Roma activists filming "I’m a Roma Woman" campaign in Budapest, Hungary.
When Katalin Bársony’s grandmother wanted to send her daughter to high school in Budapest, her husband said she would become an “outsider whore.” Her grandmother didn’t listen to him, went against tradition and as a result, Katalin’s mother became a well-known activist for Roma rights.
When it was Katalin’s turn to go to school, there was no question about her right to education. Even though only one in ten Roma children complete high school in Hungary, she went to university and bucked the patriarchal tradition and anti-Roma prejudice that prevented many of her girl friends from even getting through schoolhouse doors.
At the age of 23, Katalin directed the first-ever documentary series on Roma communities around the world. Mundi Romani, a project of Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Romedia Foundation, was broadcasted on TV stations all over Hungary and received numerous awards. After an episode uncovering the death of 28 Roma due to the worst lead poising in Europe’s history, the Roma refugee camp was closed and around 3,000 people relocated to a safer, nevertheless segregated, neighborhood.
“Things are changing and we are part of that change,” said Katalin, today the executive director of Romedia Foundation, where she uses film to change how people perceive Roma communities. Not an easy job, as hatred of Romahas been woven into Europe’s cultural fabric for hundreds of years.
A History of Social Exclusion
At 12 million, Roma are the largest and most discriminated minority in Europe. Roma communities are isolated in ghettos and have trouble getting jobs because employers don’t want to hire Roma workers. Roma students are segregated into substandard schools and often sent to institutions for children with mental disabilities. There is such an inequality in health care that infant mortality rates are doubled and the average lifespan for Roma is around 10 years lower than the rest of the population, according to an OSCE study.
On top of all this, Roma women experience high levels of violence and in many traditional Roma communities a woman’s job is only to support her family. When they do exist, data on Roma women show that they are less educated and fare worse economically than their male counterparts.
Katalin Bársony, Executive Director of Romedia Foundation.
Roma Women Rise Together
Despite these statics, Roma women are the most powerful agents of change as they relentlessly challenge the “customary” ways women are treated in Roma communities and in the society beyond. Global Fund has doubled our support for Roma women’s rights organizations over the past three years and we’ve seen some major wins.
Roma women activists advocated for and won the European Court of Human Rights condemnation of the Czech authorities’ practice of forced sterilization. In Macedonia, Roma women’s organizations are going beyond providing services to local communities by connecting with like-minded groups so they are better positioned to fight for social justice together.
Global Fund steps in with general support for Roma women’s organizations because often times, local authorities in Eastern Europe are unwilling to spend or be seen as spending on the Roma community and “women’s issues.” At the same time, spending on housing, education and health care, which should improve the situation of both the majority population and Roma women, often stops where the Roma neighborhood starts.
“If you just throw money at the problem, but neglect changing society, then nothing will happen,” said Gabriela Hrabanova, Policy Coordinator at European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network and RomaReact.
A New Future
One of the only ways to fight prejudice is to change cultural norms - change the way people perceive and relate with their Roma neighbors. This is a serious undertaking that requires work across generations. Knowing this, Katalin and her colleagues train Roma girls to use media so they can become advocates of a different vision for their community.
“You have to keep moving, even when it seems that the work is leading nowhere, the impact will come later,” said Gabriela about what motivates her. “You have to sacrifice to make life better.”