"Roma women and access to public health care" a Council of Europe Conference - Strasbourg, 11-12 September 2003  

    Speech addressed by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I recently read the story of an exceptional Roma woman, undoubtedly known to many of you: Papusa, the poet. This woman, who learnt to read and write despite her environment, embodied the wish to move from oral to written expression of the Romani language, thus expressing the profoundly human need to leave a record and to give permanence to what has been said. Unfortunately, and without her knowledge, her work was used to promote settlement policies for Roma in her country, Poland, during the nineteen-fifties. The fate of this woman, manipulated by politicians and abandoned by her community, leads us to reflect on the role that Roma women have been called on to play for centuries: establishing a balance between the traditional society to which they belong and the society of “others”.

We have invited you to Strasbourg to discuss the issue of Roma women’s access to public health care. We are using the federative term “Roma” to refer to people who belong to the communities of travelling people, to Sinti, Gypsies and other groups belonging to the Roma. I should like to extend a very cordial welcome to the representatives of these various communities.

Devoting a conference to Roma women is a first for the international organisations working in the area of human rights protection, and I am very happy to be able to welcome you here today. In particular, I should like to welcome Ms Simone Veil who honours us with her presence, and who will join as soon as her flight arrives in Strasbourg.

Over the next few minutes, I will seek to reply to two questions:

1. What are the challenges which we seek to confront?
2. What action have we taken, and why?

1. The challenges

Throughout their history, Roma women have developed quietly in a world of silence. Confined for centuries in the role of transmitting Roma values and traditions to future generations, they are now torn between two opposing forces: on the one hand, their specific role within their communities and, on the other, their developing status in a society where woman’s emancipation is constantly moving forward.

The necessity of providing for their families’ needs means that Roma women have had more contacts with the majority societies, and consequently have a deep knowledge of the societies around them, and a tolerance towards the world of non-Roma. This knowledge frequently enables them to play the role of mediators in contact situations, or in conflicts pitting Roma and non-Roma against each other.

You will agree that Roma women have acquired a real and symbolic strength, equipping them, in so far as they succeed in making their voices heard, to be genuine agents for change within their communities. Indeed, one of the ambitious aims of this conference is to give a voice to Roma women within their community and vis-à-vis the public authorities.

Roma women are today required to adapt traditional Roma values to current realities, so that Roma culture can continue to exist as a living culture. They are aware that they can no longer simply play the role of sisters, wives and mothers, but that they must also act as bridges between their community and society. As for the governmental representatives who are attending this conference today, you too must make efforts to ensure that Roma women are treated as fully-fledged interlocutors in all decisions that directly affect the Roma community.

However, it is unfair merely to relegate Roma women to their role as guardians of tradition and as bridges between the Roma community and the majority society, since they also feel compelled to fulfil other roles: working women in vocational employment, activists and militants within NGOs, scientists… These interdependent positions and vocations are helping to give Roma women a new image, which all parties in society must take into account, especially those working on the Roma issue. Consequently, it is essential that the authorities which some of you represent today take steps to involve Roma women in designing and implementing policies that concern the Roma population’s living conditions.

The scale and nature of the challenges which I have just identified call for a variety of responses.

2. What action have we taken, and why?

This conference is consistent with the on-going work that the Council of Europe has been conducting for a decade to promote human rights for Roma in Europe.

The concerns of Roma women had already been raised in 1995 during an initial hearing, as part of the Council of Europe campaign against racism and intolerance. On that occasion, rather than speaking of their traditional position inside their communities, the Roma women preferred to discuss the racism and social exclusion suffered by their communities, the lack of schooling for their children and the inadequate access to health care. At the same time, all laid claim to their right to respect for their person and their traditions.

Access to health care for Roma is a little-known issue, both for governments and international organisations, but also, unfortunately, for health care professionals. The 2000 OSCE report on the situation of Roma and Sinti highlighted this issue very clearly, and lay behind the launch of the project that concerns us today.

