Roma women build a European strategy

16.9.2013 7.26
News item N5-63091

"We in Finland have discussed the position of Roma in general and also how Roma children and adolescents are coping. On the other hand, the situation and views of Roma women have been studied very little," says Senior Officer Sarita Friman-Korpela of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.

Today the EU requires that all Member States create a national policy on Roma. We drew up such a policy in 2009, i.e. before the EU issued its requirement. Friman-Korpela thinks that the Policy should be updated by complementing it by aspects regarding the status of women.

"It would be useful to add the status of Roma women to the agenda of the Policy on Roma and many other equality instruments and movements. Experience has shown that this is the way to genuinely promote equality."

Education plays a key role

With a view to Europe as a whole Friman-Korpela thinks that securing the education of the Roma is the most important means of improving their situation.

"The requirement for education may sound trite but it is still topical in many countries. Families don't necessarily have the money to buy school supplies, or even footwear, for their children, and it is not always possible to reach school from remote Roma villages because of poor means of communication."

In particular the Roma who respect traditions are often said to hesitate to send their children to school, since they think that it will weaken their cultural identity. Friman-Korpela does not subscribe to this argument.

"Parents are perhaps more inclined to fear everyday experiences of discrimination. It is true that education alters one's culture but that does not remain unchanged even otherwise, in any population group."

In Finland the Roma population has a very favourable attitude towards education, as shown by studies made in the field of basic education. Neither are there differences between Roma girls and boys in school performance or seeking to higher education. In many other countries, Romani culture is more patriarchal, and girls are in a weaker position. According to Friman-Korpela the present Finnish model was created during the past wars.

"Women were then required to make a strong contribution to the family's livelihood. And although women's domain in Romani culture is home, Finnish Roma women are also active outside it. An indication of this is women's strong representation in leading posts in Romani NGOs."

Need of empowerment for women

Besides mainstreaming, Friman-Korpela finds that actions to empower Roma women are important.  One example of this is the International Conference of Roma Women held in September in Hanasaari, Finland, where, among other things, a proposal for a European strategy will be drawn up.

"It is important that women can participate in determining the key issues in gender equality and in implementing and monitoring them both nationally and internationally. This is a long-standing and demanding challenge," Friman-Korpela says. It is also linked with the need to diversify the image of Romani people.

"There are ten million Roma living in Europe, not only those beggars from Romania and Bulgaria.  We should of course discuss problems, but we also should highlight the example of educated middle-class women."

Keeping the issues to the fore and increasing awareness of different options is according to Friman-Korpela also necessary in Finland. She thinks that in particular the age of starting a family should be delayed so that girls will have time to obtain a profession.

"It is question of how young Roma women see their role in culture. That can be influenced by talking about the issue and by examples. Also Roma men and their views on the position of women and girls should be included in the discussion."

Welfare policy is of crucial importance

In Friman-Korpela's opinion the gender equality of Roma women in Finland can best be influenced by adult education and employment.

"Education and training is still needed since it improves the opportunities to get a firm foothold on the labour market. I also hope that the concept of work should be discussed in more depth, since it is one of the problematic issues straining the relations between the Roma and the majority population.  Roma women are for instance often engaged in voluntary work in NGOs and congregations, and this resource should be made better use of.  Paid work is not always crucial."

Ultimately the advancement of the equality of the Roma depends on a policy that prevents socioeconomic inequalities.  When inequalities are growing the people in the weakest position will be marginalised easier than others.  If the inequalities are reduced, a higher number of the Roma, too, will fall on the "better" side of the line.

At the EU level Friman-Korpela sees the countries' policies on Roma as an important opportunity. She sees the strained economic situation as a threat, which has already given rise to extremist movements hostile to the Roma. She thinks that the quality of the activities to support the Roma also needs to be improved.   

"Problem countries have carried out a lot of programmes to improve the situation of the Roma. Those have not reached the right people, however. It is the eleventh hour to bring the support to the right target group, otherwise both the Roma and those implementing the programmes will lose faith in the matter."

Paula Mannonen