‘Grass roots organization implies putting ideas into practice.’ Since 2011, Carmen Gheorghe has returned to her birthplace in the Roma community of Mizil, Romania to initiate community development among Roma women.
During the communist period, her father worked in a factory and her mother was a housewife in Mizil. At school, during communist times, Roma children were relegated to benches assigned to ‘special’ children. Carmen shared a bench with a girl whose mother had an abortion. Abortions were illegal under Ceauşescu, and the entire family was held responsible for the mother’s act. Teachers at that time, and sometimes even today, held out no academic expectations for their Roma students. Carmen’s mother told her, ‘That’s why you should never say that you are Roma.’ Carmen’s mother died when she was thirteen, but she inspired Carmen to think for herself and not depend on men, ‘almost as if she knew she would not have the time later on.’ One of Carmen’s aunts worked in insurance and she encouraged Carmen to challenge the assumption that girls cannot access the same opportunities as boys.
Carmen considers herself an activist but does not try to speak for women, rather she believes in ‘giving them a chance to be heard.’ The title of her Master’s Thesis in political science, Re-imagining the Roma woman throughout history, highlights her focus on women whose lives have remained invisible because ‘they are seen only through the eyes of the other.’
In 2012, Carmen travelled to the United States under the auspices of the U.S. State Department’s, International Leadership Program. She had a chance to observe community development by non-profit agencies in five states, ‘It was a personal journey and life changing; a new way of looking at people.’ When she returned to Romania, Carmen founded the E Romnja (Romani Women) Association. Some of the initial funding came from Mama Cash, an organization based in Holland which funds women’s initiatives, generally in Africa and India. Nowadays monies come from OSI and the Norway Funds. Carmen stays away from governmental funding so as to remain independent. E Romnja is active in both urban and rural settings particularly in the poorest regions of Romania.
In Mizil, E Romnja now has a group of ten to twelve Roma women of various ages who petition for needed infrastructure improvements. Two years ago they managed to convince the municipal authorities to pave local streets. A woman who lived on one of the unpaved streets announced ‘If the mayor doesn’t pave our street, I won’t vote for him in the upcoming election.’ Within a week the street was paved. However there are still only two pumps in town and no sewer system.
‘Power means organizing the community and asking for your rights. In the local context, there are always balance of power issues: rich/poor; age differences; Roma/gadje; male/female. Both men and women have internalized the paternalistic concepts of women’s roles. For many Roma there are concomitant issues of poverty and lack of access to resources.’
E Romnja can count a number of innovative approaches to conflicts as accomplishments. In a rural area, where many Roma belong to the Pentacostal Church, E Romnja intervened to give women the right to ‘women-only’ discussion groups. Women from the Mizil group created a photographic exhibit for E Romnja. One group member, Aldeza became a student, just graduated from university in Ploieşti and is now with E Romnja.
‘Feminism is about the empowerment of women. There are hundreds of issues, which disproportionately affect Roma women. Unfortunately some Roma organizations replicate the patterns of the wider society. The concept of intersectionality, that is women’s rights, is not in conflict with the concept of Roma inclusion.’