The Role and Status of Women in Modern Society: Between Empowerment, Leadership and Gender Discrimination

FRA Director's speech to a high-level Romanian Presidency conference on the role and status of women in modern society: Between empowerment, leadership and gender discrimination given on 29 May 2019 in Bucharest.

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Excellencies,

ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank the Romanian presidency for its kind invitation to join you here in Bucharest and to thank our distinguished speakers for their very thoughtful interventions on the empowerment of women in European societies. All speakers you have heard today have proposed measures to improve equality between men and women, which has been a goal of the European Union since its foundation. I would refer for instance to the intervention of our EU sister agency, EIGE.

The Fundamental Rights Agency is convinced that human and fundamental rights approaches to promote equality will indeed deliver the true empowerment of women.

In that regard, rather than make a general statement, I would like to focus on one particular group of women, Roma women.

Why? 1) Because they are the most marginalised group of women in our societies and 2) because Roma women, if engaged, can play a major role to pursue gender equality across our societies.

I was reminded of the powerful role of Roma women most recently, just two weeks ago in Dublin, when I visited a Roma community. There, invariably, and in my broader experience, the ideas, energy and initiatives came predominantly from Roma women as opposed to men. They are the drivers of change in their communities.

But first, allow me a word on the overall fundamental and human rights situation of Roma – men and women alike. The EU Fundamemental Rights Agency has delivered important survey data within the results of the European Union Minority and Discrimination Survey – short EU-MIDIS II- in 2018. An estimated 10-12 million Roma live in Europe and they are victims of the severest forms of racism and discrimination we witness on our continent today. The main challenges they face are:

First, poverty: the overwhelming majority of Roma have an income below the national poverty threshold; about half of Roma children live in households struggling with malnutrition or hunger.

Second, housing: More than half of Roma continue to live in segregated areas, in accomodation that falls far below minimum housing standards.

Third, employment: Only about a third of Roma are in paid work, often precarious and informal, while most young Roma between the ages of 18-24 are neither working nor being educated.

Fourth, anti-Gypsyism: hate-motivated crime and harassment, are growing problems. Four per cent of Roma in our surveys experienced physical violence motivated by anti-Gypsyism – and, of those, only one in three reported this to any organisation, including the police.

When it comes to the particular experience of Roma women as opposed to Roma men, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights published findings earlier this year. Two problem areas stand out: Employment and early marriage.

Even though the education gap between Roma men and women has been closed, more Roma women aged 16-24 are not in employment or education than men. Women in households with children are particularly strongly affected. With regard to early marriage before the age of 18, the numbers for young Roma women are twice as high as for young Roma men.

Enough of the description of the situation. I would like to turn to the action that is needed. Today I propose three areas for attention:

  1. We need to be much better at listening to and working with Roma women. At the Fundamental Rights Agency we have tried this.For instance, our Local Engagement for Roma Inclusion project was intended to create a space for dialogue and listen to the voices of Roma, including Roma women, at the national and local level. Bringing together local residents, including Roma, with other local stakeholders, the project gave people the freedom to identify one priority issue – and provided a small grant to actually implement it. Roma women opted for small projects, such as cooking workshops, dance classes or chicken breeding, which provided them the opportunities to stay at home  and to empower them as individuals, to boost their self confidence. In Madrid, Roma women chose to organise a women’s congress, an unique opportunity for them to be heard and to establish networks. It showed how supporting local initiatives, where women decide themselves what and how to do it, boosted these young people’s self-confidence.
  2. Second, we have to improve education for all Roma girls. How?
    1. by combating educational segregation in schools; already in primary school Roma children are treated differently from non-Roma children.
    2. by ensuring Roma girls can access schools, notwithstanding de-facto segregated living.
    3. by prioritising other initiatives that focus on girls. There are many ways of doing this, such as scholarships for Roma women. Or using the European Social Fund and Youth Guarantee schemes to take targeted policy initiatives to ensure that young Roma women enter and stay in education.
  3. Give Roma women meaningful support to enter the labour market: Fighting poverty and providing decent housing will especially help Roma women to get out of survival mode and unlock their potential to get jobs. It is about creating real opportunities to find work, quality jobs which provide women with meaningful choices. These jobs can be embedded in the local structure and have to take on board the needs of women. I should add that providing women with a real choice, to get education and a job, is also the best way to tackle early marriage.

Excellencies,

Dear colleagues,

We have a long way to go to truly honour and respect the human dignity of Roma women. But it is increasingly clear what is needed. If we stay steadfast, committed to rights-based solidarity with them, I believe we can look forward to the day when it will be commonplace to vote for Roma women in our elections and to have them lead us in our societies. That would be a day in Europe of which we could all be proud.

Thank you.