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utolsó frissítés: 2008. ápr. 17.

Social exclusion and reproductive control. The case of romani women (romni). Paper given at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menchen, Tuesday lecture, 30th of May 2006




·        Introduction. On the issue and its importance

·        The map and the film fragments that talk about instances of Roma's social exclusion on the base of their ethnicity and class 

·        Community norms and Romani women's agency regarding reproduction

o       Women's status

o       Marriage

o       Children

o       Contraceptives

o       Abortion

·        Romani women's marginalization within the mainstream policies for Roma

·        Romani women's discrimination in the context of reproductive politics and of the anti-Gypsy attitudes of health care providers

·        Conclusions. Romani women between two fires

In my lecture I am addressing the phenomenon of social exclusion through the specific problem of the control of reproduction. More precisely, I am dealing with this broad issue through the case of Romani women from Romania, in particular of the Boyash Gypsy (băieşi) women from the town of Orăştie, located in the Southern part of Transylvania, in Hunedoara county. You probably know that Romania has the highest number of Roma in Europe. In the 2002 census 2.5 percent of a total population of approximately 21,6 million identified themselves as Roma, but unofficial estimates of their actual figure range between 1,8 — 2,5 million. In the same year out of the 21,213 inhabitants of Orăştie 865 persons (4.07 percent) declared themselves Roma, and 156 stated that they spoke Romanes. Boyash Gypsies speak a more or less archaic dialect of Romanian. 

My research included an ethnographic fieldwork in the Digului district from Orăştie (which I sketched on this map), but also the analysis of the Romanian politics of reproduction and policies for Roma, and as well as an investigation on Roma women's organizations. As part of the ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in-depth interviews and participant observation in the mentioned Romani community, but also in the community of the local health care providers. In this way I could place the reproduction-related experiences of Romni in their economic, social and political context. Moreover, I could understand the multidimensional processes of social exclusion, which — on the base of their ethnicity, gender and class — place Romani women in a multiple disadvantaged position, from where — while taking their decisions on reproduction — they negotiate and resist the forces that shape their life.

Let me stress that the importance of such an endeavor lies behind this local setting, because it is related to the matters regarding — on the one hand — Roma's condition, and on the other hand reproductive control, more and more addressed both in social sciences and European politics. 

The concept of Roma/Gypsy as a "European" issue was formally acknowledged in 1993, when a Resolution of the Council of Europe declared Gypsies to be "a true European minority", as far as they were identified in almost every European country, totaling a population of 7 to 9 million, or even 12 million according to other estimations. Among others, the human rights violations and the deteriorating socio-economic conditions of Roma led the European Community in 2000 to enact the so-called Racial Equality Directive, which was preceded during the 1990s by many other initiatives. For example, in 1996 by the creation of the European Roma Rights Centre which monitors the situation of Roma across Europe and it shows that anti-Gypsy racism is flourishing not only in the Central and East European candidate countries, but also in the old EU member states. Many anthropologists (for example Judith Okely [2] and Michael Stewart [3] ) reveal: it is exactly the phenomenon of social exclusion underlied by racism that produces and maintains the boundaries between non-Gypsies and Gypsies, and by this the Gypsy culture itself. The Gypsy way of life always and everywhere exists in an oppositional and mutually constitutive relation with the non-Gypsy world (and that's why is so diverse), being developed as a creative response to marginality, but also fulfilling social functions as part of the whole society.

On the other part, reproductive control as part of reproductive health is recognized by international organizations as an issue of human rights central to well-being and crucial for achieving equity and social justice. The declaration of the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994 and, a year later, the Fourth World Conference on Women stressed: it is women's right to have control over and decide freely on matters related to their sexual and reproductive health, including the decision on the number of children, on the time-spacing of birth, or on the contraceptive method used in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies. The anthropological literature on reproduction emphasizes that this is a socially, economically and culturally, but also politically determined phenomenon. And it demonstrates, as Maya Unnithan-Kumar [4] does: women take their decisions on reproduction in conformity with the social expectations referring to fertility and motherhood, but also according to their material conditions and emotional ties.

