The Romani Women's Movement: From East to West
17 May 2007
The Romani Women's Movement: From East to West1
This article comprises the testimony of two prominent Romani women's rights activists from opposed geographical corners of Europe: Russia and Spain. In these two countries, the Romani women's rights movement has been developing itself at different times. In Spain, the Romani women's rights movement started 15 years ago, while, in Russia, it is just now starting. The different stages of development of the two Romani women's rights "movements" are related, amongst other factors, to the different socio-economic and political context of the countries. For instance, the relatively positive position of the Spanish government to the establishment of NGOs is totally different to the active discouragement by Russian authorities to the development of civil society in Russia.
It is therefore interesting to note common elements in the testimonies, which include: Both women were working with non women-specific Romani NGOs before establishing their Romani women's organisations (indeed, it was this work that moved them to set up the women's organisations); the feeling of overwhelm experienced by Romani women who, after looking after everyone around apart from themselves, must work to improve their own situation; the lack of support on the part of mainstream women's rights organisations, the government and Romani men; and their initial steps, such as educational concerns and the need to alleviate immediate economic and independence constrains in a practical manner.
The similarities of the demands, objectives and roots of their activism show that the possibility of a pan-European Romani women's rights movement exists.
Ms Dolores Fernandez,2 Spain:
I think we can start talking about a Roma feminist movement from the 1990s onwards with the establishment of Romi3 in Granada. We were a group of revolutionary Romani women (although we were afraid at the beginning) with a lot of will to change things and to make our voices heard. We felt we had to do this because the mainstream feminist movement did not take into account Romani women's problems. We knew that we had to lead our own changes according to our own traditions, without losing our identity and creating our own path. Older Romani women encouraged us very much; they did not want us to suffer what they had suffered. They wanted a better future for the new generations and that's why we continue fighting.
We organised the first and second roundtable conferences on Romani women in Granada in 1990 and 1991. From these roundtable conferences, several other Romani women's associations, such as Serseni (Madrid) and the Association of Progressive Romani Women (Cantabria), were established. This, in turn, encouraged other Romani women to start participating in social and political spheres so that they could also voice and fight for their rights.
The activities of Romi are varied, but they all aim to make the resources of the government available to Romani women. We try to assess people, provide professional formation, host workshops, etc.
Before Romi, I worked in another Romani association teaching literacy and other courses to Romani men. At that time I thought that Romani women should also learn how to read and write and get driving licenses.4 That's how our fight began.
As Romani women, we have had to confront our own culture within our families and communities, while at the same time we have had to claim our social and political rights in the wider society. Our fight has two fronts: At home, we are fighting to get Romani women to study and have freedom. We also have to raise awareness about our problems and needs with different government bodies so that these are taken into account. In addition, we have to continue carrying out our family obligations (i.e. caring for our husbands, parents and children) that we know we cannot abandon.
It should be recognised that the improvement in the position of Romani women within Spanish society is largely thanks to Romani women's associations. We have fought a lot; many times on our own. We have had little support from non-Romani women's organisations, institutions in general, Romani organisations and sometimes even our own families. We have to value the effort that Romani women's associations make. Sometimes this great effort is not acknowledged by anyone, sometimes we have no recognition, sometimes we are criticised or marginalised and many times we are simply ignored. Romani women's associations have had to prove day after day that we can do a good job. We have had to demonstrate and prove ourselves more than other organisations because we are Roma and because we are women.
Little by little, our silent revolution is modifying our cultural values, particularly amongst Romani youth. For example, a Romani girl attending university is no longer viewed negatively. In fact, in Spain there are more Romani female university graduates than male. We are also beginning to see some young Romani men helping with household chores.
In the last few years we have achieved things that we thought unthinkable at the beginning, but we still have much work ahead. One of the challenges we still have is the exchange of information and co-ordination amongst ourselves, the Romani women's organisations.
"Macro" Romani associations, such as federations or foundations, should help and support Romani women's associations and give us our space. Large organisations at times express solidarity with our movement but this does not happen enough. We all need to work together to create webs of communication because, at the moment, everyone is working on their own.
It is sad to see that in the 21st century, Romani women are still not represented in the state platform of Romani associations or in the governmental group on women. Furthermore, Romani women's issues are hardly mentioned, if at all, in the National Action Plan for Equality or programmes for the development of Roma. Even today, we still do not have social and political participation or representation in Romani organisations, mainstream women's organisations and governmental institutions.5
Participation in social and political life requires an investment of time and Romani women have very little free time. We consider that the most important thing is participation, to make ourselves seen in the public sphere and to make other people aware that we exist and are fighting. We have to write about ourselves, speak in public and raise our voices collectively. We should advance the leadership of our own movement and demand that certain customs, institutions and actions that have marginalised Romani women change. We are aware that this is very difficult but to make these changes is essential to improving our situation in society.
Through our work in associations, we have learnt about the complexity of exercising our rights as citizens: To organise, to demand, to reclaim, and to oppose what we think is unfair.
