The Romani Women's Movement in Montenegro: Chapter One

16 May 2007

Tatjana Perić

Introduction: The Situation of Romani Women in Montenegro

The Montenegrin Romani community is one of the smallest in Southeast Europe. The latest population census from 2003 registered 2,826 Roma and Egyptians, or 0.46 percent of the total population of Montenegro. As is usually the case with official data on Roma in Europe, these numbers are thought to be much higher in reality, and some Romani NGOs estimate the number to be between 20,000 and 27,000. Over 90 percent of Montenegrin Roma are Muslim; many have been forcibly displaced from Kosovo. The average Romani household lives in very difficult social and economic circumstances, with high rates of poverty. The situation of women, however, is made more complex by their multiple levels of discrimination: as Roma by the majority society, and as women within the Romani community. Socio-economic indicators applicable to Romani women rank lower than indicators for Romani men and much lower than those for non-Roma. According to the UNDP study on social vulnerability of Montenegrin Roma conducted in 2004, 44 percent of Romani women interviewed could not read and write. As much as 51 percent of Romani women have not had a single year of formal education. Twenty percent of women were unemployed, and another 30 percent were housekeepers; 54 percent of women in these two categories have never been employed. Only 15 percent of women earned their own income, and on the average they earned 78 EUR per month, compared to 169 EUR per month earned by Romani men and 220 EUR by non-Romani women.

Montenegrin society as a whole is considered to be very traditional and patriarchal, and in the Romani community these features are even more strongly pronounced. Romani women in Montenegro largely do not participate in political processes. The only exception is the recent case of Nedžmije Beriša, the only Romani medical doctor in Montenegro, who was elected as a member of the assembly of the capital Podgorica by the ruling coalition of the Democratic Party of Socialists, led by the Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, and the Social Democratic Party. According to human rights activists, domestic violence against Romani women is rife. Yet, when survivors seek assistance from state institutions, the latter do not properly address their concerns, and police and social centres rarely intervene, believing tha these are "Roma issues". Although the local NGO Legal Aid Centre (Centar za pravnu pomoć) offers pro bono legal advice to Roma in their two offices in Nikšić and Podgorica, where many cases are related to domestic violence, there is unfortunately no systematic monitoring of human rights violations in Montenegro, including of discrimination against Roma and Romani women in particular.

Current Roma- and Romani Womenrelated Policies in Montenegro

The Government of Montenegro is participating in the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, and accordingly, the relevant Action Plan was adopted in January 2005. Only one Romani activist, Veselj Beganaj, took part in drafting the Action Plan, although he represented the views of a network of Romani NGOs. It is unfortunate, however, that the Montenegrin authorities did not make provision for higher participation of Roma, and especially Romani women activists, in this process. Consequently, the Action Plan mentions gender issues in a very marginal manner, and only within the areas of health and education. Despite the existence of the Action Plan, as of December 2006 the Government of Montenegro had not earmarked any funds or launched any projects related to the implementation of their Roma Decade commitments. In practice, any achievements to date must be credited to Romani NGOs and to international organisations.

In another development relevant to Montenegrin Roma, the new Law on National Minorities was adopted on 10 May 2006, which envisaged the creation of minority councils and set criteria for the guaranteed representation of minorities in the national parliament. However, in June 2006, a Constitutional Court decision blocked this law, with regard to two articles that guaranteed seats to ethnic minority parties, alleging that the law contravened the principle of equality for all citizens. Blocking the law on minorities also created obstacles to the creation of the Government Strategy for Roma in Montenegro, drafted within the framework of a project from the US-based Project on Ethnic Relations in cooperation with the Ministry for the Protection of Minority Rights. It is planned that the strategy will address those areas not covered by the Action Plan, especially political participation. A public review of the first draft of the Strategy is planned for January 2007.

At the same time, the National Action Plan on Romani Women is also being drafted, under the auspices of the Gender Equality Office of the Republic of Montenegro. This process is a part of an international project "Roma Women Can Do It" and the second phase of the project in Montenegro. This action plan should be integrated into the forthcoming Strategy for Roma, and the amended Action Plan. However it is not clear how the envisaged integration will be carried out. At the same time, the National Action Plan for Achieving Gender Equality in Montenegro is also still waiting to be adopted.

Romani Women Activists and Romani Women Organisations: Nikšić

There are currently very few Romani women's organisations in Montenegro, and most of my interlocutors could not name more than three, based in Podgorica and Nikšić. Additionally, several other Romani NGOs run projects on Romani women. The Centre for Roma Initiatives in Nikšić is by far the most important, not only for the Romani women's movement in Montenegro, but the Montenegrin Romani scene as a whole. This organisation grew out of the Nikšić-based NGO SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence. Founded in 1998, the SOS Hotline's work included programmes for women and children from marginalised groups, and they launched their first programmes in the Nikšić Romani community in early 2000, under the name of the "Roma Centre". They had to work hard to gain the trust of the Romani community to enable women and girls to take part in their activities without hindrance. No other organisation was working with Romani women at the time, and in the words of Nada Koprivica of the SOS Hotline this was "a revolution". Initially beneficiaries of services, some Romani women soon became workshop leaders and took on a more active role in the project. In time, SOS Hotline activists realised that Romani women were sufficiently empowered to take ownership of the project, and thus in September 2004 the Centre for Roma Initiatives was registered as an independent NGO, although they continued working with the SOS Hotline and sharing office space. Since this time, the Centre has acquired three full-time staff members who had all been active in the SOS Hotline workshops long before the Centre was formed.

