She calls herself "a full-time Roma smart-ass"; not an easy job, she says. Enisa Eminova, a Macedonian Roma, is a consultant to the Roma Women's Initiative - founded in 1999 by the New York-based Open Society Institute's Network Women's Program. The Roma Women's Initiative works to develop, link and catalyze a core group of committed Roma women's leaders in an effort to improve the human rights of Roma women in Central and Eastern Europe.
The Roma people, sometimes called Romani but best known as 'Gypsies', originated in India almost two thousand years ago. They migrated to Persia (now Iran) and Turkey, and later into western Europe and North America. There are an estimated 12 million Romani in the world now, although that official number is considered low because many Roma conceal their identity. (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, Canada, October 2005)
Only about five per cent of European Romanies are nomadic. Despite abundant myths of caravans and cults, most Roma live in fixed locations and do not beg - or steal - for a living. Throughout history, they have suffered severe persecution, especially in Europe, where genocide was ordered in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and again during the Nazi regime. More recently, Romani have been subjected to attack and hate crimes in formerly Communist countries in eastern Europe, where they are discriminated against in all realms of life.
Romani women face both gender and racial discrimination. They experience prejudice in the workplace and are often entirely excluded from the formal economy. In Romania, for example, 35 per cent of Roma women aged 25-54 are unemployed, which is four times greater than unemployment rates for women in the general population. (Source for figures: Roma Women's Initiative, 2005) Further, they are constrained by limited educational opportunities. The segregation of Roma students into inferior schools continues to present obstacles to further education and vocational training, and girls are subjected to unequal opportunities even in those poor schools.
Second-class healthcare is another problem. The life expectancy for Roma women in the Czech Republic is age 60 - that's 14 years less than the national average for Czech women. In Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, infant mortality rates for Roma are close to twice as high as the national averages. Inadequate housing, traditional gender roles and general marginalization from majority communities wherever they live add to Romani burdens. Those burdens make the weight of tradition even harder to bear.
Eminova lists some Romani traditions - virginity testing, early and arranged marriages, coerced sterilization, domestic violence, and prostitution and trafficking. While acknowledging variations among different groups of Roma across regions and countries, she says that the virginity cult continues. Young Romani women are subjected to pre-marital examinations, sometimes by family members, to determine whether they are virgins.
In a 2001 survey conducted by Roma Women's Initiative in Macedonia, 75 per cent of boys said it was fine for males to have premarital sex, but 76 per cent thought their future wives should be virgins. Almost 60 per cent of parents said they would reject a potential daughter-in-law, or even disown their daughter, if she was not a virgin at marriage. Nearly 70 per cent of young women interviewed expressed deep fear and anxiety about the issue.
With more countries in Eastern Europe being admitted into the European Union, and with the launch of the Decade of Roma (2005-2015) by the UN, Romani women are becoming increasingly visible and active. Two years ago, for example, the Roma Women's Initiative held a Roma Women's Forum, preceding the World Bank/Open Society Institute's conference on 'Roma in an Expanding Europe'. Roma women participated in the 49th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March 2005 and in UN hearings on the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). And at the 10th Association for Women's Rights in Development Forum held in Bangkok in October 2005, Roma women's presence was strong.
In a plenary session titled 'How Should We Change?', Enisa Eminova challenged the audience of over 1,500 women to "move beyond one size fits all" when confronting racism and class difference. "We must realize it's not 'we and you', it's 'us'," she said, warning against labels. "One person's win doesn't have to come from another person's loss. When we adopt the perspective of 'us', we can't harm each other without harming ourselves. We assume a joint culture of responsibility."
Eminova claims there is still racism in the global women's movement. She says women don't know, or they deny, that there are Roma living in their countries. At the same time, she goes beyond criticizing State-supported, organizational and individual racism, and confronts her own community. Roma men and the Roma community itself, she says, must also examine their own prejudices. "Roma women should not have to choose between being Roma and being women." It is threatening to the Roma community, particularly the men, when the women within it explore their identity as both women and Roma, says Eminova. But why should women be vested with the responsibility for Roma identity at the expense of their identity as women, she asks.
An activist since age 17, Eminova, now 24, has helped launch programs and initiatives in countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine that focus on Roma women's empowerment and development. She challenges young women to explore why their bodies should serve as a metaphor for family purity and community acceptance. She introduces them to the idea that a girl's virginity serves as a tool to oppress and prevent Roma girls from exercising their right to education, freedom of movement and human development.
Whether tackling race and class in the European Union or confronting the taboo subject of women's sexuality within Roma communities, Enisa Eminova's job is not easy. But her work, and similar efforts by her colleagues, is bringing Roma women's issues to light in both those arenas through research, education and advocacy. It is also making Roma issues visible to national and regional institutions and processes, such as the European Union's equal opportunities and anti-discrimination efforts and national machineries on Roma and women.
For more information, visit: www.romawomensinitiatives.org
By arrangement with Women's Feature Service
Elayne Clift is a writer and journalist specialising in women's issues, health and development.