Skip to content

Roma women in Europe: the silenced, underreported gender oppression

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.

This week, the European Human Rights court in Strasbourg issued a verdict in favor of Slovakian woman of Roma ethnic origin.

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.

12 Comments

  1. Caitiecat wrote:

    Excellent post, Flavia, thank you; the plight of the Roma in Europe is one that needs quick, strong, and long-lasting action, which, of course, they won’t get, because (duh) they’re Roma.

    When I was very young, we were very poor, and spent some time as “fellow travellers”, if you will, of the Gypsies (or Travellers, as they called themselves in Britain). On more than one occasion, while being run off from a given place, my mother, sister, and I would be offered “asylum” so we could “get away” from the horrible Gypsies. My mum, I was so proud, told them to get stuffed, that the Travellers had looked after us when the council had failed us, and we knew where we were best off.

    Eventually, we left for Canada and economic opportunity, which was a privilege not available to our friends. I really appreciate your bringing up the issue here.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  2. Hannah wrote:

    Fantastic post – thank you for raising awareness of this issue. It’s one of those things we just love not to talk about.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  3. emjaybee wrote:

    Thank you for this post, this is something we know so little about in the U.S.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  4. Eli wrote:

    Thanks for this. I’m always amazed at how pervasive anti-Roma sentiment is: I was talking to an activist a few weeks ago, who was bemoaning the racist attitudes that migrants in Italy face, but then added a coda about how “Roma, on the other hand, just don’t want to integrate.” Which is of course the most toxic kind of bullshit, on so many levels. The situation in Rome is fucked in its own special way, because many of the Roma & Sinti peoples who are now confined to state-run camps miles outside the city, sleeping up to ten people in a 22 square meter container, with limited hot water and electricity, surrounded by barbed wire fences patrolled by armed guards (these are the famous “campi attrezzati” which are trotted out like some kind of human rights victory come election season), are Italian citizens who were born in Rome. Citizens ineligible for public housing or any kind of assistance outside forced residence in a camp. Because they are Roma, and “don’t want to integrate.”

    I’ll leave the rant about integration being some magical passkey for another time; I want to thank you especially for the final part of your post, which deals with the total abandonment of Roma women and children by European justice systems. Which are largely unconcerned with episodes of violence or mutilation in communities they have marginalized, and then take the same violece and mutilation as evidence of the “barbarism” of Europe’s favorite internal Other. One more reason why they could not want, should not be allowed, to live among us.

    Flavia, I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you for bringing these subjects to such a wide audience. Thank you.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  5. Gen wrote:

    Flavia, this is all so very upsetting, and I agree with all the other commenters how grateful I am that you have written it.

    The Nazi death camps are intrinsically associated with Jewish murder – as they should be – but very few people explicitly engage with the fact that Roma and Sinti were specifically and racially targetted in much the same way as Jews, and were killed in (proportionately) higher numbers. Which is not to say attacks on ‘gypsies’ were worse than those on any other group, just to point out it was dreadfully horrific AS WELL. The circumstances described in your post go some way, perhaps, towards explaining why Roma and Sinti victims of Nazism have been so little acknowledged and mourned.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  6. sbvds wrote:

    Flavia, your posts are always so fascinating and informative. You bring up topics I don’t spend much time thinking about, or bring totally new perspectives to more commonly discussed subjects. And the amount of research you do is very impressive. Thank you so much for your hard work.

    Friday, November 11, 2011 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  7. Meredith wrote:

    Flavia, I always enjoy your articles. There’s always a revelation or an epiphany waiting for me behind the “more” link.
    However, I always end feeling a little frustrated (partly because of the White guilt, sure), because I never know what to DO about what I’ve just read. Especially when you write about issues specific to the EU, because I live in the United States and thus have a pretty limited voice when it comes to politics in the EU and elected officials there.

    Any advice?

    Friday, November 11, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  8. @Meredith, I can only offer some pointers, as, of course, I am not aware of your personal situation. For a start, share information online and offline (not from this particular blog, in general, information makes us aware, it opens us to different experiences, etc.). Talk to people in your surroundings. Again, you might be surprised at what discussions can generate. This does not mean you need to put yourself either in danger or uncomfortable positions by speaking against, say racism or sexism, in places where such discussions would be unwelcome. It just means that, when you are discussing current events, you can also bring up “stuff from outside the US” and perhaps generate curiosity among those you interact with. If you have the time and the possibility, join an organization or an NGO or some political initiative in your town. Again, I insist, all of this depends on time, health, mobility, resources, etc. So, it’s not like this option is available for everyone. But for those it is, you can also help out. Even if it is in small ways like stuffing envelopes or helping design a flyer.

