By By Mindy Kay Bricker
Thursday, July 3, 2003
Roma women are banding together to fight the triple bias that increases their rates of poverty and shortens their life span by as much as 17 years. The new organization of Roma women is the first to involve representatives from across Europe.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic (WOMENSENEWS)--Soraya Post does not want to be assimilated into her community in Goteborg, Sweden. She just wants to be accepted by it.
"We are very strong and proud of our culture," Post said of Europe's estimated 7 million to 9 million Roma, Sinti and Gypsies, the largest and fastest growing minority group on the continent. "And we are proud as women. We are going to work with one voice."
Post, 46, was named in March president of the International Roma Women's Network, based in Goteborg. The network has Romany women leaders from 28 Southern, Central and Eastern European countries and, Post said, it is the first of its kind to involve such broad representation for Roma women's rights.
"We will lobby governments and make them listen to us--not only to recognize the problems, but admit them. They have closed eyes when it comes to Roma women. We have to wake them up and show them that we are normal people," she said.
A recent study by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe High Commissioner for National Minorities found that the life expectancy of Romany women is between 10 and 17 years lower than the general population. This includes Europe's more developed countries, such as Ireland. Infant mortality among Bulgaria's Roma in 1989 was six times the national average.
The causes of the health crisis range from poverty to poor housing. In Central and Eastern Europe, poverty rates for Roma are sometimes more than 10 times that of non-Roma.
Bias is more severe in the post-Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, many of which are European-Union-candidate countries, Post said. The majority of Roma--nearly 6 million--live in this region. Roma rights groups have been established to defend the minority. Post, however, hopes to take it a step further. With the International Roma Women's Network, she wants to pair motherhood with activism. With this approach, she and the other members can tackle a range of family-oriented issues such as education and health.
"The Roma people in some countries are living very badly--and no one is even thinking about the Roma women's issues," Post said.
Within the first days of the group's existence, the women's network released an open letter to the Slovak government in response to alleged human-rights violations of Slovak women.
In January, 110 Slovak women claimed gynecologists sterilized them. The women alleged that when they were pregnant, they were duped into signing a consent form for sterilization--they were told they were signing consent papers for a Caesarean section. The gynecologists in Slovakia have denied the charges.
In February, the women's network met in Strasburg, France, where they adopted a charter and elected a provisional committee to coordinate the organization. The women also decided that the network will be independent of governmental and international agencies. Among the seven goals of the charter is "to challenge individual and institutional discrimination at all levels, more specifically discrimination in housing, health care, education and employment."
In recent months, educational projects have been subsidized by the European Union. Support and Integration of Romany, a program aimed to improve the training of teachers who work with Roma, and Multicultural Education Reform, an program that helps teachers explain to students that differences among people are natural and desirable, were both supported in the Czech Republic.
These efforts are in part a response to the fact that Romany children are being placed in institutions for the mentally handicapped at an extremely high rate. Government reports indicate that 75 percent of Romany children are educated in these institutions.
In addition, Romany women are faced with being denied their basic rights, such as dining in a restaurant. Despite Finland's ban on discrimination against Roma, four Roma women were refused entry to several restaurants in the Helsinki region, according to the 1999 International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights report. Seven out of 13 "tested" restaurants refused entry to Roma women--and only four let the women in without questions.
Adding to the difficulty the International Roma Women's Network faces is the fact that Roma are vastly underrepresented in European politics--the minority accounts for some 11 members of parliament, 20 mayoral seats and about 400 local council seats in all of Europe.
A 2002 report released by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights for the Council of Europe, the continent's oldest political organization, said Romany women suffer from triple discrimination: "as Roma, as women and also as persons belonging to a socially disadvantaged group."
Within the Roma community, some male leaders would rather not see women spending their political strength on gender-specific issues. Martin Demirovski, a Romany activist living in Macedonia, agrees that Roma women suffer from triple discrimination. But, he said, this is only within the Roma community. "The gadjes (white people) do not discriminate the Roma women more from the Roma men," he said. "There is a global discrimination against the Roma."
Demirovski said that now is not the time for Roma women to move forward with activism. "For the time being, it is good to fight discrimination against Roma. And then, when we are done with that, we can fight discrimination against Roma lesbians, gays and Roma women."
Post disagrees. "We need to find how women can exist in this society as it is now," she said. "The most important is that we show that we are united. We want to change the climate for Roma women. Now, it is about time."
Mindy Kay Bricker is a reporter and freelancer living in the Czech Republic.
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By Barbara Crossette