Eventually, if one links the issue of Roma's general condition to that of Romani women's experiences in the area of reproduction, he/she discovers the complex processes of social exclusion and the ways in which ethnicity, gender and class intertwine while producing and maintaining social hierarchies. The phenomenon of reproductive control might be analyzed as a "small problem" that allows us to have a look on a "large issue", in particular on how different resources are unequally distributed by these systems of classification, as a result of which some social categories are excluded from access to employment, proper housing, education and health, or services of a good quality. Briefly put, my ethnographic case study aims to have a contribution to the understanding of the social and cultural processes of exclusion that produce marginalization and inequality in a post-socialist context.

Let me first introduce you into the setting where I could observe all these. To get an image of it please have a look on this map and on some fragments of a film that, unfortunately, is not ready yet. It is a rough material shoot by us in Orăştie that I am going to show you and I am asking for your patience while I'll be searching for the proper fragments. The map gives you a sense of the spare space through figures about the territory, the number of houses, and that of inhabitants and families living in the Digului district. Numbers from 1 to 10 on the map are marking the sites where the film-sequences to be watched are happening. The map, the film fragments and the stories behind illustrate instances of Roma's social exclusion on the base of their ethnicity and class.


[10] 00:54:12:14 — 00:55:14:18 (62'')

This first picture gives us a distanced view on the Digului street that is actually a whole district where the investigated Romani community is living. The place, named as such when a dike, dig in Romanian, was made on the nearby river, is located on the periphery of the town, so it knows a geographic exclusion due to which it functions like a ghetto. Roma presence here was recorded back to the 19th century. As you may see, the right side of this neighborhood is bordered by the river, behind which fields and small hills are started (by the way, on the top of the nearby hill a traditional Roma community is living). As you may observe, the river is used as a source of water, mostly for washing. On the touch-line of the river lies one of the lateral entrances into the district.

[1] 00:00:34:05 — 00:01:49:23 (75'')

The central access into the neighborhood, that you are watching now, opens up from the main street called Plantelor (the Plants street), which passes nearby one of the still functioning factories of the town, FARES, where different products of herbs are made. This provides a source of living for the community, offering a chance for causal work during summer that consists of herb gathering on the neighboring meadows, out of which, at the most, one may earn 80 eurocents after 8-10 hours of work. Otherwise, before 1990 three major factories functioned in the town (metallurgical, chemical and coat-manufacturing), where Roma were employed in large numbers. By now they totally or partially collapsed leaving them in the situation of a long-term unemployment, or without pensions, and with many illnesses resulted from the unhealthy work environments. Before the 1970s, when the traditional Roma occupations were declared illegal in Romania, these people were engaged in manufacturing bricks, which implied long journeys between spring and fall in the neighboring rural areas. 

[15] 00:00:40:00 — 00:01:40:00 (60'')

The left side of the district is marked by another street that you are watching now, named Muzicantilor in Romanian, the Musicians road, on which houses are in a better shape. During the 1970s and ‘80s Romanians were still living here, but as time passed on they moved out from the area called ţigănime (Gypsy vicinity). Starting with the end of the 1990s wealthier traditional Roma, who managed to make money out of their work abroad (mostly in Spain and Italy) bought some of these houses. As you may see, this street is also unpaved, but it has a paved sidewalk. From this road a very narrow lane takes the pedestrian to the heart of the Digului neighborhood. This is a path that harshly separates the Gypsy and the Gaźo world: a residents-only beaten track, being frequented once in a while by police or by the community medical nurse and the social assistant.

