The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ratiu Democracy Award winner fights ‘anti-gypsy’ prejudice

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“If it’s not careful, the media can sustain centuries-old stereotypes about Roma,” says Roma activist Dr. Angela Kocze, referring to recent news stories about the removal of blonde-haired, fair-skinned children from their darker-complected Roma parents in Greece and Ireland.  Insensitive or sensationalized media coverage of Roma issues readily inflames “anti-gypsyism,” the hostile scapegoating of Roma that is rife throughout Europe. “We need to change the discourse,” Kocze says, by critiquing the prejudices against Roma, not reinforcing them.

Kocze was recently named the 2013 recipient of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Ion Ratiu Democracy Award, which will enable her to spend a month in Washington, D.C., raising awareness about Roma issues and interacting with policy and NGO representatives engaged in the work of democratic change.  A research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, Kocze is currently a Fulbright fellow in the Department of Sociology at Wake Forest in North Carolina.

Although ethnic prejudice and discrimination affects the lives of 12 million Roma living throughout Europe, Romani women are an especially vulnerable population, suffering the effects of multiple inequalities that intersect through their experiences of gender, race, and class. Kocze, a sociologist, is among a new generation of Romani feminists in Hungary who place the specific needs of women at the forefront of conversations about social inclusion of Roma in civil society.

Kocze argues that the marginalization of Roma results from long-term structural discrimination, a history of enslavement and violence that precedes their mass killings in Nazi death camps by hundreds of years. She identifies enormous discrepancies between Roma and non-Roma society in terms of the prevalence of poverty, unemployment, and prejudice.  The situation of Roma in Hungary and Central Europe is “really horrible… in the villages there are no jobs, and I see that people are starving. Literally starving.” She reports that in some of the smallest villages, unemployment runs as high as 90-95%.

But within Roma communities there is a distinct gender gap, she states, which puts women at even greater disadvantage than men. Romani women, especially in the poorest rural villages, may be vulnerable to such victimization as forced sterilization, domestic violence, and human trafficking, as well as deprived of opportunities to overcome poverty through employment. And due to the Roma cultural tradition of early marriage and childbearing, girls often start families in their teen years, leaving school behind.

Regarding reports about alleged trafficking of Romani women and children, she remarks that experts lack solid information on specifics; however, “When you are structurally totally deprived, it makes you much more vulnerable to everything, including this type of victimization.” How to address trafficking without resurrecting images of wily baby snatchers and sexually available Carmens is a problem unique to the Roma, and one which Kocze believes requires rigorous conceptual framing and careful use of language.

Addressing Romani women’s reproductive rights and the need for health care and family planning services, Kocze says, “Some feel that it is unworthy to provide services to birth Romani children.” Given the viciousness of hate-speech that is tolerated in contemporary Hungarian social and political life, her remark seems an understatement. (As recently as January 2013, a Hungarian journalist wrote that “These [Roma] animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist….That needs to be solved—immediately and regardless of the method.”)

Despite such virulent anti-Roma outbursts, according to Kocze, the situation of Romani women’s reproductive rights is changing for the better. She has done scholarly research on the forced sterilization of Romani women, which she states was a policy under Communism in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but which continued as a social practice by doctors even after the regime change. Women were offered incentives to sterilize, she says, without having any understanding of the actual consequences of the procedures they would undergo. “Without access to education to develop a consciousness about health care and family planning, women were vulnerable.” As a result of human rights litigation in recent years over high profile cases in Slovakia and Hungary, Kocze says, there is awareness not only of Roma victimization, but of the need to frame the conversation in terms of education, health care, and family planning services.

Education is a key theme of Kocze’s advocacy. She points to long-standing discriminatory practices in Hungary such as grouping Romani children in special education classes as a segregation strategy or classifying them as “private students” who aren’t required to come to school more than 1-2 times per year. “These were easy solutions for the educational system,” she says. She advocates for structural reforms to ensure Romani children access to quality education, as well as for programs that allow adult women to return to school to complete their education and enter university.

Kocze is critical of the mainstream media for failing to provide a sufficiently complex picture of Roma issues, noting “the [media’s] tendency to reaffirm the point of view and values of the readership.” She believes that negative depictions of Roma in the media not only influence the majority culture’s view, but are internalized by Romani themselves: “People in marginalized communities are affected by the majority’s perception of the minority—this has an effect on the minority as well…. For this reason, the media has to be more aware and critically reflect on how they frame the news.”

The hate that fuels anti-gypsyism is not restricted to words alone. In August, four men were convicted in the murders of six Roma, including a five-year-boy, during a reign of terror in villages in northeastern Hungary. But responsible use of language and intelligent analysis are starting points for counteracting the ugly stereotypes that perpetuate prejudice. And overcoming prejudice, according to Kocze, is the necessary condition for Roma acceptance and inclusion: “If [societal] structures provide real opportunities—if they create paths for you—then it will be easier for Romani women to succeed.”