Spotlighting Romani women’s activism and role in addressing statelessness in Europe

Nina Murray, Michelle Van Burik, Sonja Barbul, Ina Majka, Brisilda Taco, Alison Huyghe and Tamara Smith
/ 7 mins read

This blog is part of a collaboration between the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) and Romani women activists. Here, we want to draw attention to and spotlight Romani women’s activism and integral role in finding solutions to the challenges associated with statelessness.

International Roma Women's Conference
Day 2 Plenary at the 8th International Roma Women's Conference hosted by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg (and online)

The absence of Romani women’s voices in policy debates on statelessness and legal identity is the reason we came together to start this conversation. We discuss how to address this gap, which is illustrative of wider challenges Romani women face accessing political processes and power. Yet, Romani women have been organising and mobilising at local, national, and regional levels for decades. We are calling for their expertise to be heard, acknowledged, and valued in efforts to address statelessness in Europe.

It is now relatively well-established that discrimination is a root cause of statelessness around the world. In Europe, due to state succession, displacement, complex civil registration systems, and deep-rooted antigypsyism, many Romani people remain without civil status documentation and so struggle to assert their citizenship. ENS and its members in the Western Balkans and Ukraine have explored how, when technical legal barriers and antigypsyism combine, administrative systems become almost impossible to navigate, underpinning and reinforcing the risk of statelessness. Without identification documents to prove their citizenship, many Romani people face difficulties accessing other fundamental rights like education, healthcare, employment, and housing. 

What is less well-understood, is how Romani women and girls experience these issues. Recent calls for a more intersectional approach to statelessness need to be heeded if we are to really understand and find practical and lasting solutions to the risk of statelessness that work for all. We need to examine more closely the interconnected forms of discrimination and structural power dynamics that shape the lives of Romani women and girls at risk of statelessness. This means ‘asking the other questions’ about how gender, race, class, and other factors privilege some and exclude others both directly and indirectly impacting on their access to legal identity and nationality rights. And this, we argue, cannot be done effectively until Romani women are part of the debate.

In coming together to start this conversation, we have identified three key areas that need more attention, namely socio-economic rights, birth registration and parental rights, and violence against women and girls (you can also read the advocacy briefing published at the occasion of the 8th Roma Women Conference of the Council of Europe here).

1. Socio-economic Rights

The rights attached to citizenship are enabling rights, facilitating access to education, healthcare, housing, employment, and other services. For Romani women and girls, gendered discrimination and social norms create additional hurdles to accessing these rights. Patriarchal norms mean women face a particularly high burden of fulfilling the basic needs of their families and communities. Lack of civil status can prevent access to social security and services. Antigypsyism fosters and reinforces distrust and prevents recourse to justice. Often it is men in the family who work informally, leaving women with little economic independence and agency. Lack of economic means can also prevent access to remedies to resolve citizenship issues, as associated fees for procedures or legal assistance can be prohibitive. Access to the required knowledge to assert rights can also be limited due to lack of access to formal education and low literacy levels (disproportionately affecting women and girls and sometimes linked to being undocumented). In this way, different forms of marginalisation and discrimination intersect and reinforce each other. The impacts of the above on stateless people have been accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through our collaboration, we have shared both positive and negative narratives arising from these challenges. We have heard how in one small village in southern Albania, around 20 women and children living without civil status and proof of citizenship are unable resolve their legal status due to the complex procedure that would be required. They have no access to socio-economic rights and, since the pandemic, their only source of income through informal work across the border has also been shut down due to travel restrictions.

But there are narratives of strength and resilience too, which must also be heard in these debates. During the pandemic, community activists, many of them women, have been on the frontline when public services were closed or reduced, ensuring medication got to those who needed it, helping with home-schooling, supporting those who lost their incomes, all on a voluntary basis and on top of dealing with the disproportionate burden of care in their own families. Their networks and actions are indispensable in a crisis and need to be better acknowledged and resourced.

2. Birth registration and parental rights

Most European countries do not directly discriminate in their nationality laws, but discrimination in how the law is implemented in practice means that many Romani women face barriers to accessing birth registration for their children. In some cases, mothers who lack documentation themselves cannot register a birth until their own civil status is resolved, which could take months or even years. Women’s exclusion from reproductive healthcare due to statelessness, lack of health insurance, and/or discrimination, can make it harder for births to be registered. If children are born at home, birth registration can be more complex and burdensome. We have heard how some women borrow the health insurance card of a friend or relative to gain access to hospital to give birth, leading to the baby being registered under the name on the card and thus creating complex legal problems for mother and child. Additionally, stateless or undocumented women living outside their home country cannot rely on their consulate or embassy to document or register births if they do not recognise them as nationals. 

We heard about Anisa, who, at eight years old is full of hopes and dreams for the future. But she is unregistered and at risk of statelessness, because her Albanian mother, unable to pay for the care she received, fled the Greek hospital where she gave birth without any documentation. She is now afraid to approach the authorities to register Anisa and lacks the financial means and legal knowledge to resolve her citizenship status.

We have also heard of cases of Romani children being unlawfully separated from their mothers. Without a legal identity, resources, or legal representation, stateless Romani women can face serious hurdles to asserting their parental rights and (re)claiming custody of their children. A fear of being separated from their children also exacerbates distrust in the authorities and can prevent help-seeking to resolve statelessness, or access other support services. We heard about Zenepe, who was born in Greece but moved to Albania as an infant without her father and was cared for by her grandmother. She was never registered. When she later married informally (due to her lack of civil status), and gave birth to a son, her parents-in-law were registered as his legal guardians. When Zenepe got divorced, she was separated from her son and remains without the means to claim custody or her own civil status or citizenship rights.

3. Violence against Women and Girls

The links between statelessness and violence against women and girls are poorly understood. There is an urgent need for more focus and attention on how intersecting forms of discrimination may exacerbate risks of stateless Romani women experiencing gender-based violence. It is important to consider the potential emotional and psychological harms associated with denying women their right to an identity and sense of belonging, as well as risks that perpetrators of abuse could use women’s lack of documentation as a form of control or coercion. A lack of economic independence, limited access to information, language and literacy barriers, as well as exclusion from social security services reduce women’s agency and choices, and when combined with antigypsyism, can foster distrust and prevent women from escaping violence, seeking help, or accessing justice. If women do seek help, stereotypical and discriminatory attitudes on the part of authorities and service providers, can impact on the support they receive.

Romani women who are active at grassroots and policy level are confronted with difficult and sensitive questions. We argue that energy-consuming work needs better support. On the one hand, they are in daily contact with community members explaining and trying to find solutions to problems. On the other, they act as a bridge to policymakers, lawyers, and civil society organisations discussing important issues whilst at the same time claiming spaces, advocating for equal participation, and trying to combat antigypsyism. The personal and the professional overlap. As noted above in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, their (mostly voluntary) actions are indispensable in a crisis.

The situation of Romani women is diverse at country and regional levels. It is important to understand collective experiences, but also to acknowledge differences and adapt solutions to specific contexts. There may be differences of opinion on how statelessness should be addressed and how Romani women’s position should be improved, but working together to find shared solutions and capacity strengthens our movement for justice and equality.

To read more about this collaboration between ENS and Romani Women activists, you can read the advocacy briefing published at the occasion of the 8th Roma Women Conference of the Council of Europe here.

This blog first appeared in the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog from the University of Melbourne, we thank them for letting us repost it here to raise the profile of these issues.

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