Published on Eurasian Perspectives

The problem is they see us as a whole: How Roma exclusion plays into inequality

“If you know in advance that your kid has no chance to succeed in life, you have no grounds on which to send the kid to school…If you are disparaged all your life and reduced to some level that belittles you, then [school] is not for you. Believe me, I experience these things.”

                                                                                                            —Roma male, 50-60 years old, Belgrade, Serbia

Kamendin is a neighborhood on the northwest outskirts of Belgrade, Serbia. There, Roma and non-Roma communities live side by side, but the Roma - especially women - are worse off than their non-Roma neighbors.

The Roma say that compared to their non-Roma counterparts, they struggle to get decent jobs. Most of them make a living informally - by selling vegetables, collecting and selling paper or scrap metal, or working odd jobs in junkyards. The few Roma men who do have formal jobs mostly work in jobs few others want, such as garbage disposal, and few Roma women are formally employed.

According to a new regional report titled Breaking the Cycle of Roma Exclusion in the Western Balkans, disparities between Roma and neighboring non-Roma individuals persist across the Western Balkans, especially in employment and education, as evidenced by the UNDP-EC-World Bank Regional Roma Survey.

What explains these disadvantages?  What can this tell us about how social norms, aspirations, and structural exclusion contribute to inequalities?

To gain insight into these questions, we conducted an ethnographic study titled The Problem is They See Us As a Whole in three locations in Serbia. The qualitative study examined how social norms and aspirations among the Roma and their non-Roma neighbors affect schooling, jobs, and family decisions, and how they contribute to gender and ethnicity-based inequalities.
Photo: Nick van Praag / The World Bank

The three locations were Kamendin, Novi Bečej (a small town in an industrial agricultural region in the north), and Vranje (a city in the south). In all three places, Roma respondents had different social norms and aspirations compared to non-Roma, which affected their school, work, and family decisions. Two main findings were
  • For the most part, Roma did not see much value in their children going to school beyond the compulsory lower secondary level.  Boys and girls alike dropped out early—boys to help their families earn a living and girls to help with household chores and marry young.  
  • Job aspirations differed too: whereas non-Roma respondents commonly aspired to do office work, Roma were more likely to aspire to manual labor jobs traditionally held by Roma, but ideally with a more regular income.
These aspirations and norms are not formed in isolation. Rather, they are profoundly shaped by the social and economic context in which the Roma are structurally excluded from opportunities. This exclusion manifests itself not only in overt discrimination, but also in internalized stigma, lowered aspirations, and other forms of “invisible marginalization.”

For example, although the survey found little evidence of overt discrimination in job markets, survey data analysis attributes ethnic disparities in employment to educational constraints, including possible discrimination in school enrolment. The findings showed how exclusion played out early in people’s lives, starting in classrooms and on playgrounds. Roma children had to perform better than other children to be seen as doing equally well and Roma children were often the victims of bullying and harassment.

In the past, Roma children were more likely to be sorted into special primary and certain vocational schools.  This exclusion from mainstream primary schools had a profound, and lasting, impact - directly shaping the lifelong aspirations and expectations of Roma respondents. For example, Roma survey respondents mentioned hairdressing as an ideal job for girls and basic manual labor for boys, and a high school degree was seen to lack value.

As with other minority groups, and as the name of the study highlights, it is important to note that Roma group members are individuals with unique stories, experiences and goals. Far from being a homogenous group, they are extremely diverse. Roma respondents differed in their place of birth, language, religion, housing, schooling, work experience, and perceptions of relationships with the majority population—and also with how they identified with the ethnic marker ‘Roma’.  

Our study also found differences in gender norms in correlation to location.  Where jobs were seen as scarce, traditional gender norms were more common; where there were more jobs, Roma women were more likely to see themselves as working outside the home. This finding suggests that such gender norms are less sticky and more flexible than they seem at first glance.  

The insights provided by the study matter for policy:
  • Behaviors and social norms matter, and do so significantly. It is important to keep in mind that norms are formed in the context of institutional structures and enabling policies. 
  • In addition to designing behavioral interventions to improve outcomes at the individual level, it is also critical to enact policies that minimize discrimination and reduce structural inequalities, and to design inclusive institutions.  
  • Location- and context-specific interventions, which have a strong social cohesion component and are cognizant of intra-Roma diversity, also matter.  
Otherwise, we risk perpetuating the problem of reducing the Roma to a whole, rather than solving problems with them by including them in society as the individuals they are. 


Andrea Woodhouse

Senior Social Development Specialist

Shruti Majumdar

Gender Based Violence Specialist

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