General report of “The International Network Sinti and RomaniPhenja* Network Online Meeting”

Prepared by: Alba Hernández Sánchez

The International Network Sinti and RomaniPhenja Network Meeting

The international meeting of Romnja was held online from December 9 to 12, 2021, coordinated by RomaniPhen. Roma women from different countries, backgrounds, and expertise participated in the three-day meeting. A total of 27 Roma women and girls of different ages attended from Austria, Germany, Romania, Spain, Italy, Serbia, and Hungary. The lack of an inclusive and intersectional space where Roma women can meet to share experiences and create networks makes this international meeting particularly important, as it could mark the beginning of an international Roma feminist network that has been discussed for some time.

Thursday, 09/12/2021: Opening and Project Presentation

The international meeting was divided into different sessions during the three days. The first day was dedicated to building a safe space for Roma feminists and engaging in discussions on different topics relevant to Roma feminism and activism. It then continued with the presentation of various research projects. The following days were scheduled to have different workshops on various topics significant to Romani feminism and activism, as well as to individuals and the collective group.

Setting the Scene and Networking

The international meeting kicked off on a warm and welcoming note, with participants introducing themselves and expressing their thoughts in a safe Romnja feminist spaces. The day was marked by an engaging exchange of ideas as discussions on various topics. when Irina Spataru initiated the dialogue by asking thought-provoking questions that aimed to conceptualize, investigate, and visualize the Romnja feminist movement. On the one hand, they questioned the issues of how to represent Roma women in the public sphere. During the meeting, the topic of bias towards the political representation of Roma women was brought up by the participants. This bias can be either implicit or explicit and can result in both favorable and unfavorable perceptions of Roma women. In this regard, Hajdi Barz pointed out how the “exception” goes hand in hand with the meritocracy of the individual. Additionally, how this, however, turns against the entire Roma community by targeting their collectivity as an entity. Moreover, it requires them to achieve the same accomplishments as the exception; otherwise, the Roma are considered lazy, and as if they do not try hard enough. Meanwhile, it neglects the fact that it is the system and political structures that keep Roma in this context of inequality and the importance of working on that narrative.

On the other hand, several participants highlighted the question of the existence of a mainstream Roma woman figure and wondered what it could look like: Who would represent it? Do we need it? In other words, Roma women will need to be represented, taking into account the diversity among them and considering each identity or factor/position as individuals with their own unique experiences. To be clear, it is important to take a bottom-up approach to the representation of Roma women, which recognizes the diversity among them as individuals, rather than treating them as a homogeneous group. The discussion certainly focused on how the Roma population is represented by both mainstream movements: Roma and women. Marina Csikós reflected on the risk of becoming mainstream through the instrumentalization of gender and Roma as identities. To do so, she examined both women’s and Roma movements and how they are represented in the political sphere and analyzed the extent of their achievements.

The lack of effective representation of Roma women in all structures, i.e., avoiding tokenization, remains a challenge for the older and younger generations of Roma who often find themselves in a difficult situation of how to navigate between racism, sexism, and classism, as Maria Dumitru stated. This begs the question: Are we obliged to rank our multiple identities on a scale of priorities? Which identity should come first, for example, when it comes to political representation?

Intersectionality refers to the interconnectedness of different forms of oppression and discrimination, such as race, gender, and class among others. For her part, Antonella Lerca linked intersectionality with political representation. She stated the difficulty of trying to access representation for Roma trans women in the public sphere, even within the Romani movement. Lerca pointed to toxic masculinity of Roma men in power, as it resembles what happens in the gender mainstream.

Hajdi Barz complemented this contribution by raising the issue of self-representation. She stated that being radical with our knowledge, ideas, and goals in the public sphere means that the more we discover, the more we expose, and the more heat we receive. In addition, participants discussed the meaning of self-representation as a community claim and goal—not only fighting perceptions and stereotypes, but also creating changes for the community. Maria Luiza Medeleanu raised the issue of the importance of Roma women’s representation in the media. She considers it a tool of identification for other women as a positive image while working on how those stereotypical images are internalized and accepted by the Roma community. Although there are stereotypes surrounding the representation of Roma women, it is important to recognize the power of the younger generations who are speaking out against the problems they face. Moreover, the participants agreed on the importance of taking care of women and girls in the community because that is where the empowerment remains, working on community building and creating alliances. Before the end of the first session, Carmen Gheorghe reflected on the enormous accountability that remains on the shoulders of Romnja activists. Due to the lack of Romnja in the frontline of activism and advocacy, it is always the same women who must take on and fight to be represented, whether in academia, politics, activism, community work, etc. There is a need for individual self-care and the construction of these spaces to talk, exchange, and even heal from the different external factors that hit them daily.

