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Ukraine: ‘This is how most Roma girls live’

Roma women in Odesa at an event supported by CARE and Winds of Change. Photo: CARE Ukraine

Roma women in Odesa at an event supported by CARE and Winds of Change. Photo: CARE Ukraine

Svitlana’s eyes began to shine with happiness as she entered the hotel room in Odesa. She had never spent a night in a hotel, or any place that to her seemed so beautifully decorated. She had come here to change her life.

Svitlana* was attending a women’s leadership training from CARE and the charity foundation Winds of Change.

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Svitlana had lived in a compact settlement for Roma families in Odesa region. Women’s health was never discussed there. She didn’t go to school, because she had to take care of her younger siblings.

Only recently, at 28, has she learned to write her own name.

CARE and Winds of Change hold workshops for Roma women in Odesa. Photo: CARE Ukraine

Winds of Change, a CARE partner organization, has been working with the Roma community for over four years.

Roma, also called Romany, is an ethnic group of traditionally itinerant people who originated in northern India but now live principally in Europe.

The word “Roma” means “man” and refers to different communities, including Kalderash in southeastern Europe, Romanichals in England, Sinti in Germany, Italy, and France, Kalé in Wales, Finland, Spain and Portugal, and Gitano from Spain, as well as many others around the world — there are an estimated 400,000 Roma people in Ukraine.

As part of CARE’s Women’s Lead in Emergencies model, Winds of Change is working with the Roma communities in Ukraine to train women to take part in leadership.

‘I dreamed of being an artist’

Svitlana was 15 when she got married. She married her husband “under the Roma law.” They have no legal marriage documents.

“He stole me from my parents, and since then we have been living together,” Svitlana says. “This is how most Roma girls live. [They say] women should only look after children, clean and cook… But when I was a child, I dreamed of being an artist. To paint beautiful patterns on the facades of the house. It’s a pity that I never did.”

Some 80 percent of girls in the Roma community have similar stories. From a young age they help their parents look after younger children, and between the ages of 12 and 15 they are coerced into marriage where they then start their adult life.

Now she has six children.

She dreams that all her children will be educated. So, this year, with the support of the Winds of Change Foundation, three of her six children went to the first grade, and two went to the second grade.

For Svitlana, it was an indescribable joy.

Roma women are learning to exercise their leadership voice in their communities. The program is implemented with the support of CARE. Photo: CARE Ukraine

A double standard

“Very often, representatives of local authorities, especially in rural areas, turn a blind eye to Roma needs,” says Yulia Hladka, a Winds of Change representative. “Children may not go to school, because it is their tradition. They are Roma; they are married early and have different ‘duties’” — this is how social services often react to the remarks of Roma human rights organizations. If a Ukrainian woman was in a similar situation, she would have been noticed and social services would have intervened.”

“But in the case of Roma, no one reacts, no one cares."

Yulia Hladka

Roma people feel this indifference, even from the medical community. When Svitlana fell ill, the local hospital was reluctant to admit her. It was the same with the pediatrician. He simply recorded the visits in a log, although he did not actually examine her children.

It was only with Yulia Hladka’s help that Svitlana finally decided to see a gynecologist to find out the cause of her irregular cycle and heavy bleeding. But it wasn’t easy, because of ethnic discrimination. Only at a private medical center was Svitlana thoroughly examined and found to have cervical erosion, a damaged cyst, and critically low hemoglobin.

Now she is undergoing a long course of treatment.

A double discrimination

As Winds of Change has learned, changing the lives of Roma women is not always easy. These women have suffered discrimination, and sometimes violence, and are understandably reluctant to trust.

Human rights organizations call the Roma community one of the most discriminated against social groups in Ukraine.

Roma women in Ukraine are subject to double discrimination — on ethnic and gender grounds. They face limitations in various aspects of their lives, such as being compelled to marry at a young age and having more than two or three children. Because their community considers them responsible for caring for younger children, they also have restricted access to education compared to boys. They face challenges in finding employment and accessing healthcare.

A mobile Women Support team visits a Roma family in the village of Hradanytsi, near Odesa. Photo: CARE Ukraine

Life undocumented

Many problems are caused by the lack of documents, as usually Roma people live in isolation and very rarely turn to government institutions. Women give birth at home and do not even apply for birth certificates. The absence of passports also makes it difficult for Roma to obtain documents, so they cannot receive assistance from the state, and their number in the country cannot be officially counted.

According to Roma NGOs like Winds of Change, charitable foundation “Planet of Good People,” just over a third of Ukrainian Roma are employed. For Roma women, this is often complicated by the fact that they are mothers of many children, so they face discrimination on this basis as well.

This was the case with Svitlana. She has been dependent on her husband’s decisions almost since childhood. All her time was taken up with housework and caring for her six children and her husband’s sister’s 13 children.

A Roma family in the village of Hradanytsi, near Odesa. Photo: CARE Ukraine

“At one of the focus groups, we realized that a very big problem for Roma women is the lack of access to basic services and jobs,” says Yulia. “They usually live in rural areas where there are not many employment opportunities.”

“But even if vacancies do appear, Roma are usually rejected, because of stereotypes and ethnicity.”

“We came up with the idea to create a social enterprise where these women could get hard skills — sewing home textiles and clothes — and soft skills, like communication, psychological self-regulation. We organized a small sewing company in Odesa called Petalenca, where Roma women sew bedding and home clothes. We train them and help them promote their products.”

After the escalation of the situation in Ukraine, many internally displaced women also found their place here and started working together with Roma women. Some women had some stereotypes about Roma before but working together helped to dispel them. Now this company employs Roma and women who have been displaced.

*name changed

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