A VISIT TO THE ROMA WOMEN’S PROJECT IN
NOVI BECEJ IN OCTOBER 2013
by Foundations for Peace member, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.
The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) is currently supporting the development of a Roma Family Support Centre in Belfast for a recently arrived Roma community of approximately thousand people. CFNI has long been interested in making contact with local Roma Women’s Groups in Serbia to see what kind of support projects have been successful and how they might learn more about the cultural needs and the broader complexities facing Roma communities in regions where there are large Roma populations.To date, the work in Belfast has focused on service provision, including support to access health, education and welfare services, but CFNI is aware that more community development work is needed to enable Roma women to develop and own the kind of supports they feel most relevant to their needs.
Serbia has a large documented (officially recognised) Roma community but also has large numbers of undocumented Roma who have no access to services or state support. Many emigrate because of need, and meet very difficult and varied responses in the regions to which they travel. Once they emigrate, they have no access to papers or recognition by State on their return to Serbia – leaving the numbers of ‘undocumented’ Roma growing constantly, creating additional problems for the families that have no access to work, services or education. Women bear the brunt of this and very often are ‘voiceless’ in their male-dominated culture.
Reconstruction Women’s Fund enabled the visit to the Novi Becej group and it was a hugely inspiring and interesting occasion. We were welcomed warmly and enjoyed several hours of talk with a large group of activist women – we shared stories but mainly listened – that was what we came to do. Their enthusiasm for their work was clearly seen as they talked us through the many issues and barriers that they were faced with. Their determination to raise awareness and to challenge structural and widespread racism against the Roma and other minorities was huge as was their determination to challenge the norm of domestic violence and sexual abuse of Roma women and girls within their own communities.
We learned a lot from this visit and hope to develop a joint information and research project with the Group, relating to the provision of Information Packs for Roma who are considering emigration – they would need to know what to expect in other countries across Europe as the support systems vary enormously. We thank the women for their welcome and for being so forthcoming about their situation. Their energy and bravery in this complex situation were humbling. Their humour is clearly a great strength – they talk a lot and also laugh a lot together – there was very evident solidarity and a sharing of vision and aspiration. We thank them and the Reconstruction Women’s Fund for enabling this experience.
A bit of background context to the Novi Becej group:
It is part of the Roma Women’s Network of Banat – Banat region – Serbia.
The Network was established in 2007 with support from Reconstruction Women’s Fund, Belgrade, Incest Trauma Centre and the Association of Roma in Novi Becej. The goal is to spread Roma Women’s activism and initiate the fight against discrimination, racism and violence; and support women’s right to their bodies and sexuality. The network consists of the following organisations that operate in Roma settlements in northern Serbia:
• Roma Women’s Centre, Rromnajakoilo Zrenjanin;
• Association of Roma Danica Pancevo;
• The Association of Roma Novi Becej.
It functions on the basis of feminist principles and is project-oriented, with each organisation having the right to submit proposals to donors for local projects while having the opportunity to support mutual activity in the Banat territory. It operates in the territory of the Banat in the localities of the towns of Pancevo, Novi Becej and Zrenjanin. The network has joined hands with Women in Black and other organisations in protests and campaigns to further their cause, and has also received support and solidarity from them.
The network works in a context of discrimination and racial attacks against Roma communities, and campaigns to raise awareness within Roma communities as well as broader society. A recent example of prolonged racial attacks has created increased fear and distrust in the region. Protest walks began on the 10th of June after the murder of D.S. (17), a boy of Serbian ethnicity, committed by his peer, a boy of Roma ethnicity, B.J. This turned into violence and the spreading of racial hatred against Roma people that lasted unhindered for two days. State organs, the municipality and police only reacted on the third day. After such an experience of total insecurity, the fear of new violence and the distrust experienced by the Roma inhabitants of Jabuka are completely justified and understandable.The fact that, despite soothing statements by state organs, the situation has not changed is frightening. Those that are supposed to protect the Roma population do not recognise its fear and deny the existence of any danger.
In June of this year, as a gesture of solidarity with Roma women, activists of the non-governmental organisations- Praxis, YUCOM [Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights], Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Network of Roma Women of the Banat Region, Civil Rights Defenders, Reconstruction Women’s Fund and Women in Black, the artists Rena Rädle and Vladan Jeremic and the independent human right activist Rastko Pocesta, visited the village of Jabuka near Pancevo on 30th July 2010, a village in which the Roma population lives in total isolation and has suffered racially based attacks regularly.
The network participated in the March 21st, Belgrade – Rebel Racism – Resist!; during the occasions of the International Day Against Racism, and a week of European Action Against Racism. In addition, during the month of Roma Women’s Activism, Women in Black, together with Reconstruction Women’s Fund organized anti-racism protests in front of the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, highlighting the racism that is reflected primarily in relation to the Roma population and other minority communities in Serbia (ethnic, sexual and other minorities). This action was attended by dozens of women who carried banners of different colours on which was written “We will not be defeated!”, “We will not let that intimidate us!”, “Resist Racism” and “We say without doubt: Stop Racism”.
On the same date, they organised the March 21st, Novi Becej – Women’s anti-racism march: Women in Black, together with the Roma Women Network Banat, organized a march against racism in Novi Becej downtown, during the freezing rain and the wind. During the march, which was attended by a hundred Roma activists and the activists from other groups, the participants expressed solidarity with the slogans “We are all Roma”, “Stop Racism, and stop discrimination”, “Against racism, resist racism”. After the march, Roma Women Network Serbia organized a theatre performance, created by RWNS activists, supported by the artists from Dah Theatre, as part of the campaign “All that I am”. The campaign aims to break down prejudices and stereotypes about Roma women and points to the richness of identity and diversity. The Performance was held at the local cultural centre, and was attended by over a hundred people.
Their work is essential and their energy will raise awareness and broader understanding but there is a long way to go: we wish them well with their work and will collaborate with them on the joint initiative to aid Roma intending to emigrate.
Avila Kilmurray and Monina O’Prey
Community Foundation for Northern Ireland