Ladies and Gentlemen,
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
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
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.
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
“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!