[15] 00:03:10:00 — 00:05:39:09 (69'')

On this image you may see the only source of running water of the community, a water-pipe and right behind it a stonewall, which separates the district from the outer world and/or other-way around. Speaking about utilities it should be noted that the majority of the houses (80%) do not have toilets of any kinds, but at least they are having electricity. Most of the families do invest in providing a television, and soap operas are widely watched by women, who do like to compare their destinies to the life of the main female characters. The latter is in total contrast, of course, with their everyday realities, among others with the slop drain that crosses the alleys of the district that you may see right now. Except mornings, the intersected lanes are highly populated with women, men and children, and their encounters are at times occasions for playing, for serious talks, petty chats or performance-like yelling to each other, as the last image shows us. Time spent on talking to each other has a great value in this community.

[15] 00:22:38:03 — 00:25:15:13 (97'')

This is another path unfolding to a broader alleyway, which — at its turn — is parallel with the one seen formerly and with the river, being connected to the latter through other narrow lanes, on the sides of which newly made sheds of plank and nylon are wedged in-between the older houses. This strategy of constructing is a reaction to the fact that young couples, who may not stay with their parents, who do not obtain places of living other-where and do not have a space where and money with which to build a more proper house, have to look for an immediate solution against homelessness. Here you may see the main square of the district, which according to people's memory used to be a wonderful place in the old times.

[18] 00:22:00:00 — 00:23:00:00 (60'') 

At last here we are having a view on one of the narrow exits to the river, on the left side you may see sheds, and women taking the garbage to the shore. Faraway you may observe a shelter made of plank, where a single woman is living, who, for many times, crosses the river from her house to the district and back.

These images might look stereotypical as they represent Roma living in poverty, and, in themselves, they might make some to believe in the "culture of poverty" paradigm as developed by Oscar Lewis [5] in the 1960s. According to this poor people are poor and "marginal" because their "deviant" culture makes them so, which makes this "explanation" ready to reproduce the very ideology that sustains their oppression. Obviously, one may and should avoid such accounts by situating these people's condition and life strategies into the broader social and political context. Because as the anthropologist Ulf Hannerz stated: "much of what should concern us about ghetto life has its ultimate determinants in much larger structures, beyond the reach of the ghetto dwellers". [6] Besides, one may and should also observe how the strategy of living in the present (that characterizes many communities around the world living in enclaves at the margins of society) is an active response to social exclusion and at times — as anthropologists Sophie Day, Evthymios Papataxiarchis and Michael Stewart stress — "it constitutes an effective cultural and political critique". [7]

And indeed, in their stories about unemployment and poverty, Roma from Digului district do not treat these phenomena as their individual failures, but have the strength to criticize the system and the practices of discrimination for being marginalized. However, their attitudes towards state authorities are full with ambiguity, which is, again, a response to their condition: they are dependent on the welfare provisions, but at the same time they do find strategies of survival on a daily basis. The seeming conflict between dependence and independence is handled by them by the following argument: we are getting the social benefit, but in exchange we are obliged to do and we really do work on the behalf of the "community" (meaning by this not their immediate community, but the whole town). Because they do work for or instead the "Others", the Romanians, they do wipe "their" streets, they do clean "their" dirtiness, the social benefits they get is not perceived by them as a "gift", but as a payment for their work. They know that they provide services that others do not want to. And also consider that it is unfair to be excessively punished if they are performing other works on the "black market", or if they steal scrap-iron for buying a piece of bread. While they stress that we should be helped out, but no one helps us, expressing that they are like some neglected children (the term necăjiţii stands for this), they also proudly tell stories about how they manage to sustain themselves and their families as day laborers, or by recycling bottle and scrap-iron, or even by begging. One may interpret this as a reaction to the fact that they are living in an encapsulated social space and are inventing life strategies on the periphery of the society, where, nevertheless, they have to build up their self-confidence and sense of living properly, inverting in a way necessity into virtue.

[18] 00:08:50:07 — 00:09:28:02 (38'')

Related to what I was mentioning right before, these images give us a sense of an unusual way of collecting scrap-iron. You may see here two men clambered upon on a high pillar and extracting the iron out of the ruins of a factory building that was never finished as revolution came in December 1989. The place is at least at one hour walking distance from Digului district. People get approximately 1 euro per 10 kilos of iron.

