Roma girls create performances as part of our empowerment programme. Credit: Ruth Sutton.
For two hours every day, 12-year-old Magdalini is the most powerful person in her neighbourhood. In a settlement that officially 'doesn’t exist', located just outside Thessaloniki in Northern Greece, people gather at her grandmother’s house to watch their favorite soap operas.
It isn’t because they don’t have their own televisions. Most of the families have large screens at home, but in this impoverished, isolated and marginalised Roma community, where there is no rubbish collection, no school, no street lights and no bus, the neighbours are not here for the TV, but for Magdalini.
They are watching Turkish soaps. Magdalini is the only person who can read the Greek subtitles.
A literate Roma girl is a rarity. Magdalini doesn't only read subtitles, she deals with police, social services and in a wide variety of other situations, like reading instructions on medicine, prices in a shop and quantities for baby formula.
Statistics on Roma women make for depressing reading. They have on average 10 years lower life expectancy than the rest of the EU’s populations, higher infant mortality, less access to healthcare, limited access to information, extremely high levels of illiteracy, far higher rates of addiction, far, far lower rates of employment, voting and education, poorer housing and sanitation.
In addition, girls are married off at 13 and generally start having children immediately, most without any knowledge of material health, infant nutrition or how to read. Despite giving birth in hospitals, the medical system doesn’t work on their behalf. Greek doctors don't inform social services for a 13-year-old Roma girl in labour, even though this is one place where the vicious cycles of bad health, poverty and disempowerment could be broken.
I have been working with groups of Roma girls in this settlement for five years, supporting them with literacy, self expression, self esteem and empowerment. While literacy is one of the keys for the girls to change their lives and the community as a whole, self esteem and expression are also fundamental building blocks towards eventual goals of self determination and empowerment.
If no-one had ever asked you for your opinion, if you had never been encouraged to have ambitions, how would you know that you possessed talents or abilities? How would you know that you had the right to pursue your own plans, or control your own life?
The weekly groups that I run involve encouraging the girls, through singing, reading, acting, cooperative learning and creating social projects, to realise that they have opinions, dreams, and talents, and that they can achieve goals. We work not only on individual self-awareness (to be able to speak out when they feel sad, angry or that something is wrong), but also on the notion that each girl has the capacity to change things, to work with others and have something to offer them.
Yet the overall situation seems grim. What do the young women themselves feel about their lives?
Eleni is not allowed to go to school any more. Her parents are terrified that someone will kidnap her and force her into marriage. In fact, she is not allowed out at all because she is 13–the perfect age to be ‘stolen’ for marriage. “There are eyes on her,” says her mother Paraskevoula constantly, “They drive past our house all the time and they slow down and look in, looking for her”. There is no system of formal ‘weddings’ among the Roma in Greece, partly because many Roma don’t have the necessary documents and partly because such a young marriage age would not be allowed in any church or registry office.
But Eleni wants to go to school. She can read and write already and says emphatically: “I don’t want to be given to get married. I want to learn my letters, learn to speak Greek properly, learn values and manners and be a hairdresser”.
When a girl is ‘engaged’ it means her family have agreed to let a boy, who is usually 16 or 17 years old, have sex with her, after which she will go to live with him and his mother as ‘husband and wife’. Girls who have not been promised to a family are at risk of being kidnapped and forced into a so-called marriage.
Eleni's 11-year-old sister Tanich, by contrast, is bored and doesn't want to go to school. But she has only been going for about 2 months of her life. While the other, non-Roma children in the class do their work, the teacher gives Tanich crayons.
These experiences - from not going to school at all in general, to being sidelined within the school system, are typical for a Roma girl. “They don’t accept me” says Tanich of both the teachers and the other pupils. Mainstream education does not cater to her needs.
Some have argued that trying to integrate Roma populations into a process so at odds with their culture is akin to oppression and imperialism. What other reasons are there for such high levels of illiteracy?
Prejudice and discrimination has isolated and stigmatised the Roma throughout Europe for centuries. Racism against this distinct, yet diverse, group of peoples is never far from the surface. Last year this erupted in Greece, where the far right have risen over the past few years, after the police discovery of a blonde toddler (ridiculously named ‘Angel Maria’ by the press) living with a Roma couple in central Greece.
The press and social media needed no prompting. Qristina, a Slovak Roma blogger wrote: “The reaction was immediate and overwhelming …I started receiving comments ‘I’m not racist, but it’s obvious that Maria was kidnapped’...The more news outlets covered the story, the more I heard the assertion, especially in regards to the old ‘Gypsy child-stealer’ myth.”
The couple was vilified and the media, public and authorities failed to afford the couple even the most basic dignity, any sense of procedural ethics or, indeed, rational consideration. The couple argued that the little girl had been given to them as a baby, by her Bulgarian Roma mother who was too poor to provide for her. Their story was later proven to be true.
Against this backdrop of general discrimination, it would be very easy to lay the blame for Roma girls’ disempowerment at the feet of the system. It is also easy to understand why parents don’t send their girls to school: it means having to be part of a structure that routinely and mundanely oppresses them.
But over the years of contact and communication I’ve had with these young women, it has become obvious that an equally potent set of pressures from inside the community is at play.
Knowledge, the ability to express yourself, literacy and self confidence are powerful tools. While there are certainly reasons to keep their daughters at home, these are also useful pretexts masking a greater fear: women's empowerment.
Tanich and Eleni's mother Paraskevoula is unusual for a Roma woman. She is literate and she has a job. This means that she has some measure of economic independence and daily freedom and that in order to get the job, she had to have an ID, a tax number and national insurance number.
She and her daughters are proud of this, but when I ask her about whether she could help Tanich learn to read by working with her at home, she looks terrified, saying, “I’m not a teacher, how can I possibly help?” This utter lack of self confidence is one of the root obstacles to empowerment and development.
Paraskevoula seems hopeless about the possibility that her daughters can change things, and therefore undervalues their education, despite speaking determinedly about wanting her girls to be literate. “We have no money for books,” she says. Poverty is an issue among Roma communities, but here, not in its absolute sense of a lack of income. Where 2 Euros for a pencil and textbook for their daughters is considered too much, the subtext that the girls pick up on is that no-one values their education.
Both Paraskevoula and another woman in the community, Sallei, hate the idea that their 12 and 13 year old girls will be ‘given’ to be ‘married’ in about a year. Of her daughter Toulicho, Sallei says, “I don’t want to give her away." She adds: “She is 12 and she should be playing with dolls, but if I don’t give her to someone that I know, who is close by and who I know is a good man, someone else will steal her.”
Roma women desperately want their daughters to play, be children, learn and make their own choices, but they are terrified for their safety.
So what do Eleni, Magdalini, Toulicho and Tanich want out of life? Tanich is unable to articulate her thoughts yet – but Magdalini, Eleni and Toulicho are very clear: to raise their daughters differently. To send them to school, to allow them to choose their own paths, to treat their daughters-in-law with dignity and to raise their sons to respect women.