Researchers Panels

The second session was dedicated to the presentation of four research projects carried out by four different Romnja feminist researchers. The different topics were presented in parallel and then discussed in the plenary session.

Medeleanu’s research is entitled “Roma Women: From Stigmatization to Affirmation. Stories of the Struggle to Exist Throughout History.” She reviewed how Romanian literature depicts Roma women from a stereotypical and victimizing perspective and how it is assumed and internalized by Roma women in their daily lives. She argued that such an attitude is reminiscent of slavery and perpetuates colonialism. Similarly, Maria Dumitru and Alba Hernández discussed their findings, linking both researchers. Hernández researched “The Present of the Romani Feminist Network in Europe,” explaining the beginning of the networking of Romani women’s organizations in Europe after WWII to further frame their current situation. She conducted interviews and questionnaires with a diverse group of Romani feminists to analyze their perspectives, networks, struggles, and strengths. For her part, Dumitru explored the voices of three Romani women activists of different backgrounds in a paper entitled “Biography of Romani Women.” She chose her interviewees taking into account their contribution to the Roma movement and their respective contexts that illuminate their voices. Finally, Serçe Öznarçiçegi’s research deals with “Bibliographies of Romani Women Writers.” She collected writings to classify them by themes and countries to create a database of Romani women writers. Öznarçiçegi discussed the topics that Romani women are most engaged in writing about and the topics that are missing in Romani women’s literature.

Friday, 10/12/2021: Challenges and Obstacles

Parallel Workshops

The second day of the international meeting began with a brief reflection on the previous day, followed by three workshops given by three Romnja activists. The workshops were in parallel and then discussed in the plenary session. On the one hand, Antonella Lerca Duda used her spaces to discuss “Sex work and transgender community”. She explained the different legal procedures of sex work in various countries. In addition, she addressed various intersecting issues faced by sex workers, such as racism, sexism, lack of access to public health care and aggression in their daily lives. At the same time, she also presented hope for an inclusive and intersectional world in which gender is not the object of discrimination and violence.

Likewise, Anca Georgiana Nica, from E-Romnja, gave a workshop on “Community Work with Roma women”. She explained their methods of work, organization and execution. In addition, Anca addressed the struggles of Roma women and girls, such as physical and psychological violence, perpetrated not only by different family and community members, but also by institutions such as NGOs, social workers, teachers, doctors, etc. Moreover, the discrimination and violence faced by Roma women and girls is constructed at the intersection of sexism, racism, and socioeconomic status. Anca, provided some of its strategies for handling all struggles as an NGO. For example, one is to establish the independence of individuals through empowerment while building transgenerational group support that includes men as part of the solution. Similarly, Saska Jovanovic Fetahi, from the Rowni-Roma Women’s Network in Italy, works on the topic of “Intersectionality and Multiple Discrimination”. Accordingly, Saska explained how intersectionality is applied in various fields such as housing, as well as in health, education and labor. Furthermore, she addressed how LGBT Roma face difficulties both in terms of intercommunity discrimination and prejudice as well as outside the community within mainstream society.

Feedback & Discussion

The second session was dedicated to discussing the results and contributions of the workshops. In line with the dynamics of the work, these results are related to what was discussed the previous day. On this occasion, Andrea Kunságui, as moderator, posed a question to reflect on the challenges, obstacles and struggles of Roma women when it comes to their empowerment.