Speaking about attitudes towards education and employment, one may observe that these are also ambiguous because Roma's self-perception includes — on the one hand — the recent memories of socialist times when they had better access to education and secure jobs, and — on the other hand — the current experiences of making a living from a day to another. Their paradoxical situation results also from the fact that the majority society left them somewhere in the middle of the road: promised their inclusion if they would accept the lifestyle of the majority, but, at the same time, continued and continues to make their integration impossible by reminding them constantly that they are going to remain always Gypsies (meaning something inferior, non-modern or unacceptable). Attitudes that reject the values of the majority, which Roma cannot reach and attitudes that identify with other types of values, which guides them on a daily basis, are a response to this situation. However, the desire of being different goes hand in hand with that of being provided with chances similar to those of Romanians. This development is part of the process, by which the already mentioned culture of living in the present is constructed, but not as a totally free choice, and for sure not as the extension of a "Gypsy essence" that others project on them, but as a reaction to social exclusion and marginalization. 


Besides the exclusionary social and economic processes and the cultural devaluation of Roma described above, Romani women face other kinds of discriminations, too that conduct to their marginalization and, among others, to the deterioration of their reproductive health. Some of these mechanisms are functioning within their own communities. If one observes Romani women's desires and practices related to reproduction may note that these are also shaped by the cultural conceptions dominant in their immediate context. These include views on gender relations, on women's role in family and in public life, on their role in sexual relations and on their body, on the proper number of children, girls and boys, but occasionally also include religious beliefs that might criminalize not only abortion, but the use of any contraceptive method, too. Moreover, views and conceptions do not function alone while shaping women's choices regarding reproduction. Feelings do have their own role in decision-making, because — especially regarding issues that belong so much to intimacy and privacy — women cannot make abstraction of their emotional ties, which link them to their children, spouses and other kin. Furthermore, the economic conditions in which they live, or more properly said, the ways in which they think that they might cope with poverty do shape Romani women's decision-making regarding reproduction.

Under the regime which favors the occupants of masculine roles that characterizes this community, women's status is paradoxical, because they have power in many areas, but this power has no authority. The idea of male dominance is maintained through the moral rule according to which a woman should respect her man, moreover, should serve him also by providing him with money for drinks or cigarettes. Usually people trace this idea from the remote past, saying that this is how it was and still it is (adding: fortunately or unfortunately depending on the speaker). Moreover, a woman's value symbolically is strictly linked to her man and is even greater if she is dedicated during her whole life to only one man. One may rarely find single women or single mothers in the community. The law is: you should bear all the difficulties near him, even if he beats you, you have to accept this as he probably hits you only under the influence of alcohol. However, I have met single mothers, like the widows considered by their children with whom they lived too old (even in their forties!) to "marry" again, or like the girls whose partners did not recognize the newborns as being their children, or the ones whose men were imprisoned, or the ones who were abandoned by their men and decided to live on their own with their children in the house of their parents asserting that they do not need any man from now on (nu îmi mai trebuie bărbat). Women do all kinds of works besides giving birth to children: childrearing, shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, taking care of elders, or going out to the forest for wood. They also perform remunerated labor: mainly herb collection during the summer and/or domestic work during the whole year (having their "ladies", femeia mea, as they say, where they mostly do the cleaning), and — as it happens today when they are not employed any more — they do community work for the welfare allowance they receive. At the same time they are the experts of the family's external relations, taking the children to the school or to the physicians, and making claims at the city hall and so on and so forth. 

