Based on available data, it is apparent that Romani women face intersectional discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, and class. This shows that Roma women experience greater social exclusion than Roma men, but also than women in the majority population. In particular, they face serious exclusion in the areas of education, employment, and health. Moreover, they have very limited access to long-term healthcare, social benefits, housing, and financial services, as well as public and political participation.
Certain similarities are identified between Romani and African-American movements, and subsequently within that, the similarity of the struggle of African-American and Romani women. It is therefore not surprising that in the last few decades, Roma women have, in conversations about equality, employed the term intersectionality – a prism through which we see how different forms of inequality often work together and reinforce each other. While Romani women have mainly dealt with the overlap of sexism and racism within intersectionality, they have recently begun to also question issues of class and gender identity, but also other factors that determine their identity, such as workability, migrant background, citizenship, or lack thereof, religion and age.
In her article, Alexandra Oprea argues that the conceptualization of race and gender as separate and even unrelated categories marked the marginalization of Romani women in collecting statistics and that women from minority communities often experience multiple forms of discrimination, as a result of race and gender. Oprea further emphasizes that the limited feminist and anti-racist politics in Europe systematically ignore Roma women. Romani NGOs, at the forefront of the anti-racist struggle in Europe, address racism but fail to address the role of patriarchy, a key factor in the oppression of Romani women. Feminist organizations in Europe, in turn, focus on gender subordination but neglect racism, a crucial barrier for Romani women. By treating race and gender as mutually exclusive categories, Romani NGOs and feminist organizations alike fail to tackle the multi-faceted discrimination from which Romani women suffer. Although this limited ‘race v. gender’ discourse also dominates data collection processes, as illustrated in several reports by international organizations and NGOs. As a result, they fail to grasp the full spectrum of barriers faces by Romani women.
Things have begun to change with the emergence of Romani women’s activist initiatives at the national and international levels. That is why integrating issues of ethnicity within feminist politics and gender within Roma politics is equally important for both critical reflection and action
Angela Y. Davis, a human rights activist and author of an in-depth study on the complex relationship of class, culture, gender, and sexual orientation titled Women, Race, and Class, argues that African American women have often been questioned whether the African American or women’s movement is more important, thereby not considering the intersection and connection of the two movements.
A similar issue was addressed by Roma women, who similarly questioned their loyalty to the Roma rights movement while opening questions related to traditional values and the understanding of community life. Although the circumstances related to leading the Roma movement exclusively from a male angle have changed, there are still organizations in which all leading and representative positions are dominated by men who tend to ask them to choose between activism in the Roma or the women’s movement.
It would be good for women’s Roma organizations to operate and work without the immense male influence in them. I am afraid that women’s Roma organizations are just a shadow of men’s Roma organizations. Roma women did get their voice, but their voice is only that of ‘echoing’ men who work with them and alongside them and who allowed them to lead organizations on their behalf, as pointed out by Hedina Tahirović-Sijerčić, a writer, translator, professor, and author of several literary and authored works, including the book Gender Identities in the Literature of Romani Authors in the Former Yugoslavia.
Nura Ismailovski, a Romani activist and former member of the Zagreb City Assembly, agreed with the thesis that men are mostly dominant in running Romani organizations, despite the fact that women are more numerous according to all statistical data.
I am of the opinion that there is resistance to opening topics that question traditional values, but there are still some significant shifts. Our biggest problem is that the notion of traditional values includes things that are not traditional at all, nor should they be considered a tradition, such as getting married at an early age, not going to school, children begging, and the like.
Roma women who do open these topics and try to change the discourse of action face various challenges, such as those imposed by the majority population and non-Roma women within it, who view the Roma community as exclusively traditional-patriarchal, as well as issues raised by the Roma community that watches Romani women taking the lead with reluctance.
The fact that Romani NGOs fail to address the role of patriarchy precisely confirms that Romani women are the most vulnerable minority group in the European Union. This is where our double discrimination, and especially the discrimination of Romani women by men in the Roma community, comes to the fore. Many Romani women are at a great disadvantage within their own families and local communities and do not enjoy the same rights compared to other women, Nura Ismailovski continues.
Justyna Matkowska, a Roma activist, and researcher says an increase in the number of activist initiatives can be observed, especially in regards to the Roma movement in Europe.
Romani women are in a problematic situation, they do not experience discrimination just because they are women, but because they are also Roma and poor.
Angéla Kóczé, assistant professor and acting head of the Roma Studies program, and the academic director of the Roma Graduate Preparation Program at the Central European University (CEU), who specializes in theorizing Romani feminism and women’s political activism, is definitely worth mentioning. At the virtual conference titled Roma Inclusion in the Croatian society: the position of women, children, and youth, organized by the Office for Human Rights and the Rights of National Minorities of the Republic of Croatia, Angéla Kóczé analyzes the European Fundamental Rights Agency’s report on the position of Roma women in nine EU member states, including Croatia.
