When we carried out focus group discussions in four Roma communities in Bulgaria for our study on Gender Dimensions of Roma Inclusion, we asked Roma men and women to indicate their overall level of happiness on a scale from 1 to 10. A 10, represented by a smiley face, meant they were “very happy.” A 1 was depicted by a sad face and meant they were “very unhappy.”
What we found from this survey stunned us: most Roma women answered that they were “happy” or “very happy” and the majority of Roma men had circled the sad face.
We did not expect this outcome. In fact, we had expected to find the exact opposite. To begin with, the starting point for our research was the public perception that Roma women are vulnerable to becoming victims of forced prostitution, trafficking, abuse, and violence, as well as risk early marriage and pregnancies.
On the surface, our research confirmed several common perceptions – especially concerning gender norms. In traditional Roma communities, men are considered superior to women and women are expected to respect and obey their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Furthermore, significant value is attached to the virginity of brides, leading parents from traditional communities to take their daughters out of school the moment they hit puberty and often leading to early marriage. Once married, the traditional social norms around men’s sexual potency and the importance of fertility make marriage often synonymous with pregnancy. Finally, in communities where wives are expected to stay home to manage housework and take care of their family, marriage and pregnancy often mean the end of education for Roma girls.
All of this does not sound very encouraging. So why, then, do Roma women seem to be much happier than Roma men?
Some answers can be found in another story we uncovered - gender norms are shifting in the ongoing environment of poverty. These norms are rapidly changing in all of the communities where we conducted research and more “mainstream” values are seeping into the lives of Roma. In particular, these values are impacting the way young women view their role in the family and society.
Our research shows that some views held by younger Roma women on gender roles - particularly regarding education - are beginning to align more with mainstream society. Some of the women we spoke with talked about their desire to complete university and pursue professional careers. They talked of wanting to become teachers, doctors, and lawyers.
We also found a widening discrepancy between what is proclaimed and what is practiced. While the official discourse still regards men as “the provider” and women as being in charge of the family at home, the reality often looks very different.
In an environment of extreme poverty - where families can barely make ends meet - men find it very difficult to actually provide for their families and women are increasingly expected to contribute to the family income. However, failure in this role does not seem to reflect negatively on women, while Roma men reported an overwhelming sense of failure and humiliation.
While it would appear that women are benefitting on the surface from shifting social norms and seem to have a more positive outlook on life prospects, in practice poverty makes it virtually impossible for them to take advantage of these changing values and practices.
So, where do these findings leave us?
For one, they provide insight into the lives and individual realities of Roma men and women. When we talk about Roma, we sometimes seem to forget that we aren’t talking about an abstract “minority group” but individuals with their own distinct backgrounds, abilities, and aspirations.
Secondly, this research further supports the understanding that if any progress is going to be made on the Roma inclusion agenda, a much stronger focus on fighting poverty is absolutely necessary. Unemployment and the absence of resources are pushing members of Roma communities into socially unacceptable – and sometimes illegal - behavior that reinforces negative stereotypes. These stereotypes support practices of discrimination and prejudices.
Thirdly, we believe that care must be taken to make sure that research does not unwittingly reinforce stereotypes held about Roma people, but rather help unravel them. Questions commonly posed by the non-Roma majority - such as ‘why do Roma girls marry young?’ - subliminally draw from such stereotypes. We ourselves initially fell into that trap.
Finally, gender-sensitive policies will need to focus on Roma girls and boys, women and men. For such policies to be relevant, Roma will need to be actively involved in conceiving and implementing integration policies that serve their best interests - taking into account the diversity of the communities in which they live and employing locally customized approaches.
All of this should help to create an environment in which Roma men and women do not feel like they are being subjected to changing norms but, rather, feel empowered to actively shape their lives and take advantage of choices and opportunities available to them. It is in this way that we can help create a situation where most everyone circles a happy face when asked about their overall level of happiness.