The Importance of Educating Roma Girls: a message to my 16-year-old self

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Numbering over 12 million people, the Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority. Originating in the Indian subcontinent, we came to Europe over five hundred years ago and today live in every European country. Despite this, we are subjected to racism and segregation throughout the continent, and much of the discrimination we face is felt especially by Romani women and girls.

My name is Anikó Orsós. I am a 44-year-old Romani woman from a small town called Hidás, in Hungary. I have two (big) boys, aged 27 and 29, and I work at the European Roma Rights Centre, an international human rights organisation based in Budapest.

I want to explain how I got here, and where I come from — because if I were to meet my teenage self, she would never believe that a Roma girl from Hidás could get to where I am now. I want to send a message to Romani girls and women around the world who are facing the same struggles I once did; I want to show those who deny us our right to an equal education how wrong they are.

I was born in extreme poverty. I lived with my parents and seven siblings on a small street just under the edge of the forest. Myself, my brothers, and my sisters were all raised on this small street in the Roma settlement on the edge of the town. We were born in a small hut built of scrap materials with no electricity, water, running water, toilets or any of the comforts afforded to the non-Roma homes just a stone’s throw away. When it was raining or snowing outside, we got muddy and freezing. When it was windy, it howled through the cracks between the wood and plastic sheeting.

I remember being the happiest kid, even though the conditions were terrible

Yet when I think back to my childhood I remember being the happiest kid, even though the conditions were terrible. I lived in a happy family who loved each other, and my parents gave us all they could. Later, when my dad got a job at a brick factory he was in a position to take a few ‘naughty’ bricks home so we could build a solid room and kitchen. I remember when I was about 5 years old: happily bringing the bricks one by one to the bricklayer to build our ‘house’, which was still missing all the facilities but at least now had better insulation.

Believe me, coming from this position — it is extremely difficult to dream big. To constantly have to worry about survival while trying to develop at a personal and community level, but I am here to tell you it is possible!

Romani girls need to at least have the option of getting an education

The key to escaping the settlement is education. Romani girls need to at least have the option of getting an education, and the decision makers who have the power to provide or deny this education need to ensure that the pathway is clear for Romani girls. Of course this requires the work of people who are free from prejudice and stereotypes, and believe in change. Romani girls need material and financial support to be able to take this big step. In my case, the essential ingredient was the support provided to me in order to restart my education. I needed to first of all be told it was possible. Then: to have the right person who could show me how to access opportunities, to find family support when I was at school to feed my kids, to apply for my scholarship so I could travel to school and buy my books.

These immediate material needs had to be met to make my family understand the benefits of my education. The scholarship was a great help in earning the respect of my family and community. As a woman living in a poor community, I had to be bringing money home if I was going to educate myself. Otherwise I would be putting a burden on my poor family who could not afford to pay to provide for me and my boys while I was in school.

Everything is twice as hard for a Romani kid as it is for non-Romani kid

This was my reality! Even with a path to an education for Romani girls, our access is probably not going to be equal. Everything is twice as hard for a Romani kid as it is for non-Romani kid, and twice as hard again for a Romani girl as it is for boys.

I had a very ‘colourful’ education. I went to a mainstream primary school in Hidás (meaning I did not go to a segregated, Roma-only school as many Romani kids are forced to). I was the only Romani kid in my class, and was teased and humiliated by my non-Roma classmates. I owe a lot to my teacher for encouraging me to remain in school. She strongly defended me and encouraged me to fight for my rights in the class, and generally did everything she could to make the school environment good for me. I became motivated to finish my education no matter what, and was convinced that I was no different to the others. It sounds simple, but this is an important realisation for a young Roma girl. Believing that you are worth just as much as everyone else is essential for Romani kids who face structural and systematic discrimination from very early in their life.

After finishing my primary education however, my story followed the stereotypical path for a Romani girl: I became pregnant at the age of 16, moved in with my partner, and dropped out of high school.

Support should come from the state until we reach a point where we can access employment on an equal footing with our non-Romani counterparts

I did not return to school until ten years later, but I finally finished my school studied and went to university to study community building and project management. Mostly my access to higher education was thanks to my personal hero, Derdek Tibor who helped me with the process. But it shouldn’t be like this, it shouldn’t be down to the generosity of a caring individual. There are minimum needs which must be met for Romani girls in order for them to be empowered to access education and the labour market. This support should come from the state, and should be implemented from the level of early education, until we reach a point where we can access employment on an equal footing with our non-Romani counterparts. Education and an income are the means by which we achieve dignity, independence and equality.

Based on my personal experience my advice to you is this: don’t let anyone take your dignity. Try to find the people, information and resources that can help you to succeed. I never would have believed that I would be working at an international organisation, speaking English, and giving back to my community. Without the support of people who saw the potential of educating a Roma girl from a poor settlement, I would never have made it to where I am now.

The fight against racism and patriarchy go hand in hand: the struggle is inseparable for minority women. When you educate Romani girls, you educate the whole community. Roma parents want their children to excel, and Roma girls can achieve so much more for themselves and their communities if we are only given the chance to prove it.

Anikó Orsós is Women’s Rights Officer at the European Roma Rights Centre.

Imkaan is currently working with UN women on their Regional Programme in the Western Balkans and Turkey: ‘Implementing norms, changing minds’. The three-year programme aims at ending gender-based discrimination and violence against women in the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia) and Turkey, with a particular focus on minoritised women and girls.

This article is part of Imkaan’s #ShapeTheMovement series exploring strategies and movement-building for addressing violence against minoritised women and girls.

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