping, you have to write about the Roma.

Who are the Roma? If you wanted to be insulting, you could call them gypsies. That term is generally considered offensive, though many people do self-identify as gypsies. (If you wanted to put on some Gogol Bordello while reading this piece, I’d support that, though I ought to point out that Gogol’s authenticity and popularity within the Roma community is, you know, up for some debate.)

The Roma people emigrated from Northern India sometime between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD, settling first in the Middle East before moving into Europe, where they faced centuries of horrific discrimination. What is known as “the First Roma Genocide” took place in 1500, partially because this was just a few generations after large numbers of Roma arrived in Western Europe, and partially due to geopolitical relations between Europe and the Middle East at the time. Whatever the reason, the Roma people where treated horrifically ““ they were outlawed from Spain (and subject to some of the worse parts of the Inquisition), Germany, Switzerland, England, France, Portugal, and Demark. Where the Roma were not expelled, they were often enslaved. Hitler explicitly targeted Roma, with between 500,000 and 1,500,000 Romani perishing in the Porjamos ““ the Romany word for the Holocaust, which translates to “the Devouring.” After World War Two, the Roma lived on the outskirts of society, where they continue to be to this day. Poverty rates among the Roma are commonly 10x what they are in the surrounding population, and their lives are far shorter. Currently, Roma face major discrimination.

I suppose I ought to point out that, in current society, yes, some Roma do make their living by thieving, and their nomadic lifestyle can mean that, if they arrive in your town, things change, and not necessarily for the better. However, I do not at all see this as a justification for the widespread abuse and prejudice the Roma face from many segments of the population. I realize that most of my posts contain a plea for comments, but if you’re going to say anything to the effect of “but gypsies bring this upon themselves!” you’re wrong and I don’t want to hear it.

Romani women have a tough time of it – they face intersectional discrimination. In addition to the persecution they endure simply because of their ethnicity, there are patriarchal elements within Romani culture that are highly discriminatory against women. This is incredibly complicated, as internally, Romani women who speak out against the injustices perpetrated by their culture are sometimes seen as traitors who wish to reject the Romani way of life. Unlike some of the more clear-cut issues discussed here, a large percentage of Romani women don’t have a problem with the way they’re treated by their fellow Roma, and reject the Western lens analysis that they are repressed by their culture. There is a growing body of Romani women fighting for their own rights, which I’ll examine later in the piece. A significantly less gray area is the many anti-Roma policies governments passed in the 20th century were targeted at Romani women. Specifically, in Czechoslovakia under communism, some Romani women were forcibly sterilized, a practice that has apparently not entirely been eradicated, though it is no longer official government policy.

To focus on Romania, where today’s article is based, there are thought to be about two million Roma currently living in Romania. While Romania as a whole is economically challenged compared to its European neighbors, the Roma are much worse off. A 2005 World Bank report states that while the overall illiteracy rate in Romania is between 2 and 4 percent, among the Romani populations, 44 percent of men and 59 percent of women are illiterate. School attendance is reflective of this ““ twenty percent fewer Romani children are in school compared to Romanian children. Poverty rates among the Roma are very high ““ the World Bank estimated in 2000 that 70 percent of Roma in Romania were living below the absolute poverty line. In addition to these standard benchmarks, Roma are frequently targeted by the police, and face police brutality and abuse. They also have a disproportionately hard time accessing medical care. The racism Roma face manifests itself in myriad ways.

For women, those patriarchal elements of Roma society that I mentioned earlier exacerbate the education and poverty issues. Early marriage, a cultural obsession with bridal virginity, domestic violence, and a lack of access to income-generating activity (and therefore, a measure of independence) are all significant issues within the Roma community. All of these perpetuate the cycles of poverty and illiteracy, independent of external forces.

Happily, there are Romani women who are working hard to combat both the internal and external elements of Romani women’s oppression. Primarily, there is RWAR, the Roma Women Association in Romania. Founded in 1996 by Violeta Dumitru, a Romani woman, RWAR works on both advocacy and programming. In terms of advocacy, RWAR has been conducting extensive surveys and research on Romani women’s rights, an intersection that is in great need of statistical support. Studies have been done in terms of ethnicity or gender, but rarely both. Additionally, RWAR has created four regional centers throughout Romania where Romani women can receive training and education to help them address medical needs and be better prepared to enter the job market. Thousands of women have attended RWAR’s centers and benefited from their efforts.

Letitia Mark founded the Roma Women’s Association “For Our Children,” a Romani NGO that advocates for women’s rights as a way to ensure children’s rights (the two are frequently inseperable.) This organization, while it recieves government funding, was founded and is currently run by a Romani woman. “For Our Children” provides services including counselling, daycare, job-placement, and training and education with the goal of getting more Romani women into the formal workforce.

There are, of course, international organizations working to support Romani women’s rights as well – George Soros’ Open Society Initiative has been particularly active on this front. At the end of the day, though, I’ll put my faith in organizations founded by women who have experienced this specific intersectional discrimination firsthand, and who are working to improve their own communities. This topic is a complicated one, steeped in hundreds of years of oppression, a legacy that’s still alive and well today. As I mentioned in last week’s post, a Slovakian woman who is ethnically Roma just won a court case against the state hospital that forcibly sterilized her. This happened weeks, not centuries, ago. That said, things are changing, albeit slowly, and with the hard work of women like Letitia Mark and Violeta Dumitru, things are improving.


One reply on “International Women’s Issues: Romani Women in Romania”

I spent two weeks–too short a time!–in the Transylvania area of Romania back in 2004. One of the people I went with on this trip is a Romani man–although he self-identifies as a “gypsy”–who grew up in the village just outside of Brasov. In meeting his family and neighbors, and then in visiting rural villages, I got a snapshot of what life is like for the Roma.

First of all, their villages are small and very, very poor. I grew up in Africa, so when I say that they were destitute, I don’t throw that term around lightly. These people had next to nothing. Their homes were built out of scavenged anything, and they had a very difficult time finding work, etc. When I went into Brasov with my friend and members of his family, the “white”–again, my friend’s term–Romanians were instantly distrustful and downright rude. I think the only reason they put up with him and the other Roma was because they were with the American tourists. :S

To say that Romanians dislike the Roma is to put it nicely. It is so encouraging that there are Romani women on the ground who are working to counter the oppression and to change the way they are perceived by outsiders.

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