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Unbroken History Of Broken Promises: The Continued Persecution Of The Romani Community

By Navya Khanna

Otto Müller, Fairuza Balk, Ronald Lee and Rita Hayworth are prominent public figures in the field of art, cinema and academia. All these people have two things in common. They are extremely successful in their professions and belong to the Romani community.

Who are Romani people?

The Roma community have their origins from Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab regions of India and live mostly in Europe and the United States. According to Open Society Foundations, Roma is a diverse group of peoples including Romanichals in England; Kalé in Wales and Finland; Travellers in Ireland (who are not Roma), Scotland, Sweden, and Norway; Manouche from France; Gitano from Spain; Sinti from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Italy; Ashakli from Kosovo; Egyptians from Albania; Beyash from Croatia; Romanlar from Turkey; Domari from Palestine and Egypt; Lom from Armenia, and many others.

Romani (Gypsy) inmates stand at attention during an inspection of the weaving mill, site of forced labour in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. In this workshop, prisoners wove reed mats used to reinforce roads in swampy regions of the eastern front. Germany, between 1941 and 1944. This photograph is from an SS propaganda album. Source: Holocaust Encyclopedia

However, they are tied together by a common wordbook in Rromanës. This language has its roots in Sanskritic languages. Rromanipé refers to the Roma worldview which means their notions of justice, dignity and honour. They do not follow a single religion and adopt the dominant religion of the country where they are living. As they live in different parts of the world, their culture gives great importance to family values. Traditionally, Roma women read palms, cards, and tea leaves, and were dancers. The men in the community were warriors. Metalworks and craft production has also been part of their traditional occupations.

Long History Of Discrimination

Since their migration from India to Eastern Europe, they have faced discrimination of every sort: economic, political and social. Under the reign of Nazi Germans, Roma community was subjected to forced labour, humiliation and were considered ”racially inferior”. “German authorities murdered tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia and thousands more in the killing centres at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.”

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial, Nazi Germany and Axis powers are guilty of the extermination of up to 250,000 Romas. Even after the end of the war, the new government of Germany gave the verdict that the mass killing of Roma Community was done as part of official state measures and not motivated by racial discrimination. It was in 1979 that the German government recognised Roma extermination was influenced by racial prejudice. This helped the survivors to apply for compensation for their loss under Nazi occupation. Unfortunately, most of them had decreased at that time.

Present Scenario And Persistent Prejudice

In European countries, Roma people continue to be discriminated against on a daily basis by majority groups and police authorities as well. They are subjected to hate speech which is often disguised as political speech. They are perceived as a threat to law and order, security and public health of a nation. A research was conducted by the Open Society Institute in Central Europe revealed that “non-Roma respondents consistently expressed negative views of the Roma, describing the Roma as dishonest, aggressive, unhygienic, lacking work ethic, unemployed, poorly educated, and prone to criminality”.

Due to these inherent false beliefs and bigotry among the citizens and political leaders, Roma community like other minority groups in other parts of the world has been further isolated in the COVID-19 pandemic. Without any proof of the spread of the virus in the community, Roma people are barred from leaving their neighbourhood in Bulgaria.

Austrian police round up Romani (Gypsy) families from Vienna for deportation to Poland. Austria, September-December 1939. Source: Holocaust Encyclopedia

There is a tendency of many nations to use the Roma community as scapegoats at a time of economic and political uncertainty or crisis. According to a report by the Commission For Human Rights(2010), there is a lack of implementation concerning the human rights situation of the Roma community. The Roma population are the most disadvantaged minority group in Europe in sectors such as education, health, employment, housing and political participation.

The European Roma Rights Centre indicated that 64% of working-age Roma have experienced discrimination in employment. Anti-Gypsy rhetoric is normalised so much that the Roma students in Slovakia’s schools are segregated and school authorities arbitrarily categorise them as children with “mild mental disabilities” and are forced to study in special schools. This form of systemic discrimination is not just limited to one nation. Roma students more often than not face bullying from their peers in school. Continuous harassment and attacks on their identity discourage them to attend school. This is why they have the highest rates of absence and are 10 times less likely to get into university than their peers.

