When will Roma women be allowed to fulfil their dreams?

Daria is a Roma woman in her 30s from Serbia. Like most of the one million Roma in the region, she lives on the outskirts of a big city. And just like nine out of ten Roma, Daria struggles with poverty.

Daria’s situation reflects the multiple layers of exclusion suffered by a vast majority of Roma women. Research shows two in three Roma women have no income. Even if Daria were to find a job, she would only earn about half of what non–Roma women earn.

Roma women face many overlapping levels of exclusion — in education, access to jobs, and ability to make choices in life. (Photo: UNDP)

One major part of the problem is a gap in levels of education. Almost a third of Roma women have no formal education.

Daria is luckier than most of her peers: she was able to at least complete eight years of primary education, unlike most Roma women who on average spend five and a half years in school. But even that hasn’t helped her much.

Daria’s dream to continue with her education was cut short by her parents’ deep poverty. When she was only fourteen, her father arranged her marriage to a young man from a wealthier Roma family to pay off some debt. Her mother couldn’t stop it. At the age of fifteen, she gave birth to the first of her three children.

Years later, when her husband Darco lost his job after being falsely accused of stealing money from work, Daria witnessed history repeating itself. When Darco made plans to marry off their fifteen year old daughter, she decided she would do better than her mother. She summoned all the strength she could find and she and her children sought shelter at her parents’.

Daria is the protagonist of a new graphic novel by the UN development programme (UNDP) depicting the impact of early marriage on the lives of Roma women in Serbia. Recent UNICEF research in the country shows that nearly half of young Roma women aged 15–19 years are married or in a union, compared to only 1 in 5 Roma men of the same age.

The problem has been dismissed as a tradition of backward groups. Institutions debate whether it is appropriate to meddle with traditions which cannot or should not be prevented. Roma activists, with a few exceptions, ponder if disclosure of these practices will result in backlash from the Roma community or deeper stigmatisation from the majority. In the end, women like Daria are left to cope with their destinies on their own.

Beyond the issue of early marriage, Roma women also have to face a complex mix of patriarchal oppression and political and socioeconomic exclusion.

And despite much talk about the multiple disadvantages faced by Roma women, these issues are rarely consistently addressed in practice. A report on the many types of exclusions faced by Roma women suggests there has been little progress in addressing them, beyond passing anti-discrimination laws.

There is a wide chasm between Daria’s reality and what the laws aim to achieve. Roma communities need better education, employment and income, as well as access to good housing and social services. Isn’t it time we made a collective stand to support Roma women and girls who dream of a better future?

Jasmina Papa is UNDP Social Inclusion Advisor. The graphic novel was produced by Positive Negatives

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