Myths and facts about Roma in Romania

Text adapted after: Carmen Gheorghe / h.arta , Priveste-ma asa cum sunt. Cuvinte si imagini ale femeilor rome/ Dikh man kada sar sem. Lava aj dikimata le rromnenqe/ See me as I am. Words and images of Roma women

Roma practice arranged marriages between minors

During the 500 years of slavery for Roma people, Roma girls were frequently raped by their Romanian owners. If children were born as a result of rape, both the mother and child were often rejected by both the Roma community as well as the Romanian masters. As the girls lived in continual fear of being raped, the Roma people resorted to early marriage. This was not only a Roma practice. Romanian poor parents also married their daughters early in order to protect them from abuse at the hands of the aristocrats. “When the Roma slaves were released, in 1856, the newly created Romanian state saw an explosion of extreme nationalism. In the following century, the Holocaust caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Roma people, all killed in the name of racial purity. And then there came communism, with its aggressive policies of forced settlement. In order to survive the decades of persecution and so that they could maintain their identity despite forced assimilation state politics, the Roma isolated themselves and hung on their traditions, whether good or bad.”
(Valeriu Nicolae, „Reţetar de genocid?”

Roma culture, pointed to as the sole culprit for violating minors’ and women’s rights, cannot be seen as separate from the society in which it exists, outside the historical, economic, social and political coordinates of the state within which it exists. The practice of marriage between minors must be analysed from the viewpoint of its historical causes, as well as the economic, social and political factors which have a key role in Roma women’s discrimination (where we must include premature marriage.) If these marriages between minors are considered exclusive to Roma culture and tradition, without considering society as a whole and the conditions in which Roma people live in this society, then this will remain an “internal” issue of a community which is “primitive” and “non-European” and which discriminates against its own members – and consequently it is not “worth” it to make efforts to eradicate the discrimination of Roma people by society in general. Also, issues such as the extreme poverty in which many Roma people live, the discrimination that they are subjected to in their day-to-day existence, when they interact with the authorities and citizens alike, their difficult access to education, lack of employment etc – all these are kept under the table if tradition is brought up as the culprit for the community’s issues. Thus the state and society as a whole are absolved of any responsibility. This is why the state has not intervened in any of the situations involving minors getting married, and it never incriminated early marriages. On the other hand, early marriages are used as a racist argument for the “primitive” nature of Roma people in general – even if these marriages occur only in a limited number of communities and are not a characteristic of the wider mass of Roma people. If the causes of this form of oppression are not analysed and understood by the entire society in all their complexity, then the chances for this situation to change are very low.

Roma refuse to send their children to school

Early marriages are often indicated in public discourse as the main cause of reduced access to education for Roma girls, even if this is incorrect (a small percentage of school dropouts can be traced to early marriage, while poverty, lack of adequate infrastructure or discrimination are the most poignant causes for Roma children dropping out of school.) Also, Roma parents are often blamed for not sending their kids to school, based on the racist presumption that this decision is a characteristic trait of Roma people.

In fact, there is a multitude of causes leading to reduced access to education for Roma children in comparison to access to education at the national level, and the great majority of these causes are not related to Roma traditions. They are related mostly to their marginal position in society, as well as to poverty. In this section, we will analyse these causes.

One of the causes of reduced access to education for Roma children is the lack of legal documents, both for their parents and for themselves. Without these documents, children cannot be registered for school. Some of the children do not have birth certificates because they are born abroad, where their parents relocated for work purposes. In other cases, Roma families do not have identification legal documents because they do not have a domicile – which domicile in its turn cannot be obtained without legal identification documents.

The precarious financial status of many Roma families is another cause of Roma children dropping out of school. When so many of them live under the poverty limit, in houses which are not branched into the water or electricity grid, when they live in cardboard and plastic shacks on the outskirts, then access to education becomes a luxury, and is no longer simply a right. In these cases, the girls are often needed at home to help with housework and take care of younger brothers and sisters.