Romani women have been barred from public spaces, from speaking out and from making decisions. This is a social illness that still continues to some extent and maintains our isolated status outside the political sphere. Because we are not there – in the political sphere – we cannot image ourselves being there. Because we cannot image ourselves there, we are not.
These spaces are void of us and seem inaccessible to us. This is one of the dark corners in which we find ourselves nowadays. The very few women that occupy powerful positions have to speak with the voice of their "superior". Therefore, we have to start to speak for ourselves and take the lead. We have to become lawmakers, bosses, academics, artists, creators, etc.
The existence of the associative movement is an exercise of social leadership and democratic participation that serves as an introduction to our active involvement in politics. We need a democratic society and a democratic society needs us.
Women are the ones making the world move but at the same time we do not have any power. The fight is very hard but very rewarding. Despite our apparent invisibility, Romani women's associations are supporting women, we are growing and demanding, working day after day. We sometimes feel we are on our own and we feel hurt, but when we manage some success we feel happy and good about ourselves.
I think that we have initiated a journey but there is still a long way to go. Our future objectives should be to help other women (whether they are Romani or not) and to help Romani women to be aware of their rights and capacities to take an active role in their communities and in society, including political participation. Our objectives should also include the promotion of all professional Romani women (writers, poets, painters, doctors, etc) and to encourage the union and solidarity in our "pacifistic fight" amongst all women so that we are all respected as women and as Roma.
Elena Konstantionova,6 Russia:
I set up the first Romani women's organisation in Russia in 2004 under the name Romani Women's Congress (RWC) – DZHUVLIKANO Romano Kongresso. Previously I had been working for two years in a general Romani organisation but I soon realised that the issues faced by Romani women were not taken into consideration. I've had a hard life myself. I got married when I was only 13 years old and I delivered my first baby when I was 15. Even at that time I remember thinking that it was not right, that things should not be like this. My own experience taught me that Romani women suffer a lot of discrimination. Everyone can offend us, domestic violence is widespread and Romani society places huge pressures on Romani women.
In April 2004, I organised a meeting for Romani women to talk to them about women's rights. We were discussing many problems and they kept on asking me what to do. I told them about Romani women's organisations in other countries and that's how the idea of the RWC came about. They asked me, "How will we do it? We are uneducated." But I told them that we would find people to help. I also told them that girls should have an education as this can help our situation.
Our steps have been difficult from the very beginning; we even faced difficulties in registering the organisation. We went to the Ministry of Justice with all the necessary documents. But the people in the Ministry did not appear keen on having a Romani women's organisation so the process took 3 months; 2 months longer than usual. We also faced opposition from male Romani leaders who constantly ask us, "Women! Why are you doing this?"
It is very difficult to keep this going because most Romani women are uneducated and they are dependent on their husbands in every way. Not all women can get involved and do this sort of work because Romani women are the busiest people in the world. They are responsible for everything related to their families. For me, it's also difficult because I have no financial support and sometimes I have to give money from my own pocket, even though I don't have much. I'm ready to do this job day and night but I also want to make sure that my family has food to eat. But, money should not be the only motivating factor.
The aim of the RWC is to enable Romani women to stand up for themselves. As Romani women in Russia find out about our organisation, they are calling us. They can call anytime and we will try to provide all the help they need.
I recently dealt with the case of a Romani woman who had recently been released from prison. By the time she got out of jail, her husband had already remarried. She had two children with him and was pregnant with their third child. She came to me and cried and I didn't know what to do. She had no house, no job, no family, two children to feed and a baby on the way. That is when I thought that it is important to open rehabilitation centres for Romani women. The rehabilitation centre would be like a group house where women in such critical situations would be able to come until they find a job. These houses would also receive their children. The rehabilitation centres could be operated like small companies so that they would be self-sufficient and that the women would be able to earn an income. I want their children to see something good. But what their children will see? These people are coming to me, but I am unable to help them. So, what is the meaning of such work? I'm aware that it is difficult to achieve such goals, but they are necessary, more today than ever before.
And then there is the proverb: An empty hand is no lure for a hawk.
There is no solution without money.
- Interviews conducted by Ms Ostalinda Maya Ovalle, ERRC Women's Rights Officer.
- Ms Dolores Fernandez was one of the first Romani feminists in Spain.
- Romi was the first Romani women's association established in Spain. It was established in January 1990 by Ms Fernandez.
- Note from the editor: The main source of employment and income for many Romani women in Spain is street selling. The lack of a driving license makes them dependant on male family members in running their business and, as a consequence, contributes to economic dependency.
- Note from the editor: There is only one Romani woman currently working for the Spanish Government. Ms Pilar Heredia was recently appointed Coordinator of the Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs' Women's Institute.
- Elena Konstantinova is the head of the Romani Women's Congress (RWC) - DZHUVLIKANO Romano Kongresso (based in Volgograd, Russia) and one of the strongest voices of Romani women's rights in Russia.