Romani women, who are part of a group that is already extremely disadvantaged in Europe, experience even more discrimination than their male counterparts. Roma people are historically and currently ostracized from the broader societies across Europe. The Roma arrived in Europe in the middle ages and were called the “untouchables” mainly due to their nomadic lifestyle and cultural differences. In WWII, the Roma people were sent to death camps, along with others the Nazis considered to be worthy only of death. These generational traumas and a cycle of poverty have kept the Roma ostracized and oppressed across Europe. In addition to these challenges, Romani women and girls are subject to patriarchal traditions within their culture. As a result, Romani women and girls tend to have the lowest education on average and the highest child marriage, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence rates of any other European group.
Roma tradition has historically kept girls home from school to “preserve their cleanliness,” meaning their virginity. A Bulgarian study done in 2011 found that most Roma parents would allow their daughters to go to school despite this tradition, but a minority would not. Child marriage is also common among Roma girls, especially those who are poorer, less educated, and live in rural areas. Along with child marriage and pregnancy prevention, the extra burden of household work on Roma girls is a barrier to education. There is pressure for these girls to start and raise a family early to continue the traditions and keep the group alive for future generations.
Roma women and girls across Europe experience extraordinarily high levels of domestic violence. In Serbia, for example, as many as 92% of Roma women have experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 18. In Bosnia, the rates are lower, with 43% of women suffering physical violence and 17% of women suffering sexual violence. In these cases, the laws made to protect victims of violence are not enforced to their full extent, mainly due to the disinterest of the local officials. However, there wasn’t any support for Romani victims of domestic violence by the police, healthcare, or social services. A study done in Slovakia found that violence against Roma women resulted in anxiety, depression, headaches, weight loss, and issues with fine motor skills. These issues caused by gender-based violence and domestic violence extend past adolescence and into adulthood, affecting the entire lives of Romani women.
In addition to the immediate problems experienced, myths about drunkenness and smoking among Romani girls affect their treatment in society. These preconceived notions about Romani women and girls have lasted for generations and have been promoted through media depictions of Roma people as fortune tellers, drunks, and unproductive outsiders. Despite these myths, studies in Slovakia found that Romani girls have lower levels of alcohol consumption than their non-Roma counterparts. Since Romani girls face these damaging stereotypes, help is less readily available for their pressing issues and needs.
The European Union is aware of some of these issues, and some actions have been taken to address them. For instance, the 2020-2030 EU Roma Strategic Framework. In this framework, the EU plans to cut most of the disparities in half, including education and reports of discrimination. This framework is an improvement from the previous framework since it includes promoting inclusion and participation in addition to socio-economic integration. The new EU Roma Strategic framework discusses the specific needs faced by women and girls and requires the state to “bear in mind how different aspects of identity can combine to exacerbate discrimination,” but it does not require that women and girls are consulted in making the decisions. ROMACT 9 was passed earlier this year to be enacted in January 2023. It has mobilized €140 million to fund 120 initiatives in communities within Romania and Bulgaria which will require Roma and local leaders to discuss priorities and action plans for their areas. The projects mainly focus on sanitation, access to clean water, and infrastructure. These projects are necessary to help all Roma people in these countries, but they do not sufficiently address the additional needs of Romani women and girls. Unfortunately, there are some states where the possibility of improved conditions for the Roma people are much more uncertain. Italy, which created “nomad camps” for the Roma people in 2008 is now under control of Giorgia Meloni who has consistently used racist and strongly anti-Roma rhetoric, so the conditions for Italian Roma will likely worsen moving forward.
On the international level, the EU is making gains on promoting the rights of Roma people, including women and girls; on the national level, there are varying degrees of change. But in both cases, the conversations around promoted changes do not generally include Roma women and girls in the discussions, so their specific needs are not always considered. Some ideas posited by Roma women themselves include: training programs for Romani women to help them secure better jobs, providing health mediators for Romani girls, ceasing illegal evictions, and cataloging the rights violations. The current actions being taken do not fully address the unique problems Roma women face, but this can change through greater representation of Roma women in the discussions.
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