The first project implemented by the Centre was to produce a unique report on the situation of Romani women in the city of Nikšić. The five Romani activists involved in the research all came from different settlements, and undertook to visit all the Romani households, one by one, and to interview all girls and women over the age of fourteen. In the beginning there were difficulties; husbands, in many cases, insisted on staying to hear the interview. It was of tremendous assistance, however, that all the young activists were locals, and that they spoke openly and honestly about their projects. Initially they did have to speak with the men of the family first, but only to persuade them to allow girls and women to be interviewed, and then the interviews were held with the women alone. In this way, they were able to win the complete trust of the community.

Following the excellent experience of the first publication, they were engaged by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to conduct Research on Inclusion of Roma Children in the Educational System. This project was coordinated by the SOS Hotline, whereas the research was conducted in four Montenegrin towns – Podgorica, Nikšić, Berane and Rožaje – by the Centre, the Podgoricabased NGO Woman's Heart and NGO Enfants from Rožaje. The researchers interviewed 415 parents, mainly mothers, on various issues relating to the education of their children, and eventually published a very detailed report on over 90 percent of the Romani families in these areas with children of school age.

It was the most recent project, however, that brought the greatest challenge. When they decided to join the regional project Virgin – Yes or No supported by the Open Society Institute (OSI), polling Roma on issues related to virginity, the Centre's activists themselves doubted whether they would indeed succeed with a poll on such a sensitive topic in an extremely patriarchal country. Not wishing to show any disrespect to the main cultural patterns, they engaged male pollsters to conduct interviews with the men. In total, 288 persons were interviewed in seven towns in the country. In their experience, the young women they spoke to were honest about their experiences and attitudes, but often ended up requesting confidentiality. In Podgorica, some mothers asked them not to interview their daughters. Some male leaders of the community told them clearly that they would have "chased them away, had they not known their fathers." The Centre's activists were belittled by male leaders on other occasions too, where the latter not only ignored or criticised their work, but sometimes also appropriated the Centre's successes as their own. Generally, these women had to confront numerous prejudices in their environment. "In the beginning, people were sceptical," says Fana Delija, the Centre's coordinator, "but then we formally established the Centre, and also produced our first report. Many people did not believe at first that we would succeed, but when we did everyone was pleased." According to Husnija Hajrušaj, some forecast that the activists would get married and therefore never finish their projects; Fana's parents, for instance, had to put up with comments from friends and neighbours who incessantly asked why they were allowing their daughter to do this kind of work. Their popularity is, nevertheless, indisputable among Nikšić Romani women: 90 percent of them have taken part in the Centre's programmes. Thanks to their work, 90 percent of Romani women in Nikšić now have personal documents; the national average for Romani women in this respect is estimated at 60 to 75 percent. Less than 5 percent of Nikšić Romani women now give birth at home, compared to 60 percent prior to Centre's activities. The Centre also took part in the process of creating the National Action Plan on Gender Equality, and in drafting of the National Action Plan on Romani Women.

The Centre's activists attended numerous regional events for Romani women, and when making comparisons between the Romani women's movement in the neighbouring states and Montenegro, they regretfully admitted that Montenegrin Romani women are in the most difficult position. According to Fatima Naza, this is due to the fact that Romani women's activism in Montenegro is just beginning, and the fact that there are very few educated Romani women, and also very few Romani women who are university students. Still, one victory has already been won: they requested, and succeeded, in having a woman – Vera Nakić – become the new president of the Roma Circle, a network of Romani NGOs in Montenegro.

Activists, Journalists, Students: Podgorica

The Woman's Heart – Association of Roma and Kovači Women is formally the oldest Romani women's NGO in Montenegro, formed in Podgorica in 2002. To date they have implemented numerous projects, mostly targeting women and children. Behija Ramović, their coordinator, facilitated numerous workshops on "taboo topics", as she calls them: issues such as trafficking in the Romani community, or sex education. The latter was carried out in partnership which the Youth Cultural Centre Juventas, from January 2005 to April 2006. The target population was the mainly displaced Roma living in the Konik I and II settlements of Podgorica. The Montenegrin partner NGO initially envisaged joint workshops, yet, in the end, these were held separately for men and women, since, in Behija's opinion, the project would have otherwise have failed since parents would not have allowed girls to attend. The men's workshops were attended by around 200 participants; while the workshops for women and girls reached a total of only 90 women.

This was a common issue for any health workshops held by the NGOs and is a consequence of patriarchal attitudes in the community where "the mere mention of sex creates a lot of commotion," and as soon as they heard there would be any discussion about sex, some older women took the girls away. Patriarchal concerns make the work of Romani women's NGOs in Montenegro very difficult: in order to find participants for her workshops, Behija had to make individual visits to families and explain the purpose of the workshops to each of them. It was a successful strategy, mainly because most families knew her and were familiar with her work. Behija considers the Roma traditional gender relations one of the main problems of Romani women today. She is herself a single mother who decided to work on gender issues upon realising that "life is difficult for all women, but especially so for Romani women."

In addition to working with her NGO, Behija has also served as a Romani assistant at a local primary school in Podgorica for three years. This school has the largest percentage of Romani children: 350 Roma out of around 1000 pupils. Behija studied education at the University of Nikšić. However her studies were interrupted for personal reasons, as she was exposed to gender- based violence. "I know I need to go back to my studies," she said. Together with Centre for Roma Initiatives, the Woman's Heart conducted the research mentioned above on the education of Roma children. Since April 2006, Behija has also been employed as an Assistant Director of the Podgorica-based Roma Scholarship Foundation (RSF). According to Behija, Romani women activists have a lot of work to do. While working for her organisation, she met women on a daily basis coming to complain of domestic violence, or seek advice on obtaining personal documents, enrolling their children in school, or registering with unemployment offices. "There are so few Romani women with formal education, so those of us who are here and who are active have our hands full!" said Behija.

Montenegrin Romani women activists will perhaps receive some support from the activism of Romani women students. Currently, there are only two Romani women students at Montenegrin universities. One is Anita Zećiri, who is unique in many ways. She is the only Romani student at the University of Podgorica, and she is also the only Romani law student in the country. Coming from Herceg Novi, where she attended Roma-related seminars and was engaged in an NGO, she knew from the start that she would go to university. Anita confessed that she was initially slightly disappointed with law school, but she said she would never give up and betray her parents confidence in her and their pride in her accomplishments. "Now that I can see how law is applied in practice it is much more interesting," she said: since August 2006, Anita has been an intern at the law office of Dragan Prelević, a prominent human rights lawyer. The Open Society Institute Montenegro and later the Roma Scholarship Foundation have supported her through scholarships since high school; now the RSF has offered her a living expenses scholarship but are not able to provide assistance to pay the extremely high tuition fees. After her university refused to waive the tuition fees, the Gender Equality Office offered to cover them. Currently she is in her second year of study, and most of her friends first found out that she was Romani from the press; in Montenegro, non-Roma usually only encounter Roma as beggars in the street. She regrets that many Romani girls whom she knows would not be allowed to study even if they wanted to, as their mothers keep telling them that marriage is the most important thing for a woman. On the other hand, many young women accept this belief, too, and do not consider education as a lifestyle choice.

Furthermore, those activists who were displaced from Kosovo must cope with an additional layer of vulnerability: that of forced migration. The local branch of Forum Syd, a Swedish umbrella NGO working on global justice issues, has been actively working with predominantly displaced Romani youth in Podgorica since 2003. Their activities take place in the Multicool-T Club for youth in the Konik neighbourhood. One of the youngsters who goes there is Dijana Mehmeti, originally from Kosovo. Back home she was finishing the seventh grade of primary school, and when she fled to Montenegro in 1999, with thousands of other displaced Roma, she initially went back to school but not for long. Now she lives with her mother and siblings in the Konik camp, in a small flat without running water. In addition to Forum Syd workshops, she also worked for the Montenegrin Association Against AIDS (CAZAS) for a year. Initially she attended their workshops, but soon became one of the trainers herself. Together with a friend, she organised workshops for small groups of five to six women, and spoke to them about reproductive health issues. This was not easy, and her friend was once threatened with violence by local Roma who were very upset that such issues were being discussed. Now she works with teenage girls and finds it much easier than working with women from the older generation; nevertheless, many young women attending her workshops are fully illiterate. Dijana is happy working in the youth club and attending seminars; her mother trusts her and allows her to travel on her own, although she is only eighteen. Her plans for the future are clear, but she does not know how to make them come about; Dijana's number one problem is finding a proper job. The effects of displacement and uncertainty that it brings are unavoidable: when asked whether she considered continuing school, Dijana replies that she will "think about it when it becomes clear where [she] will live."

The Next Steps

In conclusion, this is by no means an exhaustive review of Romani women's movement in Montenegro. Activists from Nikšić mentioned several other young women who are also involved in Romani organisations, primarily in Rožaje and in Berane. There are also young female journalists who underwent extensive OSCE/RSF journalism training, Biljana Alković from Ulcinj and Jasmina Ivanović from Nikšić. "There are some really smart girls out there, but how to keep them in the movement is the key question", said Fatima Naza. The Romani women's movement in Montenegro is in its nascent stage, and these brave and intelligent young women are facing very complex challenges, having to carefully balance being Romani and being women. Hopefully new legal and policy developments will eventually support their activism by creating frameworks that will take the multi-facetted nature of discrimination against Romani women into consideration.



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