In this community girls usually marry early, abandoning school at the age of 13-15. I was told: there is no girl in our district, who would have graduated high school, and at the best they had ten grades during Ceausescu, but after revolution is good if they graduate eight grades, usually dropping out after the fourth or even never enroll. Girls feel free of choosing their husband, so they are entering freely into relations of love. However there are more rules regarding a woman's sexual behavior than a man's, so the body-related shames are mostly projected on women, together with the burden of protecting the honor of their family. It is said: she needs to be a virgin; or: it is a shame to leave your husband and to look for another and having children of two kinds; or: women who change their husbands are blamed by their community together with their whole family. It happens more often that a man leaves her woman for another one, and in this case the first "wife" moves back to her parent's house. But it also happens that a woman tries to run away (usually due to the frequent acts of domestic violence), but her attempt is much more difficult to fulfill: she might be accepted back by her mother but risking to be labeled negatively by the community; or might try to leave from the district and even from the town, but each time being afraid of being followed, founded and returned back by the angry man who cannot accept to be abandoned. They do not marry officially (nevertheless this is a recent development), giving many reasons for this, among them the following: I do not like to change my name; or: we do not have our own home, he stays with his parents and I am staying together with my children at my mother's house; or: if we do not marry, I may receive the social benefit, while he might find some works on a daily basis without being blamed for also taking it; or: this is how it is happening here; or: he can abandon me anyway if he wants. However, women refer to their partner as my husband, or even more often as my man (bărbatul meu). As a rule, the family and the community consider them married (due to what they name credinţă) after having slept with their partner in one of the parent's house.

Usually in a year after marriage — even if at an early age — women give birth to their first child. And after that moment, children continue "to come" yearly: the year and the child, they say. Breastfeeding creates a huge dependency between the mother and her child. It goes on for many years, even up to three or four. Even if this means that the mother always have to carry her child after herself, this is part of her proudly assumed identity. She says: I am giving breast (ţîţă) wherever I am going, whenever it is needed, when my child is hungry, or nervous, or cannot fall asleep, on the street, on the bus or in the shop, it's no shame about this. Being a mother, altogether, is a prestigious role in the community, and it is actually the way by which a girl starts to be recognized as an adult person. Up to this, if she gets her own home or at least her own bad that has not to be shared with her little brothers or sisters but with her man she may experience the increase of her status. Having many children is considered a sign of the strength of the family and the masculinity of a Rom is judged according to the number of the children he makes during a lifetime. Women who have to take care of their family and household, but also of the relationship between family and public institutions might have other opinions about the "proper" number of children. But in a community where the tradition of having many children is shaping people's life and choices, their voice is hardly heard. They might have power to decide (and they do it secretly), but this power lacks authority and is considered an illegitimate one. The responsibility of having children is assumed actually for the whole life. I was told: anything would happen to me I need to take care of my children; or: I just feel wonderful when I am together with all of mine six children in the bed; or: I need to give him first to eat and see him well; or: I take them to the physician whenever they are sick, but I am not really going there for myself; or: if my daughter wants to come back in my house, she is always welcomed, but I told her that it is wrong to leave her husband till the children are small; or: you have to stay near your man and suffer if you need to for the sake of your children; or: children gave me the strength of going further on and survive. Responsibility is expressed also in the terms of not desiring to have more children than already one has: I wanted to have these four kids, especially during Ceausescu when we had where to work and we had a stable income, but now I cannot afford to make more, I cannot support to watch them being hungry. For this reason Romani women are using contraceptives or are appealing to abortion.

