European countries are always praised for the strides they make towards gender equality. European nations consistently rank on top of quality of life rankings and measurements. Moreover, the EU is held as a sort of modern gold standard for the promotion of human rights and the values of “reason and enlightenment”. Gender equality and anti discrimination laws are enshrined in the European Constitution and the upholding of human rights is considered one of the measurements for admission of new member states to the Union. However, while so many paternalistic European politicians claim to want to save Muslim women from their “oppression”, there is a group that hardly ever gets the same kind of “savior complex” discourse: Roma women. Their status as “Other” invisibilized and erased from mainstream discourse; their systematic persecution, more often than not, State endorsed, a small item in the back pages of European press.
Judges today ordered Slovakia to pay €43,000 in damages, costs and expenses after finding that the sterilization of 20-year old Roma woman in a public hospital without her informed consent violated her human rights.[…]
The applicant, V.C., is a Slovakian national of Roma ethnic origin. She was born in 1980 and lives in Jarovnice (Slovakia). On 23 August 2000 she was sterilized at the Hospital and Health Care Centre in Prešov (eastern Slovakia) – under the management of the Ministry of Health – during the delivery of her second child via Caesarean section. The sterilization entailed tubal ligation, which consists of severing and sealing the Fallopian tubes in order to prevent fertilization.
The applicant alleged that, in the last stages of labour, she was asked whether she wanted to have more children and told that, if she did have any more, either she or the baby would die. She submits that, in pain and scared, she signed the sterilization consent form but that, at the time, she did not understand what sterilization meant, the nature and consequences of the procedure, and in particular its irreversibility. She was not informed of any alternative methods. Her signature next to the typed words “Patient requests sterilization” is shaky and her maiden name split into two words. She also claims that her Roma ethnicity – clearly stated in her medical record – played a decisive role in her sterilization.
I do have to wonder why the Court valued this woman’s life at a mere Euro 43,000, though (a medium European yearly salary).
As the NGO Roma Woman reports, this was not an isolated incident and instead, it was State policy in the former Czechoslovakia (since 1993, Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and Czech Republic):
Based on eugenics theories, the Czechoslovak communist state targeted Romani women for sterilization. Although the sterilization policy ended with the fall of communism, the practice continued sporadically and without official sanction in both the Czech and Slovak Republics even after the end of communism.
On December 13, 2006, Slovakia’s highest court ruled in favor of three Romani women who alleged they had been sterilized without informed consent. The court held that a regional prosecutor had improperly closed his investigation into their claims and that the investigation had been so faulty that it violated both the Slovak Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
As recently as 2006, Bulgaria’s Health Minister proposed an eugenics project to curb the birth rate of Roma people and control the reproductive rights of Roma women, supposedly, in the name of lowering Bulgaria’s infant mortality figures.
The European Roma Information Office expresses its concerns on the statement of the Bulgarian Health Minister Radoslav Gaydarski, who is considering a law aimed to curb the birth rate among minority groups, particularly Roma. According to “Sega” newspaper, Mr. Gaydarski told journalists on Monday that if the birth rate among Roma is not limited, then the mortality rate in Bulgaria would remain among the highest in Europe, as many of these children do not survive until adult. Gaydarski suggested also that a meeting of the health ministers of Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia – the countries where large populations of Roma live – should be held to tackle the social problems of these groups.
And until 1977, Norway, the supposed beacon of gender equality, forcefully sterilized Roma women to prevent the growth of their population in what amounts to ethnic cleansing policies.
This systematic targeting of Roma people is not a thing of the past in Europe, though. This week, Czech Human Rights Commissioner asked that an anti-Romani text be withdrawn from schools. This book, a reader for second graders has drawn attention due to the promotion of racism and intolerance towards the Roma in what amounts to indoctrination of young children:
The second-grade reader includes a story called “Mýdlová Madla” (“The Soapy Rail”) by Ivona Březinová. “Mama told me I shouldn’t talk to those Demeterovic boys at all … she said they’re Gypsies. Gypsies are dirty and steal,” second-graders read in the textbook, which was published in 2005.
This request by the Human Rights Commissioner is not enforceable though. The Ministry of Education could possibly ignore the request or leave the removal of the text in the hands of schools.
This week, Croatian journalist Barbara Matejcic released the results of her research about attitudes towards Muslim and Roma women in her home city of Zagreb. In her piece, she explains her goals:
Mersiha, a Muslim, and Dilfa, a Roma, posed on my behalf as would-be tenants, roommates and co-workers in order for me to be able to monitor the kind of discrimination that minorities experience routinely in Croatia and see how it manifests itself.
I chose Muslim and Roma “testers” as their differences from the mainstream community are instantly visible and because discrimination based on ethnicity and religious background are the most widespread forms of prejudice in Croatia. The number of Roma and Muslims in Croatia is also quite similar.[…]
The plan was for three of us to answer a number of adverts placed mainly in the largest newspaper for printed advertisements, Plavi oglasnik. We were looking mostly for offers to rent rooms and apartments but applied also for jobs.
