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Romani women of the Balkans: battling intersectional oppression

Centuries old oppression founded on gender, race, cultural group, and socio-economic class is being challenged by Romani women who are combating their public and private marginalization through initiatives embedded within the Roma identity.

Dževrija, a sex worker and heroin addict who lives in a Romani community within Serbia. Aleksandrija Ajdukovic/Vice. All rights Dževrija, a sex worker and heroin addict who lives in a Romani community within Serbia. Aleksandrija Ajdukovic/Vice. All rights reserved.The mountainous lands that serve as both bridges and buffers between “civilizations” have endured waves of horrific abuses. World wars, domestic massacres, international bombings, and most recently, an ongoing refugee crisis, have challenged the fabric of Western Balkan nations and created new victims of oppression. The media, political analysts, and many NGOs rightfully report on the many current abuses committed by Balkan and European governments as Syrian war refugees attempt to flee to safety. This attention must not waver and should indeed magnify. Yet unwittingly, an exclusive spotlight on the recent, acute humanitarian crisis can sometimes mute more persistent, normalized forms of oppression in the region. Women of the Balkans, for instance, are constant victims of oppressive societal structures and perceptions. They suffer from normalized domestic violence, honor killings, socio-economic barriers, cultural shaming – among many other harms.

Gender can be quite the crippling social factor. Just being female makes one vulnerable to a wide range of human rights abuses. So, what if you happen to be a woman who also lives on the outskirts of acceptable, mainstream culture? What if your sources of oppression intersect in the most complex of ways? The Roma women of the Western Balkans face injustices that arise from their gender, skin color, socio-economic class, and cultural ways of life. A Roma woman must battle against a maze of societal oppressions on daily basis – she has done so for centuries and continues to do so today as new humanitarian crises rise and fall.

Who is she? 

The Roma identity generally refers to a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, with various linguistic dialects and many sub-groups, living mostly in Europe, and originating from Northern India over a thousand years ago. By the fourteenth century and in tandem with Ottoman conquest, the Roma became established in large numbers throughout the Balkans. Presently, out of an estimated 10-12 million currently in the whole of Europe, some six million live in the European Union (EU), while around one million of Roma live in Western Balkans countries. Most Roma are bi- or tri-lingual, speaking a Romani dialect as well as the official languages of their countries. Wherever they reside, however, their lack of a territorial base and permanence marks them as outsiders – the perfect “other”.

A child growing up in Albania, for instance, is never immune to cultural indoctrination against the Roma population – “the gypsies”. No matter how progressive a family may be, they will either implicitly or directly introduce their children to many negative stereotypes the culture throws at the Romani. At a very early age, society warned me to never open the door for a gypsy. Gypsies stole little children and dabbled in evil dark magic, my neighbors would so convincingly tell me. But my eight year old self adored the way that the local “gypsy woman” dressed, and I so desperately wished to be like her. 

This was long before I began to understand the intricate social web of limitations, taboos, and expectations that Roma women had to contend against. I still don’t understand nor will I ever grasp the full extent and nature of this oppression, as it is distinct and more deeply permeating than what I could ever experience as a white Albanian-American woman. The argument I try to formula below, however, is that the intersection of gender, race, culture, and class in the Balkans makes for a potent, perpetual cycle of oppression – and as political systems, leaders, ideologies, and economies come and go, the Roma woman remains at that intersection of her marginalized identities.

Being Romani and a woman

Aiding Roma settlements during the Serbian winter. Healing Hearts Balkans. All rights reserved. Aiding Roma settlements during the Serbian winter. Healing Hearts Balkans. All rights reserved.Beyond the all-encompassing racial and cultural marginalization, women and their children have become central symbols of the Roma struggle within the Balkans. “There’s one thing worse than being a woman in Serbia, and that is being a Roma woman,”  a member of the Roma Women’s Centre Bibija told IPS. “Almost all Roma women, who marry very young, exist to take care about the large number of children they have. Parents won’t invest in their education as they are going to marry and ‘go to another family’, and what awaits them there is almost, in all cases, family violence and endless care of others.”

As visible victims of their societies and also handicapped by their gender, many Roma women are delegated to pleading for support on dirty street corners, often with young children – in the blistering heat of summer or the bitter winds of winter. Some Balkan Romani women are also visible in wage and domestic labor – having worked among non-Romani men as seasonal agricultural laborers, factory workers, and peddlers for over a century. More recently, Romani women may work as cleaners in private homes and schools, cooks, and less frequently, as teachers, accountants, and journalists. But their public labor contributions always occur in the backdrop of a multifaceted web of discrimination and social limitation.

Moreover, the women face heavy limitations in healthcare provision and education. Even in the private sphere, Roma women cannot escape oppression as they are often victims of domestic abuse. To make matters worse, due to language, cultural, and educational barriers, these women rarely know routes for legal recourse against their public and private oppressors. 

