Shifting from Terminology to Substance

16 May 2007

Azbija Memedova

As someone who sees herself as a feminist and human rights activist, and who was privileged to be a pioneer in the process of building the so-called "Romani women's movement" (I personally prefer the word "activism" to "movement"), I feel more obliged than happy when I am invited by various stakeholders to share my "expertise on Roma and Romani women's issues".

Without any intention of repeating my views (accessible to the public) on what Romani women's issues are and how they should be approached both from (and in) mainstream women's and Romani human rights movements, in this article I would like focus on several debatable terms that are important to future strategies for Roma and for Romani women. Furthermore, I will present a few lessons learned from recent advocacy action for Romani women in Macedonia.

The demystification of some of the "Roma-related" terms that we all (men and women activists of Romani ethnic background) use in our everyday work, is urgently needed, especially at a time when Roma and Romani women's issues are high on international agendas.

"Roma" Terminology

I feel quite comfortable when I am seen as someone who has specific experience and some expertise in the field of the human rights of women, especially minority women, since I have the appropriate educational background and have been learning and practicing my knowledge in this field for eight years. However, when I am perceived as or called a "Roma expert", both by Roma and non-Roma, I feel very uncomfortable.

Recently, I had to explain to a non-Romani audience what it means to be a "Roma expert". I was provoked by a statement commenting on a Romani social worker, employed by a state institution, who did not want to visit a Romani settlement to do research on Romani family issues. The conclusion was that "he was a terrible Romani person" rather than "a terrible or unprofessional social worker".

To be Romani is only a small part of one's own identity. To be a social worker describes a person's profession (a person who presumably has certification showing recognition of his/her education and training). Titles such as "Roma expert" or "Roma women's expert" should describe someone who has the proper education and relevant expertise on Roma (including women). So, is "Roma expert" indeed a profession? If this is the case, where can one be trained and obtain certification? I can already hear the sceptics shouting: "you don't need certification to work for Roma".

I am not questioning the motivation or the activism involved in fighting for those who are voiceless or those who are in need. The issue here is whether we are using the proper terminology to describe ourselves, our work, or the roots of the problems that the people we work for are facing.

It is possible to be an expert on Romani language, or culture or history and be of Romani or non-Romani origin. A person can also be an expert on human rights and be of Afro-American, Indian, Romani or any other ethnic origin.

Our ethnic and/or national identity cannot and should not be affiliated with our own professional orientation. Thus, when I am called "Romani women's expert", I do not feel that I am being correctly described. This title does not award me any honour; instead I find it disturbing. My personal identity (like that of anyone else) is broader and it is composed of diverse elements and roles in my life. In different stages in life, we give priority to different elements of our identity. The demystification of such terminology, very widely used not only by the majority and international community but also by us, Romani men and women activists, needs our urgent attention in order to determine the approaches that we select in our fight for the human rights of the Romani population.

The problems faced by the majority of Roma, the problems faced by Romani women, should be approached from the viewpoint of both social and human rights. To do so, we need to understand the terms we use in defining the problems. Take, for example, terms like "Romani education", or "Romani health", which we all more or less use (look at your documents, projects, national documents for Roma in your countries). Once, when I reacted to such terms, I was told that "it is only a language thing," But is it? Have you ever seen a term like "Hungarian education" (in case of Romania) or "Albanian education" (in case of Macedonia)? Language experts can argue that this is really a language issue, however, my concern is more related to the approaches and strategies designed to solve problems. In other words, I believe that when we use the term "Romani education", our focus is directed on "Roma" not on "education".

Looking at projects (strategies and approaches) related to "Romani education", one can confirm that the issue is dealt with mainly from the social point of view and standards, as prescribed by the majority. When analysing the main barriers that Romani children face in education, the focus of most of the educational projects is on 1) poverty, (social category), 2) specific cultural or traditional elements, like early marriages (very often used by the institutions as excuse for the absence of any state action), 3) lack of language and socialisation skills, perceived again from the social point of view and by the standards of the majority: "Romani children have to know the majority language and behave as prescribed" or 4) lack of motivation on the part of parents to send their children to school because: "Romani parents do not give priority to the education of their children". If we shift focus from "Roma" to "education", then we will have more chance of seeing the education of Romani children from another perspective, that is, from the human rights perspective; this would mean the right to education in their mother tongue, the right to learn about their own history and culture, or, to summarise, the right to education as a basic human right. Instead of dealing with education as such, many local projects deal with social issues that prevent the majority of Romani children from achieving better school results.