Almost every woman whom I met from this community was having information about the modern contraceptive methods, but — due to many reasons — they had many abortions during their life-time. The sources of information were their family physicians, the gynecologists from the public hospital, or female friends, or the local rumors. Since a few years health care providers started to distribute contraceptives for free and Romani women might also apply for them. But in the case of using this service, they face further problems, as they are taking what is for free of charge and not exactly the contraceptive that suits their health condition. In the last year the injectable contraceptive became widespread among them, and they are using it even if they are complaining about its side-effects. In the community there is no open talk about contraceptives, or abortion or, generally, about reproduction and sexuality. Embarrassment felt around these issues marks their difference in front of the majority population, but it also shapes internal relationships. I was told: I'm ashamed to discuss about this; or: if I suddenly get fat or to the contrary become thinner the community starts to whisper that this was due to the pills; or: if they would find out that I am using condoms would blame me of being a prostitute (traseistă); or: they say that I give myself airs (mă dau mare) if they hear that I am doing this. The "public opinion" which is mostly whispered and not openly expressed, but still, as such, is having the function of a community control, is shaping the judgment about the "proper" contraceptive method. Women spread the word: my friend got fat from using the pills; or: when my neighbor took those pills she lost weight; or: there was someone who died after the injection; or: it is said that someone made cancer after she used the intrauterine device (sterilet). The mixture of all of these knowledge — under the conditions of which women do not dare to talk about these problems openly and physicians do not listen to them or do not answer to their doubts — turns the whole issue of contraceptives into a mystical topic. Into a problem that one needs to face if she wishes to avoid having more children or abortions, but also one which — due to the related embarrassment — she wants to forget altogether. The connected frustration is even bigger because of the contradictory messages a woman receives from different authorities, like the followings: the community expects women to give birth to as many children as they can; or: it is said that you are more powerful if you have more children; or: if God wants you to remain pregnant, you have to give birth to the child; or: it is said that you, as a woman, have to respect your man, so if he wants to have many children, you have to make them; or: how can I make more children in this cottage?;  or: it is unbearable for a mother to watch their children freezing or hungry; or:  it is a sin to make abortion and to use contraceptives so even now, in my forties I would give birth to a child if he would come 

Due to the awkwardness that surrounds contraceptives, abortion remains for very many Romni "the best", or at least the "most practical" solution for unwanted pregnancy. The majority of women whom I talked stressed that the resort to abortion is a practical decision: I could not afford raising more children, so I made an abortion; or: if you don't want him, because you don't have the material conditions, it is better not to give birth, it is more acceptable to make an abortion, because it would be far worse to torture him afterwards. But almost everybody considered that abortion is a sin. They said: you kill a soul, and this will affect you all along; or: God will not give you to eat after you die; or: you feel yourself like a murderer. Nevertheless, abortion was requested as a last resort. A woman told me: this is like a war inside your body, it is difficult to decide, but finally you opt for it if there is no other way out. Otherwise, the "option" for this intervention harmonizes with the dominant strategy of frequenting physicians. Going to the hospital (and especially for reasons related to reproductive organs) is an unpleasant event linked to several taboos regarding body and sexuality. Thinking and acting preventively is not really part of the dominant health culture generally in our society. Under these conditions abortion (as a concrete intervention in the case of an emergency) remains more "favored" than the use of contraceptives (which impose, among others, a regular control and supervision, and involve more costs). I quote: hitherto I did only one abortion, so I can still make two or three, I'll just go to the gynecologist, now it is allowed and it is cheep at the state hospital, and make a request for it. The act of making an abortion sometimes is considered to be the manifestation of women's power, a moment that is controlled by her, and something that might be done secretly: I do not tell him about this, this is my problem, and I have to deal with it. Paradoxically, this kind of power is "achieved" by a woman due to the fact that, I quote: my man failed to take care of me as he was supposed to do; or: he let me pregnant without my will. Under the conditions of a shortage micro-economy within which they live, or of a bad social relation that threatens even their bodily safety the resort to abortion is about escaping from further troubles. If this is the case, its side effects are less or not at all considered, they lie far away from the necessities of the elementary survival. The prevalence of abortion over the use of contraceptives sometimes looks to fit well into the culture of "living in the present", because the latter supposes a long-time planning and, as such, is unimaginable within a life lived from a day to another. On the other hand, Roma cultural values put on women the burden of having as many children as they can, so becoming pregnant seems to be — on the side of the woman — a "strategy" for corresponding to social expectancies. Furthermore, abortion remains her ultimate freedom for escaping from other's control, or an alternative by which she expresses her choice of not keeping the pregnancy under the circumstances of her immediate material conditions, social relations and emotional attachments. I may conclude that abortions and the use of modern contraceptives may be the alternative and subversive practices of Romni developed under conditions of poverty, by which they are trying to resist to the burdens imposed on them by their own community, but also by the broader society.