Balkan countries have already developed National Strategies for Roma populations, within the framework of the “Decade of Roma Inclusion” (2005-2015) and the EU accession process. Yet recent research indicates that these policies are mostly gender-blind and do not adequately address the oppression of Romani women, who are marginalized not only within national societies but also within Roma communities. 

For the Romani woman, three main sources of oppression intersect across race, class, and gender: 1.) human trafficking and sex work; 2.) educational deficiencies; and 3.) reproductive healthcare. Their origins lie between the private and public spheres – with domestic violence and weaker family status existing as consistent contextual factors for all Romani (and non-Romani) women.

Trifecta of marginalization: from private to public

Burnt remains of Romani homes in the Park District, Priština, Kosovo, 1999. Nigel Dickinson/Open Society Foundations. All rights Burnt remains of Romani homes in the Park District, Priština, Kosovo, 1999. Nigel Dickinson/Open Society Foundations. All rights reserved.Human trafficking and sex work are intertwined dangers for women in the Roma community. The vulnerability arises within the domestic sphere of culture, as Roma society still arranges marriages between minors as young as 12. Teenage brides are sometimes bartered and traded between communities, an activity that looks quite similar to the public crime of human trafficking. Alternatively, the low social status and negative stereotypes of Roma women make them easier victims for larger channels of trafficking, while their economic exclusion amidst poverty-ridden communities often means that drug-fueled sex work becomes one of a small number of choices for income-generation.

Hence, whether trafficked as young brides in the Romani community, entrapped into the larger human trafficking scene of the Balkans, or pushed into dangerous sex work by economic deprivation, Romani women are particularly vulnerable to gender-based exploitation.

This cycle continues in the backdrop of internalized domestic violence within Romani households. An extensive survey of Bosnian Roma women found that of 609 women interviewed, over 43 percent suffered physical violence, while 76 percent knew a woman who had. Over 17 percent reported sexual violence as well. These figures are likely conservative, as violence is regularly underreported in Roma communities, given the normalization of abuse, isolation of the communities, and lack of recognition of different forms of violence. The survey findings also exposed the abysmal lack of support for Romani women who contacted the police, healthcare, or social services. As one Romani woman described, “I gave up calling the police… when we call them, they often say, ‘Let it be, Gypsy business'.”

Couple these dynamics with generally unresponsive, corruption-captured Balkan governments, and the cycle of intersectional oppression becomes easy to see. Private Romani culture already exposes women to gender-based violence and limitations via traditions of early arranged marriage, domestic abuse, and deferment to males. Then, the public sphere throws racially-motivated limitations at them, while minimal economic choices mark the women as the lowest of the Romani underclass. Finally, bad governance and widespread social norms ensure that Romani women have no mechanisms for social redress and justice.

Increased access to education would open up additional economic routes and make women more aware of legal channels of recourse against their abusers. Unfortunately, Roma girls face many difficulties in the realm of education – again, originating both within the private and public spheres.

A teenage girl with her daughter as part of Romani Kosovar refugees in Montenegro. Nigel Dickinson/Open Society Foundations. All A teenage girl with her daughter as part of Romani Kosovar refugees in Montenegro. Nigel Dickinson/Open Society Foundations. All rights reserved.All over former Yugoslavia and in some cities in Albania, Roma children are sent to segregated schools or ones for special needs children, although the children lack illness or mental limitations. The main reason quoted by education authorities is that the children have not sufficiently mastered the local language and need time to learn it and adapt to normal curricula. But the segregation means that even if Romani children could continue their schooling without racially-based risks or gendered limitations, they would still receive subpar education in underfunded, deteriorating schools.

In the private sphere, educational problems are associated with traditional gender norms that encourage women’s very early marriage and commitment to housework and family care – not education or careers. The discrimination doubles in the public sphere, as Romani girls face increased risks of peer violence as well as abuses by school personnel. Abuse or the risk of abuse is a main reason why many Romani girls drop out of primary schools. 

A study by the Institute for Anthropological Studies in Croatia, for instance, showed that 20 percent of Roma men and over 60 percent of women never attended school, while those who did stayed for five out of the full eight years. Instead, Girls married at an average age 16.8 and had four children. Moreover, in Serbia, more than 70 percent of Serbian Romani are illiterate, with only 0.4 percent holding university degrees.

Overall, Roma women are the least educated group in the Balkans. Most of them are illiterate and without any qualifications. Low levels of education and professional training reduces the chances for successful integration of Roma women into society and ensures their economic dependence and greater exposure to discrimination. 

Yet perhaps the most gruesome and direct means of gendered and racial oppression against Romani women are the campaigns of forced sterilization and their contemporary legacies. Within Europe, Czechoslovakia enforced the most drastic measures to stem Roma population growth by cutting birth rates. Beginning in the early 1970s, social workers encouraged Roma women to have government-paid sterilization through monetary incentives. In addition, some women were sterilized without their consent after undergoing cesarean sections or abortions. By 1979, Charter 77 and other human rights organizations accused the government of attempted genocide through the forced sterilization campaigns.