The percentage of Roma people with a stable job is very low, and it must be remembered that Roma persons are victims of discrimination on the labour market. Many Roma work abroad and they take their children with them – which is why many kids don’t go to school anymore. Also, Roma persons who do have some education sometimes fail on the labour market, which strengthens the idea that formal education does not really equip you for the future. This, in the case of Roma women, is also corroborated with the patriarchal idea that women belong rather in the private sphere – and thus, they don’t need to go to school anyway.

Access to education is often linked to local infrastructure. In the rural environment, the bad condition of roads often makes it extremely difficult to get to school, especially if we bear in mind that the school is usually not in the Roma community, but in a neighbouring village. This means that Roma kids have to walk a good distance to school, sometimes a few kilometres, and because of it is practically impossible for them to get to school during winter or the rainy season.

Public institutions of education are designed and function currently as instruments of assimilation, where the contents and forms of education are largely permeated by an institutionalised racism which spells out the values, preferences and norms of the majority population as absolute and the only valid ones. Forced integration is a recent trauma in the history of Roma people. Even if they could afford to send their kids to school, some Roma families refuse to, for fear their children will lose their identity. Girls, as preservers of tradition to a higher extent than men, are “protected” from such influences which might “pervert” them. When the financial situation of the family is ok, then the priority are usually not the girls, but the boys – the family must take special care of the boy’s preparedness for the future, as the boy is a future head of family, while the girls’ only future goal is marriage, which is predestined. The pressures of patriarchal tradition are sustained by a system of education which does not take into consideration that one of its primary goals should be to educate children and young people in an antiracist spirit.
Another important barrier that Roma children have in their access to education are the prejudices and discriminatory treatment of teachers, colleagues and colleagues’ parents. Having to deal with this on a daily basis is an important cause of Roma kids dropping out of school.

In 2007, the Ministry of Education issued Ordinance 1540, with the objective to “prevent, forbid and eliminate segregation, considered a grave form of discrimination, with a negative impact on children’s access to quality education.” The ordinance forbids, starting with 2007-2008 academic year, the segregated registration of Roma kids in 1st and 5th grades, and considers “segregation as a grave form of discrimination, causing unequal access to quality education, violating the children’s equal rights to education, as well as their right to human dignity.” Even if segregation in schools is forbidden under the law, Roma kids continue to be subjected to discriminatory treatment in schools and they often do not enjoy the same opportunities as their Romanian colleagues. The exclusion and marginalization of Roma children puts them in a position of inferiority and inequality. This is a situation that cannot be solved only by ordinances and legislative measures, especially when such measures are often disrespected.

Roma women are degenerate mothers. The myth of the „gypsy who steals children”

Another stereotype about Roma women is that they are not “good” mothers, that they take advantage of their kids (by cashing their state allowance money but putting them to work or beg anyway). This stereotype causes Roma motherhood to be labelled as “degenerate” and “pathological.” The image of the Roma woman who takes advantage of her own children, accepts them to be trafficked etc, is a strongly racist dehumanisation instrument (as they are presented failing even the most profound human bond, that between mother and child). The consequences of this perception of Roma women as “degenerate” can have the most concrete and traumatizing effects on Roma mothers and children. A 2008 study published in Italy analyses very carefully the cases of Roma children taken from their parents and put in state care and later to be adopted by Italian families between 1985 and 2005.  (“Adozione di minori rom/sinti e sottrazione di minori gagé” (Research on Roma/sinti children’s adoption and kidnapping of gadje children), commissioned by Fondazione Migrantes of the Psychology and Cultural Anthropology Department of the Verona University, a study coordinated by Prof. Leonardo Piasere.)

The reasons for which the children were (and still are) taken away from their parents are related to the improper living conditions and the inadequate care provided by the parents. Analysis of the concrete circumstances when it was decided that the child must be taken away from his/her parents indicates that the images of the Roma child is easily overlapped by that of the “abused child,” without considering that the state creates the very mechanisms that maintain most Roma in extreme poverty, instability and marginal status. While the authorities do not take measures to improve the conditions most Roma live in, they emphasize on the “degenerate” relations inside Roma families and they continue to take children away from a culture which is “un-civilized” and “cruel” (this must also be correlated with the great number of non-Roma families who wish to adopt children.) Roma children are described as “abused” only because they are part of a culture that is different from the majority, a culture which is considered by the majority as an environment that children need to be “saved” from.

Even if many Roma children live in poverty and even if they often have to work instead of studying, this is neither an effect nor a characteristic of Roma culture or the Roma parenthood model. It is rather a consequence of the way society functions, and which causes most Roma to live in poverty and to have limited access to education and labour. These unfavourable conditions for most Roma nowadays are turned, from a collective responsibility for all members and structures of society, into an intrinsic characteristic of Roma culture, something which cannot be changed, and which condemns Roma children to inherit the poverty and lack of opportunities that hindered their parents’ development. And thus the parents are the only culprits, and the state has no fault.

A rather absurd version of this irresponsible and dangerous Roma parents myth is the “Gypsy woman who steals kids.” This myth presents Roma women as a danger not only to their own children, but also to “white” kids, and it is invoked under different forms: from the so familiar formula that parents use to threaten their kids “if you won’t behave, the Gypsy woman will come and take you away in her sack,”  to Roma women actually being sentenced to prison under unproven charges that they attempted to steal “white” kids.

The same study, mentioned above, also investigates the reflection in Italian mass media during 1986-2007 of cases in which Roma persons were accused of attempting to kidnap “white” children. All these cases (40 in total) proved to be unjustified. There was never any attempt at kidnapping, all these charges were based on fiction. However, all of these cases were amply covered in the media, which stirred racist and xenophobic reactions from the public. But when the police, lawyers and activists involved in the cases demonstrated that the Roma persons had never attempted to kidnap anybody, and had not even ever meant to, the media remained silent and showed no interest in pointing out the falseness of their previous coverages.

This myth of the “Gypsy woman who steals kids” has a dangerous effect on society. Besides the fact that any “white” parent tends to see danger in any Roma person getting near their kids, this perception has actually caused acts of verbal and physical violence. For example, in October 2006, Libertatea daily (from Romania) published an article entitled “Gypsies suspected of stealing the child.” This article covered the case of a child missing from the maternity hospital where a Roma family was suspected of being the infant-thieves, as they wanted a baby and had inquired at the maternity about the possibility of adoption. The article also mentioned that the Roma woman was investigated by the police. This news was covered under different forms by most media in Romania, causing many hateful and violent reactions from readers who posted comments on web-based publications. After three days, the same newspaper published an article which indicated that the infant had been in fact kidnapped by a Romanian woman. The newspaper did not offer an apology to the persons it had wrongfully incriminated previously, nor to the Roma community in general – even if the news it had originally published caused much violent reactions against them.

In 2005, two Roma women in Lecco, Italy, were accused of trying to kidnap a child. Although the two women were accused unfairly and even sentenced to 8 months of prison, reactions of xenophobic groups filled Lombardy with posters showing a Roma woman, with the caption “Giu le mani dai nostri bambini” (Hands off our kids) and led to rallies against the Roma. In May, 2008, a Roma settlement outside of Naples was put to fire by local people who previously marched around the camp bearing signs reading “You are all baby thieves,” following the conviction (again, unfounded) of a 17-year old Roma girl accused of attempting to steal a child. The reaction of the Italian authorities was to organize nation-wide raids in order to identify and deport illegal immigrants – but the fire-setters were never punished. The reaction of Romania mass media (bearing in mind that many of the Roma working in Italy come from Romania, including those in the camp that was set on fire) was to express concern regarding the way in which Roma people “spoil Romania’s image in Europe.” Thus the Roma people were pointed to as the sole culprits of the violences committed against them, and in all these cases the mass media played an important role in causing xenophobic hatred.

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