As a very common occurrence in developing countries, poverty is cited as the primary factor leading to early marriages. Although it is an economic strategy of survival, it undermines the future prospects of young people, especially women and girls. It is important that the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights went beyond merely a cultural explanation of this phenomenon, as something that is traditionally innate and generally accepted, and framed early marriages as a way of survival and as a form of social mobilization. The best way to fight poverty is to provide quality education to the young Roma.
Data on the Roma studying in Croatia shows an extreme low – only 0.3 percent of men and 0.8 percent of women continue their education after high school. However, the fact that education is becoming increasingly important is also evident by the rise in the number of enrollments in higher education institutions. Young Roma gets significant support in completing the secondary education process, primarily from their parents and their communities, where the expectation of successful completion of secondary school is a generally accepted social norm. As with secondary education, scholarships for university students have proven to be extremely important, as have other forms of financial support.
Nura Ismailovski, also a proponent of the Decision on the scholarship of the City of Zagreb for pupils and students of the Roma national minority, is proud of the results.
The aim of my proposal for this Decision was to encourage students to complete secondary education and to continue studying in the higher education system. The results of the awarded scholarships demonstrate the achievement of that aim, as every year we have more and more applications for scholarships, a growing number of excellent students, and a significant increase in very good grades. Everyone is highly motivated, achieving better grade point averages, and the competition is great. An increase in the number of female pupils and students is also visible and growing yearly. From the very beginning of the Scholarship award, women were more numerous than men.
As she further states, these results are exclusively recorded in Zagreb, where there are no typical Roma settlements and where their position is much more favorable than in other parts of Croatia.
The First Roma Youth Congress held this fall in Zagreb was attended by a large number of Romani women who exchanged their experiences acquired through studying. Lea Oršuš from the Sitnice Roma settlement in Međimurje County, enrolled in the undergraduate study program of Social Work at the Faculty of Law in Zagreb, despite lacking the support of her parents and environment throughout her primary and secondary education. Lea emphasized the importance of attending classes as well as improving on the Croatian language, because her friends in primary school were following adapted programs and were characterized as children with intellectual disabilities, simply due to their linguistic ineptitude in Croatian. The latter should not be a synonymous to the former.
When talking about bilingualism in Roma communities, it is worth noting the significant role of Romani women in maintaining and transmitting the Romani language to future generations. Justyna Matkowska holds that Romani women have a significant influence in maintaining Roma traditions, values, and customs.
Romani women occupy a crucial role in Roma communities. They ensure the continuity and permanence of Roma families and traditions, the transmission of the Romani language to new generations, and represent the future of Roma communities.
Romani women are also authors of Romani dictionaries. Hedina Tahirović-Sijerčić is the author of the Bosnian-Romani and Romani-Bosnian dictionaries. In Slovenia, Madalina Brezar and Marina Brezar published a Romani-Slovenian dictionary, and Milena Hübschmannová co-authored a Romani-Czech and Czech-Romani pocket dictionary. Anna Orsós from Hungary studied the language of the Bayash Roma and published the Bayashi-Hungarian Dictionary.
While almost a quarter of Romani women aged 30-55 are illiterate, there is only 0.13 percent of illiterate women in the general population. In the older generation of women, those aged 55 and over, 1.07 percent of the general population is illiterate, compared to 45 percent in the Roma population. Also, the fact that only 8 percent of the total Roma population performs some form of paid work, while 40 percent are housewives, places Croatian Romani women in the infamous European context of countries with the largest share of inactive Romani women.
Within the European context, 28 percent of all Roma women surveyed list housework as their main activity, compared to 6 percent of all Roma men. This ratio is high for Romani women when compared to women in the general population, which can be explained in terms of traditional gender roles and expectations.
Given that Romani women are insufficiently represented, both in the Roma and in the global feminist movement, to which they equally belong, it is extremely important to create space for discussion. All the more so because the gap between international discourse and that in Roma communities shows that the local community is an environment for action, with the application of national and international experience in Roma politics. All my interlocutors agreed on the importance of mutual support in the common struggle and that feminism is beneficial for the entire Roma community, not just exclusively for the Romani women’s movement and Roma women individually.
The wanted ego of the contemporary Romani woman is actually a dream about her complex professional and family role in modern democratic society, a multicultural and intercultural society that knows, respects, appreciates, and values the minorities’ cultures in education, mass-media and at all levels of public space, argues ethnologist, author and Roma activist Delia Grigore.
The solidarity among all women in the fight for their civic rights is very important, but, unfortunately, most of the non-Roma/Gaje women’s movements and organizations do not really know or understand the specific problems of Roma women, especially the anti-Roma racism, so trust and solidarity between the Roma and the non-Roma/Gaje women cannot be built. Both the Romani women’s movements and organizations and the non-Roma/Gaje women’s movements and organizations need to work more on building knowledge, understanding, trust, and solidarity among them and on learning to empathize with each other, to support each other, and to fight together for the same cause.