Our goal was to check levels of discrimination in arenas where private life and business intersect, such as looking for a roommate and renting real estate.
All three of them answered the same ads and monitored the responses. Their findings were, if unsurprising, deeply troubling. Respondents were more prejudiced towards the Roma woman although both the Muslim and Roma woman shared similar patterns of rejection. Forty percent people rejected both women on the grounds that the apartment was already rented, that the landlord would not want a Roma or Muslim tenant or that they were seeking students or men:
But when I called, those same “occupied” rooms were still free and they had no objections or additional questions for me. The only thing that interested them was when I could come and see the apartment.
One of the renters did not even bother to conceal her prejudice:
When I asked what kind of people had called, she answered: “You won’t believe it but on the same day a Roma woman called and then a Muslim. I thought, ‘I’m out of luck’, and then you called the next day. I have nothing against them but I don’t know them and I certainly don’t want any trouble,” she added.
When I pointed out that she didn’t know me either, she continued: “You are something else, I see you are decent, we’ll get along fine.”
This discrimination, however, is not isolated or rare. Also this week, the Czech Retail Inspection Office is handling yet another discrimination complain:
In January, a Romany woman complained against the Brno bakery Balaban. She said that when she pointed out that ready-made dumplings she bought were stale she became the target of insults.
Roma women and children sometimes need to evacuate their villages in fear of their lives, while European states find it acceptable to address their safety concerns with sarcasm and dismissive language. In a highly publicized incident, this year:
Over the Easter holiday, dozens of nationalists converged on the [Hungarian] village [of Gyöngyöspata], where many Romani people live, to attend a training camp. More than 200 Romani children and women then rapidly left the village out of fear for their safety.
The Hungarian Government described that voluntary evacuation of the village as a “long-planned Easter trip”
In January, a policeman accidentally killed a six year old Roma girl in Athens, Greece. The gruesome and dehumanizing details of the little girl’s death triggered a wave of Roma youth protests:
“A policeman of the DIAS motorcycle police ran over a 6-year old roma girl in the area of Menidi in NE Athens.
“According to eye-witnesses, the six-year old girl was run over as she was on the streets, where she was signing the carols with other children (in Greece, children sing carols on the eve of the Epiphany day, Jan 6).
“The eye-witnesses also claim the policeman dragged the girl along for 150 meters and did not stop to offer any help.
In April this year, four Roma children died in a fire blaze in the outskirts of the Italian city of Rome, prompting the government to dismantle their camp. The State then separated the men from the women, breaking down the families to send women and children to shelters.
In France, the situation of Roma women is not much better. On October 25th, Le Figaro, one of France’s main newspapers, reported a breathtakingly racist item: Paris Police Seek Solution to Child Begging, which contained gems such as:
“We have noticed that there are more and more Roma women with underage children wandering in the streets of Paris,” said a police source. “This is happening because they know we don’t have the power to do much about it. It may also be happening because more and more Roma women are giving birth in France.”
Women giving birth, the ultimate racist stereotype to illustrate the “invasion” of this perpetual “Other” taking to the streets of Paris. Le Figaro continues:
Since August, numerous arrests of Roma women have occurred, many in the northeastern region of Seine-Saint-Denis, a site of numerous Roma encampments.
In these cases, police cited an obscure offense— “the deprivation of care.” A clause in a domestic security law passed in France on March 18, 2003 states “the act of keeping a child younger than 6 years of age in any public place to solicit the generosity of passersby” is punishable by up to 7 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 euros.
A wave of arrests for “deprivation of care” took place shortly after the law was passed. However, upon reaching the courts, the cases were closed without further action. As a result, the “deprivation of care” arrests all but ceased. That is, until two months ago. The reappearance of this charge was met with general surprise.
What Le Figaro barely mentions in a last one liner is that Roma people do not have the right to work in France. They are effectively prohibited from participating in paid work due to the fact that they are mostly Romanian or Bulgarian and, as such, they would require specific permits (even though both countries are part of the EU, these permits have been designed to protect French workers from other EU nationals who are perceived as taking positions that should remain in French hands). So, even if these women, charged with child neglect and deprivation of care wanted to do something other than survive in the informal economy, there are laws in place that prevent them from doing so.
A 2008 study shown that Roma people in the UK experience more racism than any other group, including asylum-seekers. Until the late 60’s, it was common for British pubs to hang a sign at the entrance stating “No blacks, no dogs, no Gypsies”. According to the British Medical Association, the community has the lowest life expectancy and highest rate of child mortality in the UK.
This bleak picture of systematic discrimination and oppression has real, life threatening consequences. Roma women, when faced with domestic violence and abuse rarely get the support available to non Roma. They are reluctant to turn to authorities for help or call the police when they are victims of crimes. Many cannot read or write and they face double discriminations by virtue of their ethnicity and their gender. Due to the institutionalized, State endorsed persecutions, many live in squalor and poverty, unable to improve their lives, surviving under laws designed to keep them as perpetual, almost non human Others. And all of this is happening right here in the European Union, where we pat ourselves on the back for promoting equality, democracy and human rights.