Anca Georgiana Nica explored the subject from a psychological perspective. She began by pointing to the mental health of workers, which is an issue that is often overlooked. In turn, Anca highlighted the importance of self-care for workers, women, the community and other vulnerable groups. She went on to expose the lack of recognition of mental health as a necessary pillar for positive work outcomes. Additionally, she mentioned how Covid-19 has impacted individual mental health but also the dynamics of work, having to adapt to new conditions both psychologically and physically.

Similarly, Fatima Hartmann analyzed the situation from a collective perspective. She stressed the need for mutual support in the fight against racism. Hartmann went further with the idea of creating a European organization to act as a united force in cases of racism.

Vera Kurtić, for her part, welcomed the idea of creating a network of feminist women and activists working in the field with the aim of cooperating in the development of capacities of the respective NGOs. Moreover, a common point raised by most of the participants was the lack of funding and the complex administrative procedures that complicate slow down their work.

Sunday, 11/12/2021: Strategies & Plans

The first session was focused to work on strategies and planning objectives and then continue with workshops and discussions. Therefore, the first part of the day was dedicated to a meeting with several founders from Germany. Participating in the Romnja meeting were Stefan Vogt from Freudenberg Stiftung and Mariana Matzer from Stiftung Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft. The primary objective of this meeting was to facilitate the exchange of information between the founders and Romnja.

Parallel workshops

Continuing with the day, three workshops on crucial topics were held. They revisit issues that have been discussed in previous days, such as mainstreaming and empowerment.

One of the workshops was entitled “Mainstreaming Black Feminism” and the panelists were from the NGO ADREFA. Katja Kinder is one of the founders of the “Queer Black Feminist Initiative“. She employed her intervention to elaborate on the organization’s founding history. Peggy Piesche examined the state as an institution from the perspective of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. Furthermore, she conceptualized how it employs the concepts of diversity, intersectionality and coloniality in its strategies. Finally, Maisha-Maureen Auma discussed the “African Peoples’ Heritage Decade.” She also explained the kinds of tools they apply in mainstreaming to promote their own Black feminist power strategies and their intersectional realities. Auma argued that there is a gap between how whites understand intersectionality as a theory and how it is actually applied in the lives of minority groups. In particular, the three agreed on the risk of mainstreaming the movement because it could bring negative reactions. Furthermore, they also delved into how exclusion and inequality have become institutionalized by states, politicians, academia, welfare, NGOs, and other entities. Finally, they considered on the concept of “women’s empowerment”, which should be changed to “women in power”, as power is embedded in women themselves.

At the same time, a workshop on “Good Practices of Young People: A Debate on our Needs and Challenges” took place with representatives from three different Roma youth groups. There was Pretty Loud from Belgrade, Serbia. Pretty Loud is a Roma feminist rap music group,  formed by Roma girls and boys. Silvia Sinani and Zlata Ristic explained how they fight racism, sexism and classism with their lyrics and at the same time serve as a reference for other girls in the community. In addition, they reflected on their activism with which they address issues such as equity, early marriage, violence, etc. Likewise, from Berlin, the Romani Chaj Girls’ Group, which is composed of Roma girls, represented by Estera Iordan and Gabi Zekic, explained how they use multimedia animations as an educational tool; for example, they have created animations on the history of the persecution of Roma and Sinti in Germany. Additionally, following the media, they have a podcast as a tool for disseminating personal experiences in which Roma girls can speak.  Similarly, E-Romnja has a group of young Roma girls with whom they work to develop their skills. On this occasion, Elisa Dinu and Lizuca Dinu explained what the Sisterhood project consists of. Further, they explain the activities they carry out from an intersectional perspective on issues such as gender equality, education, and racism. To illustrate their work, they explained how they organize and participate in marches against police violence, theater on Roma girls’ access to secondary school, different meetings where they discuss their concerns, etc. they also highlight that the group supports their individual and collective development.

Feedback & Discussion

In the plenary session, participants shared their views on about the importance of creating safe spaces for women where they can express themselves, exchange experiences, and work together. In the meanwhile, participants expressed the need to address issues such as reproductive and sexual rights, education, health, school dropout, early marriages, and other related issues. Aldessa Georgiana Lincan highlighted the relevance of creating these types of space, including Roma girls in them, because it can mark the beginning of their future. She went on to point out the relevance of the older generation supporting young women, not only individually but also by creating their own alliances and networks. Likewise, they stated the need for support in economic and material resources for the group of girls by more experienced NGOs.

