Whose decision is it anyway? Romani women as leaders and decision makers
06 June 2023
By Milena Reljić
Roma, Europe’s largest minority, have been an integral part of European society for centuries. Despite efforts at national, European, and international level to improve the protection of their fundamental rights and advance their social integration, many Romani people still face prejudice, discrimination, and social exclusion in their daily lives. Many experience deep poverty and extremely poor socio-economic conditions, limiting their opportunities.
Romani women and girls go on to suffer from multiple forms of discrimination: not only are they Roma but they are also women. The gender gap still exists, and for Romani women the discrimination stemming from antigypsyism reinforces these disadvantages and puts an additional burden on them. In this context, how can the lack of representation of Romani women in leadership roles and as decision makers be addressed?
Women as leadership and decision-makers
Women represent half of the planet's population, but their underrepresentation in leadership positions is historical fact. A significant factor in this has been gender bias and an adherence to traditional gender roles, which still plays a large part in the ongoing marginalisation of women in all facets of life. During the development of the women's movement and the institutionalisation of women's rights and gender equality, one crucial aspect was the recognition of women's leadership within institutions, social and family structures, and in politics.
Women are hindered by various barriers in vertical mobility, as shown by data on women’s choice of education and occupation, women’s participation in leadership roles and jobs that bring higher wages and social power, as well as on women's willingness to engage in entrepreneurship.
Romani women and girls face additional barriers due to intersectional discrimination, meaning the struggle to the top is even harder. This creates a self-fulfilling problem: Romani women are subjected to policies and programs which are not tailored to their needs and which are often harmful, but face unequal burdens on the route to positions where they could influence change due to these policies.
Women in politics
Gender inequality is also clearly visible in the political sphere, as many political systems do not have adequate or equal representation of women in decision making or leadership positions. As an example, Serbia defines its political system as democratic; by definition this means the people choose their representatives in party elections. Despite this, at the beginning of the multi-party system only four women were members of the Parliament in Serbia. Today there are quotas and various affirmative measures as well as laws and strategies that advocate for greater participation of women in the political process, however there has been little evidence of these having a tangible effect.
Inevitably, Romani women are even less represented in political systems. Since the implementation of the multi-party system in Serbia until now, the Romani community has only had one Romani woman representative and only a small number of Romani women have been involved in political processes at the local level. The interests of Romani women are not being represented when making decisions, despite there being around 200,000 Romani women in Serbia. There are currently no measures aimed at solving this lack of representation in Serbia.
Strengthening gender equality in legislation is particularly important for democracy and justice in society. It has now been 28 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women (1995) to remove all obstacles to the active participation of women in all spheres of public life and private life through full and equal participation in decision-making in the economy, society, culture and politics. However, gender gaps still exist in all these spheres.
This inequality is significant as a career in legislature is often a stepping stone to higher political positions. Therefore, political parties without adequate representation of women in electoral positions struggle to appoint women to higher positions of ministers, party leaders, or heads of state and government. Direct or indirect gender discrimination in laws that regulate the work of political parties and internal party procedures can also be obstacles to women's participation. This is especially true when these provisions affect women's ability to run for and be elected as representatives, or may affect women's participation in party decision-making. If they chose to, political parties have the opportunity to influence the level of women's political participation as members and candidates, thereby directly contributing to more representative political processes.
The involvement and perspective of Romani women themselves is key to improving this situation, and potential solutions will need to start by advocating for Romani women’s political participation by drafting, promoting, and monitoring laws and policies to ensure that gender equality issues are taken into account in national policies. Such mechanisms can be formal, like a commission or a committee, or informal, like a caucus or working group.
There should also be a focus on developing the competency of Romani women candidates through political mentoring and training programs to prepare women for political work and enhance their skills, and through building women’s platforms, networks, and pools of potential candidates.
This support for Romani women’s political participation will need to be held at the government level, through state funded initiatives promoting women’s participation in political parties. These initiatives should hold seminars and training events, lobby to get more women elected, and provide networks for women politicians. Additionally, access to political institutions needs to be increased for Romani women: including women during democratic transition processes offers opportunity to create political institutions that are more favorable to Romani women’s political representation and leadership.
Finally, there is a real need for accurate and reliable data on Romani women’s representation in order to track progress and identify challenges and successes.
When it comes to decision making processes, Romani people, particularly Romani women and girls, are frequently excluded from providing input on legislation, policies, and programs, particularly those meant specifically to address their situation. While some progress has been made in recognising the multiple discriminations faced by Romani women and girls, as well as the inequalities they face in access to and distribution of resources and public services, there remains much work to be done in ensuring that Romani women and girls have the opportunities to advocate for themselves in leadership and decision-making roles.
This article was written by one of our Roma Rights Defenders as part of the ‘ERRC Newsroom’ project, bringing together Romani and non-Romani activists with an interest in journalism and human rights. The project provides volunteers with mentoring, copy-editing, training, and opportunities to pitch articles on Roma Rights issues for publication on ERRC News. If you are interested in pitching an article to ERRC News, or joining this volunteer project, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.