Romani women's marginalization might not be observed only in the context of their everyday life, but also on other levels, too. If one has a look on the mainstream policies for Roma, he/she might notice that they are generally driven by a gender-blindness, which refuses to recognize the importance of women's issues. Up to this, many Romani leaders express pro-natalist concerns that, at their turn, reproduce the subordinated position of Romni from which it is very difficult to act as autonomous subjects entitled to the de facto use of their reproductive rights. These concerns may have their function in the context of a vulnerable community that aims to defend its threatened identity on the base of culturally valued traditions. And in this way women may be turned into instruments of defense in front of the racist practices directed against the community. This is why the issue of reproductive control is so sensitive in the case of Roma (but in fact it is sensitive in the case of any social group during times when it wants to prove its strength through demographic indicators). At a conference on Roma health which I attended, organized in the context of the Decade of Ethnic Roma Inclusion in 2005 the (woman) leader of the National Agency for Roma of the Romanian government affirmed: it is not acceptable that if Roma families are having four children, these are considered unwanted ones. We should not forget that infantile mortality within Roma communities is very high and we could preserve ourselves due to the fact that we dared to make five or six children, or more. But, of course, all these matters might look differently from the perspective of Roma women's everyday life.

And it is to be mentioned that since 2000 some Roma women's organizations were constituted in Romania exactly to represent this, being sustained by international networks. But one may observe that there is a gap between the discourses of the latter and the real practices of local initiatives, which are still having huge difficulties in implementing their ideas within the national Roma movement. The lack of financial resources, the shortage of the primary researches on which policy-making from below should be based, the reduced number of projects dealing with women-related issues, the resistance of central Roma leaders towards deconstructing traditions that subordinate women, the scarcity of cooperation within women's organizing, all are responsible for the marginalization of Romani women's organizations in the public sphere.


Continuing to reveal the multiple dimensions of Romani women's discrimination we should also address it in the context of the Romanian politics of reproduction and of the anti-Gypsy attitudes of the local health care providers. Altogether with their post-1990 positive developments, reproductive policies are not considering the particular situation of Romani women, and as a system of indirect discrimination they are keeping them underserved in the area of reproductive health. Let me briefly present how all this is happening.

The abolition of the Ceausist anti-abortion law (a law that conferred, among others, the specificity of Romania among the by-then socialist states) was amid the very first issues on which, in December 1989, the new political leadership was focusing its attention. Abortion became legal if performed by a medical doctor upon a woman's request up to 14 weeks from the date of conception, no spousal consent, no mandatory counseling, no waiting period was required. Altogether, it ended up being celebrated as "the gift of democracy". In 1990 the number of registered abortions increased to 992.300 (from 193.100 in 1989), but it is also true that at least the number of maternal death resulted from abortion decreased to 181 (from 545 in 1989). As part of this picture it should be also mentioned that in 1993, when the first Reproductive Health Survey was made in Romania, only 57 percent of the married women were using contraceptive methods, out of which 43 percent traditional and 14 percent modern ones. Eventually the international pressure (like the financial support coming from the United Nation's Population Fund in 1997 and the need to harmonize the national legislation with the European one) and the local civic initiatives forced the Romanian governments to introduce on their agenda the issue of reproductive health. As a result, some formal structures were constituted across the health care system and (but only in 1999!) family planning was integrated into the basic package of services provided to the population. The Strategy of the Ministry of Health on the domain of reproduction and sexuality was launched in 2003, as a result of which courses on family planning for physicians and the distribution of free contraceptives started. Further on, in 2004 Romani Criss initiated a strategy aiming to develop a network of community nurses and Roma health mediators, which was adopted by the government. But on this domain there would be still a lot to be done in order to counter-balance the disadvantaged social conditions and the cultural stereotypes that transform Romani women into an underserved category in the area of reproductive health. Because due to these they continue to be disposed "to choose" abortion as a method for the control of reproduction, and if they decide to use modern contraceptives they are obliged "to choose" the ones that are available for free of charge and not the ones that might be indicated according to their health condition.