Since effective access to health care for all is one of the priorities of our Organisation’s strategy for social cohesion, it was natural that the Council of Europe would play its part when our partner organisations, the OSCE/HCNM and the EU/EUMC, suggested that we conduct the project “Roma women and access to public health care”, the results of which will be presented in the course of this conference. This project co-ordinates the action and expertise of three international organisations, recognised for their work in the field of human rights protection for the Roma communities in Europe and in the fight against racism and social exclusion. The project has received essential input from the ECRI, (which drafted the general policy recommendation on the fight against racism and intolerance towards Roma) and from the European Health Committee (which drew up the Recommendation on the adaptation of health care services to the demand for health care and heath care services of people in marginal situations).

The report that Ms Pomykala will present illustrates the harsh reality faced by Roma women, who are traditionally responsible for their families’ well-being, and who often neglect their own health. At this point, I should like to thank the representatives of the 15 countries visited by the consultants for their co-operation, which made it possible to achieve a report which contains reliable data and which provides examples of good practice that have already proved their worth. In addition, the report recommends a range of specific measures which touch on key areas: legislative, administrative, standard-setting and awareness-raising issues (particularly with the aim of changing Roma men’s attitudes towards the emancipation of their womenfolk).

Needless to say, any policy that fails to take account of its target group’s specific features is doomed to failure. For this reason, I am particularly pleased to announce that one of the tangible achievements of the project “Roma women and access to public health care” has been to give a voice to Roma women, by enabling them to assert their wish to claim their role as actors for change on the national and international stage. Indeed, the International Network of Roma Women, now supported by the Council of Europe, emerged as a self-evident concept in the course of this project. Apart from championing the rights of Roma women, the network aims to establish bonds of solidarity with national and international organisations of non-Roma women, since, in the final analysis, issues such as access to health care, education or the fight against discrimination are priority issues for all women, irrespective of their nationality, belief system and ethnic or social origin.

The Network is represented at this conference by Ms Soraya Post, who will speak to us about the role of Roma women within their communities and who will, I am convinced, play an extremely active role in our discussions and in the subsequent activities.

The efforts being made by the Council of Europe to ensure the creation of a representative body for Roma at European level are part of the same overall task. This would be a forum within which the Roma could express their needs, expectations and priorities. Our aim would be to see such a form establish a special relationship with the Council of Europe, which would enable it to influence decisions taken at international level. Similar relationships could be developed between the forum and other organisations such as the EU, the OSCE and the UN agencies. This initiative originated in a proposal submitted to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in 2001 by Ms Halonen, President of Finland. A Franco-Finnish proposal is currently on the table at the Committee of Ministers.

Finally, you will be asked to consider the question of trafficking in human beings, during the session on reproductive health. Trafficking is in fact a crime, in which women and children in our European societies are the victims. The fight against this serious assault on human dignity is currently one of Council of Europe’s priorities, and we hope soon to be able to lean on a new instrument: a European Convention against trafficking in human beings, which, through its Europe-wide scale and its emphasis on victim protection, will complement the work being carried out by other international organisations in this field. Drafting of this convention is due to begin next week.
Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my remarks today, I have tried to address two important questions: to identify the challenges that we wish to tackle, and to describe the tools at our disposal for doing this, as well as the action already undertaken.

However, I cannot end my speech without seeking to reply to one last question:

What follow-up will be given to this conference?

Here, I’m afraid I cannot answer, since the follow-up will very much depend on you.

The conference programme has been designed to enable you to discuss the complex nature of access to health care for Roma women in its entirety. Our aim is that the outcome of your discussions will form the basis for developing genuine political action that will enable Roma women and their families to exercise their fundamental social rights in an efficient and effective manner.

Various initiatives indicate that the “Roma question” is today an unavoidable priority for those international organisations and European governments which wish to eradicate racial discrimination and social exclusion. However, a crucial question remains relevant: what tangible impact have these initiatives had? We sincerely hope that this conference will mark the beginning of an improvement in health conditions for the Roma populations, and that Roma women will be the protagonists of this change. I should like to conclude by quoting from the translated version of an extract from one of Papusa’s poems:

“A long road lies before us
So listen, brother, to what I will say:
I will leave songs and poems for you,
To your memory,
So that something is left to mankind”.