On the other hand, Hajdi Barz raised the theme of alliances and networks, considering the participation of black feminists and future collaborations. She reflected on what kind of alliances are necessary and whether they are needed as such. Saska Jovanovic pointed out the importance of political positionality when working on alliance building to avoid possible hierarchies. Similarly, Katja Kinder highlighted the NGO’s own positioning as a starting point in alliance and networking strategies. She went on to stress the significance of having objectives based on one’s own and common interests. Similarly, Peggy Piesche emphasized solidarity as a pillar in the strategy of creating alliances and building trust. In turn, she affirmed the need for transparency and solidarity in the collective struggle as minority groups. She believes that collective public exposure of joint work, for example by Roma and black women, enhances public perspectives and statements. Continuing with strategic visibility, Irina Spataru provided an example of good practices of collaboration and partnership of Austrian Jewish and Roma youth. She went on to argue how cooperation and alliance between different minority groups that share similar struggles, and a common cause can result in a very powerful movement.

From another perspective, Maria Luiza brought to the table her field of research. She advocates looking at our past and learning about the experiences of our ancestors in the representation of Roma women, taking into account the diversity among them. Alba Hernández completed the previous contribution by expressing the importance of including Roma women’s feminism in the academic field. She suggested that this could help create alliances with other minority groups while recognizing their knowledge production on intersectional feminism. She pointed out the need to invest in research on Roma women as well as LBTs from their insider perspective.

Following the same line, Maria Dumitru stated that it is not only important to create safe spaces to talk and discuss but also in research. She argued that today Roma women need to occupy spaces in the academic world to change the established narratives about us that have been written by non-Roma people.

Sunday, 12/12/2021 Conclusion & Planning the Future

The last day’s meeting was primarily dedicated to summarizing the work carried out during the last few days. For this purpose, Irina Spataru highlighted the remarkable development, beginning with the creation of a safe space for expressing and discussing different concerns that would undoubtedly enrich Roma feminist knowledge production. The discussion then addressed the obstacles and challenges faced by Roma women in their daily lives. They analyzed the multidimensional and structural discrimination faced by Roma women from a bottom-up perspective. The most vulnerable context was placed at the center of this analysis. Furthermore, developing strategic alliances among Roma feminists and other ethnic minority feminist organizations was an important point during all the working days.

Moreover, the aim of this last meeting was to jointly establish an agenda with ideas and needs for the near future. In addition, the participants discussed future planning and the purpose of upcoming meetings. At this point, Saska Jovanovic pointed out the value of having the possibility to meet in person, be together, create friendships, exchange views, and create future collaborations. In addition, participants expressed the value of creating their own in-person meeting and network.

According to their argument, when intra-governmental institutions are involved in creating space, Roma women’s voices are not given enough time for meaningful discussion, exchange, or input. Instead, their participation may be seen as merely tokenistic. As a result, they concluded that meetings specifically dedicated to Roma women’s participation are absolutely necessary. Regarding this, Marina Csikós affirmed the need to go a step further from theory to practice. She argued that practical tools and skills are often lacking when working directly with communities on the front line. Furthermore, she proposed to carry out trainings on women’s leadership and conflict management from an intersectional feminist perspective that would be beneficial not only for individuals but also for the community.

A proposed objective was the creation of a social networking group that would serve as a platform among the participants to stay connected, exchange information on different topics of interest, share articles, and news. Next, they discussed how to grow the network by opening meetings to more Roma women and girls who may be interested in it. This would be done while taking into account that some of the topics addressed may be a conflict for those who are more conservative.

Tying in with this, Hajdi Barz brought up the need to create different spaces such as a Queer one to include the Roma LGBTQ community in the meetings and give them the space to explore their own difficulties due to the intersection of different factors. Issues that continued to be brought up were about self-care and the inevitability of establishing spaces to discuss emotional and/or psychological issues that are often still treated as taboo. In the end, many objectives were set, and ideas established to continue working.

This article does not represent a statement of opinion by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

Responsibility for the content is borne solely by the authors.