Education is the Doorway to Change – Romomatter Preliminary Stakeholder Interviews in the Education/School System

Girls at school studying

Roma community stakeholders describe their view of the key issues in empowering Roma Girls 

By Emily Felt & Jose Miguel Carrasco, Project Communications Team

One of the goals of the Romomatter Project is to work with advocates and organizations to identify resources that can be harnessed to support Roma girls in their communities. To this end, the Romomatter project team carried out interviews with stakeholders and communities during the months of May, June and July  in Spain, Romania and Bulgaria. Here we describe some of the preliminary results of this work, with a focus on resources and challenges in the school system. 

Overall, our interviews with these stakeholders showed a certain level of commitment to supporting Roma girls, though in practice their discourses also suggest the difficulties of the school systems to adapt to the girls’ needs (rather than the other way around). These difficulties are compounded by Roma girls experiences of discrimination, lack of life opportunities besides motherhood and the influence of living conditions of these communities. 

Through our community project partners, we interviewed people from a variety of professions, including community workers, teachers, health mediators, counsellors, volunteerings and others to identify the resources offered in the neighbourhood related to the empowerment of Roma girls. All in all, stakeholders were able to identify over 90 community resources and gained the perspectives of 30 interviewees who are intricately involved in supporting Roma communities in Cordoba and Alicante, Spain; Bucharest, Romania and; Straldzha, Bulgaria. 

Education Changes Lives – Especially for Roma Girls

Across the three countries, community advocates see school and educational system as a key to supporting Roma girls, both due to the lack of accessibility to the girls’ families and due to crucial ages of 14-16 years, a time when some Roma girls may leave school due to marriage or pregnancy. 

Some interviewees in Spain expressed frustration, that these changes are induced by what they see as the cultural reality that surrounds the girls, and that they don’t have greater influence in this key evolutionary stage despite education being the initial and fundamental point to generate changes. There seems to be difficulty in becoming close enough to family matters to have the desired impact. 

An interviewee in Bulgaria indicated that “Education is the way to change Roma lives. When the grandparents are educated and want their children to be educated, this is setting an example.”

Family-Community-School Bridges are Crucial for Acceptance of Sexual and Reproductive Health Ed.

On the topic of sexual and reproductive health education, interviewees expressed their concern and awareness about the role of early pregnancies in limiting Roma girls’ futures, especially since early pregnancies are one of the elements in society that support discourses that are racist towards Roma communities. 

Roma community advocates in Cordoba, Spain shared that schools do teach about sexual and reproductive health, but the impact of these interventions is unknown as there is little follow-up [from the schools]. In addition, there are sessions specifically aimed at Roma women and girls, but there are not enough resources to fully develop these programs or reach a critical number of women and girls in the area. 

Community advocates expressed worry about the problem of reproductive health. A stakeholder from Spain commented, “the problem of early pregnancies […] already delimits the future of these girls totally”, and ““The freedom that other children have, [Roma] girls don’t have”. 

In Alicante, interviewees saw a direct association in social ideology between early marriage, teenage pregnancy and Roma girls and women. They complained about the existence of resources on sexual and reproductive health that do not include the intercultural issues related to the Roma community and no specific focus on these women or girls. 

Combining Roma Youth Resilience with Community Advocacy and Persistence

Although aware of the challenges in terms of community resources in the education system and community environment, our interviewees spoke greatly of the potential of Roma girls and Roma youth in general, and of the progress that -though slowly- is being made, especially when there is a wholehearted commitment and persistence on the part of the educational community and other sources of support. 

An interviewee in Bulgaria described how, “if ten years ago it was a complete taboo to talk about those [reproductive health] issues, now things are changing, and parents are ok with such topics being covered in schools”. In Spain, an interviewee shared that although they wished that education was supported more for Roma girls, changes are taking place. Roma girl students are becoming more independent and teachers “have managed to get some of them to have work or academic goals in their lives.”

Another Bulgarian educator said, “my advice regarding the integration of Roma youth is to engage them in activities.They are extremely talented, receptive and when there is continuous work, there are results”.

Conclusions: Stakeholders suggest that empowering Roma girls regarding their reproductive rights requires involvement of policy  makers and advocates in supporting new avenues for life opportunities 

All of our Stakeholder interviewees emphasize the importance of working with the community for the community’s sake and applying an individual-family approach in order to build sustainable relations with Roma families. They also point to the need for comprehensive efforts to improve the life opportunities of Roma girls, which would require efforts from policy makers and community advocates. Stakeholders would welcome further resources tailored to the issues of sexual and reproductive health. They also stress the importance of school, involvement of parents, and extracurricular activities that help keep students in school beyond the critical age of 14-16. 

The interviews we carried out with stakeholders show the concern on the part of many of the professionals about the inequalities suffered by Roma girls. While stressing their frustrations with the t limits put on Roma girls’ opportunities outside of being wives and mothers, our interviewees also served as an example of how community and education advocates feel aim about the need to honor girls voices and dreams, despite the significant limitations and barriers they face.  

We hope that the work of Romomatter will provide them another tool to use in this important work. 

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