    People tend to think of political engagements as something big, something only those who are almost professionalized can do. But come to think of it, every little thing we do, from simple interactions with friends, co-workers, etc, carries a political weight. From that starting point, everything you do for awareness is also a form of political activism. How you go beyond that will depend on your personal situation and possibilities, of course.

    Friday, November 11, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  9. GGeek wrote:

    My thoughts are still muddy and disorganized, but I didn’t want to let the opportunity to comment pass.

    It took me awhile to build up the emotional energy to read this post. My mother’s side of my extended family is Hungarian, and I have relations who are “Gypsies.” It’s never been a big part of my identity, but as I grow older, I’ve sought out more information about that branch of the family tree and what their lives are like today. The more I read about Roma oppression, the sicker I feel. I have a lot of privilege to interrogate.

    Thank you for the work you put into this article, Flavia. Raising awareness is a critical step towards progress.

    Saturday, November 12, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  10. Other Becky wrote:

    I had never even heard of the Sinti. I knew discrimination against Roma was bad, but I didn’t realize quite how blatant — and extreme — it is. I don’t know how you have the wherewithal to do this kind of painstaking research so regularly.

    Saturday, November 12, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  11. Pthalo wrote:

    Regrading Slovakia, eh, 46000 euros is a LOT of money over here. That’s more than most people would earn (gross wages, before taxes) in several years of full time employment. I know it sounds like very little, and I absolutely agree that it was heinous what was done to that and other women. But I look at a figure like 46,000 euros and know that a family could live comfortably off of that for 5 years. I can’t imagine ever owning that much money. Things are less expensive here. The cost of living is lower and wages are much lower. If you want to get an accurate idea of how much that money was worth to that women, multiply it by at least 5 and imagine getting that much money.

    I’m glad to see the plight of the Roma getting more attention in the West. Here in Hungary, no one seems to care — most people believe the stereotypes against the Roma and see no problem with being racist. From their perspective it looks like: “this group of people are lazy. why would i hire someone who is lazy? of course i’m a racist, it’s only sensible.” Not /everyone/ espouses these views, of course, but it’s frighteningly common.

    About the situation in Gyöngyöspata, I’ve been following news of the situation from various sources in Hungarian. The attacks did stop after the guard was arrested. Their leader recently commited suicide as well.

    But there are other worrisome things going on in Gyöngyöspata. The Roma are being targeted with fines, which are then deducted from their wages. Already earning minimum wage or less than it, even more money is deducted from their wages to pay for the fines, so that their take home pay is as little as $40 a month (minimum wage is $400).

    The things they are being fined for include driving without a driver’s license (when the vehicle was broken down and they were helping to push it from behind), walking on the street instead of the sidewalk (where the sidewalk was impassible and white people walk in the street all the time), picking up a stick to play with (10 year old child). Most of these families owe over $500 in fines, which is more than they can ever hope to pay.

    Additionally, there are now some work camps in Hungary. A new government program to reduce unemployment by “getting to roma used to the fact that you have to work 8 hours a day.” These work camps provide ‘useful’ training in modern tools like sickles and scythes. :P If the person refuses, they are cut off from unemployment benefits for three years. They have to walk an hour a day to get to the land they are clearing, and in summer many of them were working without lunch because they couldn’t afford it. They’re officially being paid $300 a month, but this wouldn’t be economical for the government without these ridiculous fines, which reduces their pay to about $40 a month.

    I’m so angry about the whole thing, but I don’t know what I can do, aside from spreading the word. I don’t live in Gyöngyöspata or near there. My city has a very small Roma minority according to Wikipedia (and I don’t see many of them in my daily life). I want to help, but I don’t know what to do, especially since I’m poor myself and don’t have much I can give them.

    I posted an article touching on this (with links to my sources and more information) on slacktiverse recently, and also talked some other human rights issues. Here’s a link to that article if anyone is interested: http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2011/10/human-rights-issues-in-serbia-and-hungary.html

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  12. Pthalo wrote:

    sorry, I misread it. 43,000 euros, not 46,000. At any rate, it’s still a lot of money.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink