“I regretted denouncing my husband. It only brought me more problems. Nobody helped me. I paid for a lawyer and got him out of prison. We have three children and I cannot provide enough for them by myself.”
This heartbreaking testimonial of a Roma woman from Albania reveals how Roma women in the Western Balkans often have to make hard choices between living with an abusive spouse or perpetuating poverty. Her experience is no different from that of many other Roma women who are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and violence.
Coming from Romania, with one of the largest populations of Roma people in Europe, I have seen how traditional gender roles, poverty, persistent discrimination, and a severe lack of institutional support intersect to affect the lives of Roma women and girls. Yet, as with most women around the world, one aspect of their lives is less apparent: domestic violence.
Our latest report, “Nowhere to Turn,” combines data from the 2017 Regional Roma Survey for the Western Balkans and a qualitative study in Albania, Montenegro and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It reveals to what extent domestic violence impacts the lives of Roma women in the region.
1. Traditional gender roles keep women bound to the family
Roma girls are often encouraged by their families to leave school and marry early. Facing poverty and unresponsive institutions, Roma women who live in Roma settlements have no other choice than to rely on their community and follow restrictive traditional gender roles. These power dynamics leave them in vulnerable positions, with domestic violence being often perceived as acceptable. The results of our survey show that 42 percent of Roma men in Montenegro and 27 percent of men in Albania think it’s acceptable for a husband to slap his wife.
Another practice that is perceived as acceptable is bride kidnapping, when a girl is kidnapped and forced into marriage. In Albania, 73 percent of both Roma men and women agree with it. And while the figures are lower in the other two countries, between 40 and 50 percent, it’s obvious that this practice will continue to trap Roma women and girls in a cycle of violence. Our survey showed that the current number of women who were married before they turned 18 ranges from 33 to 50 percent.
2. Poverty severely limits Roma women’s options
Formal employment rates among Roma women range from 3 to 13 percent. Some Roma women do make a living with informal jobs, such as collecting recyclable materials, selling products in open-air markets, or cleaning homes. But this type of work is possible only for those women who can rely on someone, usually another woman in the family, to take care of their young children.
Poverty severely limits Roma women’s options when dealing with domestic violence. They may often not have access to a phone or enough money for transportation to a health centre or the police. And even when they report their partners to the police, they end up withdrawing their statements due to concerns about being unable to provide for their families and ending up in extreme poverty.
3. State institutions are failing to support Roma women
Even if Roma women manage to reach out to the police or shelters, they encounter difficulties in receiving any services that are usually available because of social exclusion and discrimination. Most often, they are only taken seriously if they have the support of a civil society organisation.
As a result, Roma women distrust state institutions, especially the police and the courts, and they report violence with substantially less frequency than the overall population. This is made worse by the fact that there is no official data on gender-based violence against Roma women available in any of the three countries, which means the problem is largely ignored.
How can we support Roma women?
Roma women need to live in proximity to essential services, including access to shelters where they can live with their children as long as needed, receiving relevant training followed by employment, psycho-social support and free legal aid. Awareness-raising campaigns tailored for Roma women and girls are also essential to familiarize them with the protection mechanisms and specialized services available.
State institutions and civil society organizations need to be better equipped in assisting Roma women. Service providers from police officers to health care professionals should be trained on how to approach Roma women. Activities should be organised in Roma communities rather than expecting Roma women to reach out first.
Despite the gloomy outlook painted by our report, there are also some noticeable signs of change. Some Roma women are challenging gender roles, pursuing higher education, getting employed, and living in mixed communities. They serve as role models for other women in their communities. With the right policies and support, more of them will be able to cross those thresholds and live without the threat of poverty or violence.
We must do all we can to make that a reality.
If you enjoyed this blog, read our comic story Daria: A Roma Women's Journey.