Romani women can be brokers of change

Manushe - a group of Romani women in Czech Republic provides political trainings to Romani women, who have long been, alongside male Roma, unrepresented in decision-making bodies
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Manushe - a group of Romani women in Czech Republic provides political trainings to Romani women, who have long been, alongside male Roma, unrepresented in decision-making bodies
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Martina Horváthová intevriewed by Pavla Frýdlová

Romani women encounter multiple types of discrimination—as representatives of their ethnicity, as women, and even in their communities. At the same time, however, Romani women can be brokers of change—they raise children, they attend to everyday family life, and they are well-networked in their communities. The non-profit organisation Slovo 21, where I work, supports the emancipation of Romani women. Already 15 years ago, the first group of Romani women—Manushe—began its work with a motto of education, self-confidence and emancipation. These were mainly secondary-school students and women employed as social workers or pedagogical assistants—women who were active in some way and wanted to help their community. Today’s membership comprises 190 individuals—including several men—because after some time we reached the conclusion that if we wanted to talk about gender equality we would have to bring both sides together in a dialogue.

Anyone can join Manushe; we don’t distinguish based on whether or not someone is educated, or whether or not they’re employed. The group is also quite diverse with respect to age, ranging from girls to seventy-year-old women. Many women are mothers, and it is a huge motivation for children when they see their mother studying—and so they go and study as well. When we talk with women about what they would like to improve, they most often mention necessary changes in education. At their behest, a video called Nebuď dilino! [“Don’t be foolish!”] was made, which demonstrates with examples of successful Roma that a Roma can become anything—a police officer, a teacher, a doctor, a manager; the important thing is education. The video is a bit linear and naïve, but it’s also very popular; Romani children sing the theme song, and there are already more than 150,000 views on YouTube.

We have also organised workshops for parents, which we call “Mommy, daddy, I want to go to school”. We invite Romani university students, who then recount their journeys to the parents, and explain to them that the love with which they surround their children and protect them from the outside world can be counterproductive. This is because many Romani parents’ thinking is as follows: “I won’t put him in this school because they would harm him here; I’ll put him in a school where there are only Roma.” The greatest effects and changes—although this is difficult to measure—are in the area of self-confidence.

Another important chapter in Manushe’s activities is political training of Romani women, which we realised in 2006, 2010 and 2014 in reaction to the fact that Roma have long been unrepresented in decision-making bodies. Six graduates of this training programme have contested communal and European elections, although only one was successful and even she didn’t withstand the pressure in the municipal assembly for long. With support and methodological assistance from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we realised the training programme for a third time in 2014. It comprised a group of ten very talented and motivated young Romani women university students, and we will continue to work with them. Thanks to the fact that since 2004 we’ve been helping Romani students get into universities, we have an overview of Romani university students. Their numbers have multiplied—today some one hundred are studying. And there are more girls among them. The same is true for secondary-school students; many Manushe members have completed their secondary educations through distance learning. But there are still few Romani elites.

Last year also saw the first-ever survey on the status of Romani women conducted in the Czech Republic. The members of Manushe proposed the questions themselves and conducted a questionnaire survey of six hundred Romani women around the country. In selected areas, focus groups were assembled as well, in order to supplement the survey with qualitative data. The final report, which was elaborated by an expert team at Charles University’s Faculty of Humanities, concluded among other things that most Romani women consider educating their children to be of key importance; only 6% of respondents thought the contrary. Most frequently, they hoped their children would complete a secondary-school education with or without a matura examination, and one in six Romani women hoped her children would earn university degrees. An absolute majority (99%) of respondents did not want their children to attend practical schools (formally called “special schools”), regretted not having devoted sufficient attention to their own education, and would like to make up for this lack of education. Most frequently, they mentioned the possibility of requalification courses or other education, assuming their financial circumstances permitted it.

Most non-profit organisations working with Roma are devoted to social work on the ground; they address immediate problems and have no capacity for advocacy. This is another reason why the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic is worsening. In 1989, we didn’t have illiteracy, and everyone had a place to live and work. Today, we have ghettos, and half of Roma live in conditions of social exclusion. It is paradoxical that economic pressure has led to a strengthening of the status of Romani women; it forced women to go to work—two salaries were now needed, whether the husband liked it or not. And when we asked the focus groups of Romani women who made the decisions at home, they said they made decisions jointly with their husbands. That’s a big change.

Translation from Czech to English by Evan and Petra Mellander.