The word "Roma" describes a national/ethnic category or belonging, it is not social category. As a national and minority group, Roma have their rights guaranteed by each state that they live in and by international treaties, including education rights (in the human rights field). Education is a field determined by domestic and international human rights standards (again the human rights field). If both categories have a common element, which is human rights, why is it that human rights-based educational projects for Roma (like those that advocate for their right to learn in their mother tongue) are so hard to find? Equally hard to find are projects/programmes that call on the state to fulfil their constitutional obligations in the provision of equal opportunity for all children, using the necessary means.

Therefore, we should challenge our professional skills when dealing with issues such as education, health, and human rights. Again, for the sake of clarity, this does not mean that we should call our activism or our wish to help those in need (in this case Roma) into question, but should look at our actual knowledge of domestic and international standards and laws, methodology, management, strategies and other knowledge and skills that one can acquire at college and during professional training sessions.

Moreover, we, men and women activists of Romani ethnic origin, have to define our personal identity (being Romani is not all we are), to prove ourselves firstly as professionals in different spheres of society. We have to take our destiny into our hands: to aim for better education for ourselves and our children, to achieve better results and to show who we are and what we can do (being Romani is not a skill). Our fight for equality will be meaningless if we are not able to create opportunities solely because of the lack of education or other skills.

If we are honest with ourselves, even for a moment, and look around, then we have no reason to be proud of the number of professionals of Romani origin. This fact has its own roots in a long tradition of discrimination and segregation. We can be satisfied with the latest developments – the number of educated young people who declare themselves to be Romani is growing – but we cannot stop developing our personal capacities no matter where we are now and how much education we have attained. The world is changing and we have to keep up with these fast changes.

In the case of women's issues and our efforts to mainstream these in all policies and programmes for women and Roma, we also have to be very careful with our use of terminology and consequently with the approaches we use.

Women of Romani origin face many problems that are common to majority women as well as for women from other minorities. What is specific to this group is the intersectional/multiple discrimination that they face: firstly, as women and then as members of a minority group, or as members of other disadvantaged groups (handicapped, single mothers, homosexuals, refugees, etc.). This is and should be the general point of departure for all our programmes and recommendations for improving the current situation. Only by acknowledging the multiple barriers and their roots, can we achieve our goals. On the contrary, or if we continue, as some do, to present certain "women's problems" only as "Romani women's problems", then we are at risk of making the situation even worse. Take, for example, the problem of domestic violence: this is a common problem faced by women in general. When analyses present this problem as a "Romani women's issue" without any intention or effort made to find existing links between intersectional discrimination and violence, then we could actually strengthen the stereotypes of the majority such as: "Romani men beat their wives more often that others (from other groups)". The call for a sensitive and intersectional approach to Romani women's issues means looking for all the connections, both in the community and in society, that prevent this group from exercising their basic human rights.

The main objective of the pilot project implemented in 2005 was to document the existence of intersectional discrimination faced by the majority of Romani women in Macedonia. It was carried out in partnership with ERRC, UNIFEM, a local team of young women researchers of Romani ethnicity, and the Roma Centre of Skopje, a local organisation based in Skopje.

The modest efforts to prepare the shadow report and the testimony before the UN Committee for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), presents a significant moment for women's activism in Macedonia.

  • Firstly, the report confirms the existence of multiple discrimination against women of Romani origin in the field of education, health care, employment and access to the public services available for female victims of violence in Macedonia;
  • The UN CEDAW recommended to the Macedonian Government to "implement effective measures to eliminate discrimination against Romani women, and to enhance their enjoyment of human rights through all available means, including temporarily special measures … (in the above mentioned fields). …" And finally,
  • Pressured by the lack of concrete official data and the Committee's questions about Romani women during the session in the UN, the Macedonian Minister of Social Work and Labour of the time, who led the Macedonian delegation, stated in his final speech that, "the Macedonian Government needs to pay special attention to the multiple forms of discrimination faced by Romani Women in Macedonia."

I believe that the words we use have unusual power. Therefore, I advocate that we review the meaning of the Roma-related terms that we use and then I propose some changes: instead of "Romani education" one option would be the "education of Romani children, girls, women, and men"; instead of "Romani housing", "housing of families of Romani ethnic origin"; instead of "Romani women's education", "education of women and girls of Romani ethnic origin".

The accurate use of terminology can help those working at local level to understand the human rights angle in their work and prevent them from being preoccupied only with its social aspects. It is only in this way that all current advocacy and lobbying successes achieved on the international level can show their value. The issue of the human rights of people, who are men and women of Romani origin, has to be the focus. The very first step is to change the way we understand our approaches … and our terminology.




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