OPRE ROMANI WOMEN ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY

“There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.” These were the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, known as the father of Pakistan, who died in 1948.

Sixty-five years on, we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 to pay tribute to all women across the world of every colour, of every religion. US First Lady Michelle Obama will award ten women with the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award and recipients this year include a Tibetan poet, a Syrian human rights lawyer and a Somali peace activist among other fearless women striving against adversity and/or oppression.

But the strength of which Jinnah spoke is particularly abundant among the women of the Romani communities whose determination to succeed against not only racial but sexist stereotyping is an inspiration to women everywhere.

"I'm a Roma woman"-  Romedia's Campaign

“I’m a Roma woman”- Romedia’s Campaign

Women who are Roma have an unfavorable position on the labor market, without proper education and burdened by an expectation to get married young and raise children.

Ahmet Elezovski outlined the problems faced by Romani women and called on the Romani men’s help. He stated: “Romani women face double discrimination and exclusion. A lot has to be done to help them and the first people who should be helping, are the Romani men.”

He continued: “I support Romani women, not just in being equal, we need more than that. We need to support them at every level.” 

Another issue only recently starting to be acknowledged and fought against is that of violence against Romani women. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, women’s rights activist Indira Bajramovic claimed that “many women, especially in Roma communities, suffer from several forms of violence without even recognizing it.”

Indira Bajramovic

Indira Bajramovic

Violence against the Roma has been well documented, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, as recently as late January a Romani woman was assaulted by a security guard in Prilep, Macedonia in front of her children. She required hospital treatment for her injuries.

But when it comes to domestic abuse, Romani women often refrain from reporting abuse to the police due to a lack of trust and fear of further violence.

On top of this, in Slovakia forced sterilization (link to recent blog article) of Roma remains a serious problem and Romani women in many parts of the Balkans are vulnerable to human trafficking. (link to Tali’s article)

Against this cruel concoction of adversity, our “I’m a Roma Woman” campaign has shown that successful role models are everywhere for young Romani women across Europe.

In one of the earlier video interviews published in the campaign, which started in 2009, Spanish Romani lawyer Carmen Santiago talked about what she saw as a change in attitude among Romani women.

Carmen Santiago

Carmen Santiago

She said proudly: “This is a new generation of young, strong women who are educated and who can see the situation clearly. And they don’t like what they see.”

As the first lawyer from her community, Carmen said that people told her she was not a “real Gitana” because she was educated and had graduated from university.

She feels it her duty to do everything possible to make thing better for the Roma and Romani women in particular.

In another of our interviews, we spoke exclusively with Rita Izsak, an independent expert on minority issues from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Rita Izsa

Rita Izsa

She pointed out that often the rights of minority women are unfortunately neglected by the separate women’s rights and minority rights movements.

Rita said: “Minority rights movements often push back the issue of women because it’s too sensitive and only covers a small part of the discussion. There are other, more burning issues such as poverty or unemployment.”

The human rights expert then urged minority rights movements to embrace women more and, similarly, for women’s rights bodies to include minorities more expansively in their work.

Rita spoke inspirationally about “fighting hard for her place” especially after being fired from her job at the age of 21 purely because of her Roma ethnicity.

The struggle for Romani women to achieve their own ambitions, against the cultural and social background, was caringly depicted in the book “Ramona and Elvira” a joint work by Romanian Romani woman Ramona Constantin and UK journalist Ciara Leeming.

Ramona Constantin

Ramona Constantin

Ramona, who moved to Manchester in the UK with her daughter, claimed that having a career while living in a traditional Romani family would be impossible.

Even though she won a community award in her new home city for her work with fellow Roma, and had found steady employment as a teaching assistant, she remained under constant pressure back home in Romania.

She said: “My mother said you don’t need to go to school to learn how to wash and clean, and respect your husband. She didn’t support me having a career but I want my daughter to be a lawyer, a doctor, a singer, a dancer, a nurse. Whatever she wants, I will support.”

Women from any background need to be strong to succeed, but perhaps for Romani women the need for strength – of character, of belief and of identity – is even greater.

With all that lies in their way on the path to happiness and success, today the late Jinnah may have spoken of a fourth power, stronger than the others. That of the Romani women.

By Alastair Watt