Thank you for agreeing to begin on this long road with us. I wish you a good journey!


    Our health systems are designed for a sedentary lifestyle, says Simone Veil

Addressing the opening session of the conference “Making the voice of Roma women heard”, Simone Veil told her audience that she was in Strasbourg because of her personal commitment to the Roma and gypsy cause. Our health and social protection systems were designed and structured for what she called sedentary users.

Different lifestyles marginalised those concerned and posed all sorts of problems, particularly in terms of registration for social insurance. She paid tribute to the work of NGOs, which all too often had to take the place of government in providing health care for Roma. In order to develop policies that would improve their situation, she said, we had to understand their aspirations, which were numerous and complex.


    Speech by Soraya Post, President of the International Roma Women’s Network

Madame President, Fellow Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

My name is Soraya Post. I am a Sinti woman from Sweden and President of the International Roma Women’s Network, a voluntary network with members in 18 countries across Europe.

I would like to thank the Council of Europe, the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, and the OSCE’s High Commissioner for National Minorities, for organizing this important conference, and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

I would also like to thank the author of the conference report, Ms Anna Pomykala. She has confirmed what we as Roma women have known for years: across Europe, our people face a terrible health crisis.

This crisis takes many different shapes. It is shocking to read that in some countries Roma women can expect to die almost 20 years earlier than non-Roma women, and that sick Roma are turned away from clinics and hospitals. From East to West, the story is the same. Our people are denied access to health care.

But why are they unhealthy in the first place? Because they live in poverty and ignorance. Because their houses, and trailers, provide no protection. Because they suffer from racism. Because they are denied family planning and not told about HIV/AIDS. And behind each of these scandals lies discrimination.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I need to tell you that this crisis is a matter of real life and death for millions of Roma women. My own country, Sweden, is one of the richest and most democratic countries in the world – yet my own mother was forced to undergo sterilization at the age of twenty three. Happily, sterilization is a thing of the past in Sweden. But the practice lives on elsewhere in Europe. We would like to see a special meeting held on sterilization and reproductive rights for Roma women in Europe.

The crisis of health affects Roma women all over Europe, and this explains why we formed the International Roma Women’s Network earlier this year. Our members come from Ireland in the West, to Moldova in the East. We intend to speak with one voice at meetings like this, and also to show solidarity with our members when they face a crisis in their own country.

Our network is informal, independent and inclusive. We welcome new members, but we also support any initiatives aimed at bettering the lives of Roma women. We are grateful to the Council of Europe, for helping our network for hold its first meetings. We also thank organizations like the Open Society Institute, which has worked tirelessly to empower our people.

Ladies and Gentlemen

We welcome the holding of this conference. It shows that the health of our people is now a matter of international concern. It also recognizes that as Roma women we have special needs, particularly when it comes to health. We will prove good partners, because we have a lot to offer. We know our own problems and our communities better than anyone. A whole new generation of young Roma women give us energy and hope for the future.

But if we want to work with you, as governments, we also ask you to live up to your responsibilities. Why is it that so many of our people are punished for being Roma, Sinti, Travellers and Gypsies, after we have lived for over 700 years in Europe? That is a question for governments to answer. You have drafted laws against discrimination, and laws that protect minorities and laws that respect our cultural identity. You have drawn up a Social Charter that sets a standard for the whole world. Yet these laws are often not enforced. They do nothing for millions of Roma women. As Ms Pomykala’s report shows, many governments do not even collect information on the basis of ethnicity and gender.

We want the recommendations in this report to be followed. Now is the time to act. We say to our governments “open your eyes and do not close your hearts.” Live up to your promises.

And to Roma women we say, there will be no change unless we demand it. If we work together we can make it happen, because together we are powerful.

Thanks you for listening to me. And as we say in Romani “Arshon Devlesa” –“stay with God.”