The Roma are a distinctive ethnic group scattered throughout the world. A lack of reliable data makes it very difficult to estimate the global Roma population. In Europe where Roma are present in all countries – with the exception of Malta – there are approximately 12 million.

The origins of the Roma, also known as Gypsies, began in India over a thousand years ago. Throughout the centuries, Roma have survived slavery, prosecution and several attempts of extermination, most recently the Holocaust where several hundred thousands of Roma were killed by the Nazi regime. Today, Roma continue to experience high levels of discrimination in different areas such as education, housing, employment, and access to health care. As a result, Roma live in marginalization and poverty. The heaviest burden in this situation is carried by the women, a particularly disadvantaged group within a disadvantaged group.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Roma began to organize themselves in civil society to improve their situation. Romani women have supported and fought alongside men for this cause. However, the internal marginalization of women within their communities and families, and the strong patriarchal traditions of the Roma community, were and still are reflected in the Roma movement for equal rights.

Early on, the leaders of the movement, the great majority of them men, openly defended oppressive traditions and practices that put Romani women in an unequal position to men. As years passed, they realized that it was politically incorrect to be openly sexist. Many male leaders decided to change their strategy and simply remain silent about practices and traditions such as early, arranged marriages and virginity testing. Needless to say, such traditions involve rules that women must follow, while men do the policing to make sure women follow the rules.

Defenders of these practices have argued that the basis of the “Roma culture” are found precisely in these customs. They say that if these traditions were changed, Roma culture and therefore Roma themselves will cease to exist and that anyone who dares to criticize these cultural practices criticize what being Roma means. But these traditions are not the foundation of Roma culture; they are simply extensions of the subordinated position of Romani women in the community and society. Furthermore, such practices put women at a higher risk of other human rights violation. For example, the requirement of virginity testing is related to early school abandonment. Some families decide to take their daughter out of school when she reaches puberty to ensure that she remains “pure” until the wedding night. The high dropout rates lead to high illiteracy rates, and fewer chances for Romani women to find employment.

Illiteracy makes Romani women more vulnerable to abuse and discrimination, leaving them unable to defend their legal rights. For example, they are more vulnerable to forced eviction, as illiterate Romani women are unable to read the paper which the police claims is an eviction notice. They are also made vulnerable to coercive sterilization. Prior to giving birth, when the patient is already at the latest stages of labour, the doctor sometimes makes a written amendment to the form approving a caesarean section, which the women are unable to read but have to sign. The patient wakes up to find out that the written amendment was a request to be sterilized and that she has been operated on and will not be able to have children again.

The specific problems that Romani women face have been completely ignored by the leaders of the Roma rights movement. Romani women have been expected to fight for equal rights for Romani men but never ask anything for themselves. However, women’s essential role in their communities has made it very difficult for male representatives to keep Romani women out of the movement. Romani women have a dual and somewhat paradoxical position within the family. On the one hand, they are supposed to be subordinate and obedient to male family members. On the other hand, they must be active and dynamic both within and outside their communities in order to deal with the everyday issues related to childbearing and the well-being of the family. It was only a question of time before Romani women would also become active within the Roma Rights movement, despite all the opposition from male leaders.

By speaking up about their specific concerns, they have broken through the barrier separating the public domain, where men predominantly focus their attention, and the private sphere, in which the subordinated role of women is justified and reinforced through traditions. In this way, Romani women have redefined and broadened the movement. It is no longer about the right of the (male) Roma versus the majority society, but about everyone’s rights, about universal rights. Also, by including women’s concerns, the rights of other disadvantaged groups within the community, such as Romani children, have gained relevance.

The Romani women’s rights movement is very diverse – reflecting the different groups within the Roma community (old, young, educated, uneducated, etc). It ranges from the group of Spanish Romani women who organized themselves into one of the first Roma women’s associations (Associacion de Mujeres Gitanas “Romi”) with the aim of getting driving licenses (so they can transport their goods from market to market) to the group of Romani women university students carrying out research to question the practise of virginity testing (Romani Women’s Initiative). Whatever Romani women’s rights activist decide to fight for, it is a fact that their contributions make the movement more inclusive. The Roma community will not achieve equality until Romani women are seen as equal both to the non-Roma and to men.

Ostalinda Maya Ovalle is a Romani woman from Spain. She graduated from the University of Sussex (U.K.) in Social Anthropology and Development Studies and works at the European Roma Rights Centre as the Women’s Rights Officer.