Back to the context of the local setting where I did my fieldwork I could observe that due to the marketization of the health care system the gynecology section was downsized to a small compartment with a reduced number of beds and the services of providing contraceptives and pregnancy interruption were dishonoured by the non-payment of the physicians. Under these conditions in 2004 the head of the gynecology department decided not makin any more abortions on demand at the state hospital, and up to this her argument was full with anti-Gypsy feelings: there are mostly Gypsy women who are applying for abortions here, they are dirty and we would not like to threaten our civilized patients because of them being irresponsible, uneducated and unable to use contraceptives. Besides this our section is full with them, because they cannot do anything but children. Another story reveals how even the system of distribution of free contraceptives may instrumentalize Romani women's body and may serve racist purposes: the female director of the social assistance department of the city hall was presenting to me quite proudly her idea regarding, I quote the necessity to make a fertility control campaign using the injectable contraceptives (campanie de injectare) in order to prevent the problematic Roma over-population in the town. All these illustrate how the distinction between the Gypsy and non-Gypsy world is also maintained through issues related to reproduction, and how particular "problems" (like the too many births, or the too many abortions, or the unreliability of taking regularly the pills, etc.) are ethnicized as part of the processes of Roma's exclusion even from the so-called "normality".  


As a concluding remark of my lecture I may affirm that Romani women are situated at the crossroads of contradictory subject positions, basically "between two fires". On the one hand, since December 1989, as Romanian citizens, they are formally entitled to make use of their reproductive rights, but — being culturally devalued and socially excluded — they are subjected to racial discrimination, which obstructs them to really use these rights. As a result they are transformed into underserved social categories, or even exposed to racist fertility control that aims to make them to have fewer children than they possible may desire, and all this in order to not "threaten" the majority. On the other hand, Romani women are viewed by the patriarchal Roma movement as life-givers and caretakers who are obliged to carry the burden of the biological and cultural reproduction of Roma. This position prescribed to them may also become an obstacle of their de facto access to reproductive rights as far as it culturally imposes on them to give birth to more children than they possible would like, and all this in order to ensure the preservation of their community.

However, as my lecture hopefully proved, while Romani women are enduring these contradictory regulations they express a powerful desire towards taking their destiny in their hands (or acting as agency). On the base of what they consider to be a right decision in the context of their given material conditions and social relations they feel morally entitled to decide, for example, on the number of their children, or on making abortions or on using contraceptives. Of course, this decision-making is limited by structural factors, social expectations and cultural conceptions that women cannot control, however the regulative rules (of reproduction) not simply and totally subjugate them, because they manage to transform this domain into an area of subversive practices. However, their insubordination is restrained, among others by their desire of being accepted and respected persons within their community. At this stage Romani women eventually face a problem known by any other human being, even if they experience and express it differently than others living in different social and cultural contexts. This is the problem of being at once a social person and an individual agency, or — paraphrasing the anthropologist Marylin Strathern [8] — of being constructed by ones social relations while trying not to preclude his/her sense of autonomy or self-control.

[1] Paper given at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menchen, Tuesday lecture, 30th of May 2006

[2] Judith Okely: The Traveller-Gypsies, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

[3] Michael Stewart: The Time of the Gypsies, Westview Press, 1997.

[4] Maya Unnithan-Kumar: "Reproduction, health, rights. Connections and Disconnections," in Human Rights in Global Perspective. Anthropological studies of rights, claims and entitlements, edited by Richard Ashby Wilson and Jon P. Mitchell, Routledge, 183-209.

[5] Oscar Lewis: Five Families. Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, New American Library, 1965; La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty, Random House, 1966.

[6] Ulf Hannerz: Soulside: Inquiries into Ghetto Culture and Community, The University of Chicago, 1969, p. 13.

[7] Lilies of the Field. Marginal People Who Live for the Moment, edited by S. Day, E. Papataxiarchis and M. Stewart, Westview Press, 1999, p.7.

[8] Marylin Strathern: Reproducing the Future: Essays on Anthropology, Kinship and the New Reproductive Technologies, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.