As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
Dear friends and participants,
This International Conference has established itself as an important event for discussing issues of concern to Roma women – and empowering women to take a lead in addressing them.
This year, your topic of choice could not be more relevant.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll on individuals, communities and countries throughout Europe and around the world.
But the nature and severity of the impact have varied.
So, you are right to consider how best we can protect the human rights and dignity of Roma and Traveller women in times of such crises –
Not just so that we can all apply those lessons during the current public health crisis, which has not yet run its course –
But so that we can also be better prepared to prevent those harms in any similar situation in the future.
In the Council of Europe we have tried to follow this approach.
We recognised early on in the pandemic that minority and vulnerable groups face particular challenges.
And we made clear that in extreme cases, failure to ensure individuals’ access to adequate health care could have devastating effects and lead to “inhuman and degrading treatment”;
That not taking account of the needs of disadvantaged groups could be seen as blatant and glaring examples of discrimination;
And more importantly, we have the “social constitution” of Europe – the European Social Charter that clearly states that people must continue to have access to fundamental rights, rights that range from health to education to housing.
With the broader guidelines on upholding equality and protecting against discrimination and hate during the pandemic and similar crises, adopted in May by our member states, we are building on the experience of the previous year–
Including that of Roma and Traveller communities’ who have suffered from exposure to violence and scapegoating in some parts of Europe.
Let me say a few words about these new guidelines, as they are important.
Among other things, they stress the importance of effective structures and procedures in managing the impact of crises on disadvantaged groups;
And they urge member states to respect the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes rights of national minorities and regional or minority language speakers:
The guidelines also build on the recommendations of our European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI).
There is also specific mention of domestic and gender-based violence, including the need to provide victims with the psychological, social and legal support they need –
In addition to the hotlines and adequate places in well-functioning shelters on which many women depend.
On this point, if I may, we warned early in the crisis about the danger that lockdowns would lead to domestic abuse victims being trapped with their abuser, and unable to seek help.
In some member states, the authorities took innovative measures to help address this –
And we were swift in helping governments and others to share information and best practices.
But there have also been significant failings.
As there is now clear evidence of a spike in violence and of increased online sexual harassment.
I know that the particular impact of these issues on Roma and Traveller women will certainly feature in this Conference.
We must learn from this experience and we must listen to your experience, which will no doubt guide us in our further work.
The same is also true for the other key issues that you will address:
Because whether we talk about statelessness, sexual orientation and gender identity, employment and youth issues, or any of the other important matters on your agenda today –
All of these things have a Roma and Traveller perspective, all of them have a gender dimension, and all of them have been impacted by Covid-19.
Some of these issues already feature in our current Strategic Action Plan on Roma and Traveller Inclusion, which runs for another four years.
Developed jointly with community representatives, it includes issues of key importance to women, such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, early marriages and human trafficking.
And the Action Plan empowers women and girls by supporting international Roma women’s networks and seeks to mainstream gender equality in every area that it addresses, including political life –
A topic rightly focused upon in a Resolution adopted by our Parliamentary Assembly last June.
Let me conclude by underlining the following:
Change for women must be led by women.
And that leadership can take many forms.
From being elected to represent their communities, through the leadership and creativity in civil society organisations including women’s contribution to the work of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) in Berlin:
An institute that is playing such an important role in promoting the fantastic art, music and culture of Europe’s largest minority.
As a matter of fact, this event is, yet another example of that leadership.
I am grateful to the North Macedonian authorities and in particular Minister Shahpaska for supporting it;
Thanks go also to the Finnish Government for its financial support for these biennial conferences as well as the Roma and Travellers Team in the Secretariat;
And last but not least, to you – all the experts and participants, physically present or online, who have given their time and expertise to be here.
I can only wish you all the best and a successful and constructive session.
Thank you very much for your attention.