Stories Of Two Romas

Jezmina Vonthiele is a writer and educator, art model based in the States. She has a mixed Sinti heritage and loves to try her hand at all things artistic. Fortune telling and healing are her side hustle which she learned from her grandmother who grew up in Germany. Jezmina tells that her mother and grandmother had warned and sworn her to not reveal her identity. But, as a six-year-old, unaware of the negative consequences, she accidentally told her classmates. From that moment on, she was subjected to discrimination and exclusion by her peers and their parents and teachers as well. Kids threw stones at her and she received detention for “giving the evil eye.

This is one of the examples of many shameful stereotypes that exist about the Roma community. As Jezmina grew up, her relationship with her Roma identity has deepened. She has found more people like her who are doing great things for the community.

Lolo is an International Politics student and an activist for Romani Rights. She loves writing poetry, k-dramas, listening to music (usually Joji or EtnoRom). She grew up in the Midlands in the UK.

She comes from a mixed family of Gadje and Romanichal people and got to know about being Romani when she was 11 years old. She was often called “pikey” in a contemptuous manner at school. Like many Romas, Lolo grew up in an intergenerational household. She was strictly instructed against revealing her identity, not even to her closest friends. Her parents were worried that it might cost them their jobs and her education.

When Lolo was growing up, she did not have any popular figures to relate to. There was either no representation or misrepresentation of the Roma community. Shows like Big Fat Weddings made lives even more difficult for Lolo and other Roma students like her. Due to the prevalent environment of normalised discrimination against her community, she internalised shame about her Roma identity.

Many Roma students including her are additionally responsible to help their parents navigate the system including the task of explaining the formal paperwork, communicating with citizens’ advice banks. As she completed her high school graduation, she decided to embrace her Roma identity.

Romani (Gypsy) women and children interned in the Rivesaltes transit camp. France, spring 1942. Source: Holocaust Encyclopedia

Jezmina and Lolo grew up in different parts of the world but had similar experiences when it came to people’s beliefs and reactions to their Roma Identity. Both of them are aware of their privilege as compared to other members of the community, who are not fluent in English and are not light or medium skin.

However, they couldn’t help but notice the unfair treatment imposed on them by other members of society. Today, they take pride in their identity and work towards creating awareness and celebrating Roma lives and experiences. According to them, education institutions can become an inclusive place for Roma community by making small yet impactful reforms such as decolonising curriculums to include Romani history and the contribution made by Romani people in different fields all across the world. There is also a need to address and dismantle systemic racism in policy surrounding education.

Too often, education was made to exclude students whose families are still nomadic, with a lack of appreciation for non-formal methods of education due to generational inaccessibility to educational spaces. It is also essential to appreciate Romani labour and intellectualism. Their contribution through arts, culture, feminist thought should be highlighted. This will encourage Roma youth to take pride in their culturally rich and diverse identity and break the false notions about the community.

Roma community should be made comfortable to voice their experiences so that the real Roma who has multiple identities like all of us can be understood and celebrated. Racist tropes and slurs such as “exotic Gypsy,” “fantasy Gypsy wanderer,” “mystical fortune teller” are dangerous as it overwrites centuries of slavery, displacement, genocide, and persecution. It drowns out their continued struggle for rights and recognition.

There is also a need to support Roma-led initiatives for education and equality. Jezmina and Lolo are optimistic about the future status of Romani people because of the commendable work done by young Romas for the community. One such initiative is Get The Heck Back To School by Selma Selman. This foundation was started by her in 2017 in her hometown, Bihac, Bosnia to encourage Roma girls to enrol in school.

A holistic approach needs to be developed and implemented by national governments and international organisations to make a positive change in the lives of Romani people. The policies shouldn’t only address the social and economic problems of the community but also tackle the instances of microaggression and hate speech against them.

This post was first published here.

About the author: Navya Khanna is a student of Political Science from Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University. She is the Founder and President of Diversity Dialogue.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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