To the dismay of human rights activists, sterilizations continued after the fall of communism until late 1990 – particularly in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. By 1991, the Committee for Human Rights in Prague brought cases of forced sterilization before government prosecutors. Today, Roma continue to suffer the effects of sterilization across Eastern Europe, but few health officials have been prosecuted in comparison to the far-reaching extent of the policies.

In the Western Balkans, the issue of healthcare access is a much more prominent, contemporary concern – yet the dark heritage of reproductive exploitation sets the context for Romani patient-doctor interactions. Romani women in the Balkans mistrust doctors, while hospitals and doctors often fail to properly provide their Romani patients with reproductive healthcare. Aggregated UNICEF statistics, together with in-depth qualitative study, reveal that eight percent of Romani women in Serbia and 21 percent in Macedonia attend no prenatal care. Additionally, five percent of Romani women in Serbia and 18 percent in Macedonia gave birth without a skilled attendant. Such numbers appear closely related to the many levels of internalized, explicit, and informal discrimination that Romani women experience amidst majority populations. More recent data from the “Roma Inclusion Series” shows higher rates of unattended births across the Balkans: 23 percent in Macedonia; 18 percent in Bosnia; 16 percent in Serbia; and 16 percent in Montenegro. Gynecological visits and cancer screenings are also much less common among Romani woman than the general Balkan population – with the lowest rates of attendance seen in Albania (17%), Romania (22%), Bulgaria (42%), and Macedonia (42%).

 Low rates of educational enrollment, limited socio-economic resources, and cultural stigma also prevents most Romani women from taking control of their reproductive health via family planning services and STD prevention. Educational level, specifically, has a very strong correlation with reproductive choices as higher education leads to improved health knowledge and may reduce dependency on religious and cultural prejudices. In fact, studies utilizing data from the “Roma Inclusion Series” reveal that 76 percent of Roma women without formal education attend gynecological check-ups, in comparison to 78 percent of Roma women with primary education and 87 percent of women with upper secondary education.

 As implicated above, all symptoms of racial and gender oppression interrelate with one another – with lower education discouraging optimal healthcare, domestic violence perpetuating economic subservience, and private cultural traditions often aggravating public ills, such as human trafficking and vulnerable sex work.

Empowerment through local communities

First Roma protest in front of the Government of Montenegro. Institute for Social Inclusion. All rights reserved. First Roma protest in front of the Government of Montenegro. Institute for Social Inclusion. All rights reserved.The Roma people and women in particular have legitimate historical fears about outsider interference in their culture, ways of life, and political and economic representation. Therefore, any and all reforms should originate within the Roma community itself. Outside actors, however, can do much to support local initiatives, either by funding particular programs, supporting cultural interactions between groups, or raising awareness of certain sectors of oppression. Non-Roma actors can be allies against a multi-tiered system of oppression – one that they will never truly understand, but are inherently complicit in and must actively fight against.

Despite huge obstacles, the Roma have preserved a strong identity. Leveraging this identity, many Roma human rights movements, political organizations, and unions have emerged in the post-communist era. These organizations have begun the challenging mission of forming a coherent political consciousness and public identity among Roma while also fighting institutional and informal discrimination.

Roma women organizations, in particular, have established strong coalitions with non-Roma organizations. They seek the increased, meaningful participation of Roma women in representative bodies for Roma communities – a goal that must first ameliorate Roma community-based gender discrimination. These organizations also aspire to craft new cultural narratives to minimize the drop-out of Romani girls from schools. This goal must content with both local gendered practices of oppression and state-based sources of discrimination. Furthermore, to address the third major source of intersectional discrimination, the women’s organizations push for community-based initiatives for the prevention of gender-based violence and for access to general and reproductive health care for Romani women and girls.

Some of the most prominent Balkan organization focusing on Romani women are: Better Future from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Roma Heart from Croatia, Bibija Roma Women Centre from Serbia, and the Centre for Roma Initiatives from Montenegro. Many other centers are also rising amidst the persistent, intersectional discrimination. The Association “Roma Girl – Romanicej” in Bosnia, for instance, provides information and advocacy to the local community as related to education scholarships, social security benefits, reproductive health, prevention of domestic violence, and the prevention of human trafficking. In Serbia, the Association “Romani cikna” was established by long-time Roma women activists to encourage the capacity of Roma local communities. Their specific gendered missions are to strengthen the integration of Roma women into community decision-making processes, improve socio-economic status, bring awareness to educational opportunities, and eradicate all forms of discrimination.

Ultimately, although rising from centuries of oppression – founded on gender, race, cultural group, and socio-economic class – Romani women are combating their public and private marginalization through initiatives embedded within the Roma identity. But as these organizations raise awareness of the oppression and offer pathways for improvement, national civil societies as a whole must also take notice and pressure governments into accountability against public abuses. As the Balkan region experiences waves of change in its human security, the plight of Romani populations, especially the intersectionally repressed Romani woman, remains a constant. But the historical persistence and normalization of this oppression does not erase its existence or the moral imperative to fight against its multiple dimensions.

Read more articles in our series Gender in the Albanosphere


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