This week, Kafkadesk spoke with Andrea Najvirtova, director of People in Need Slovakia, one of the NGOs spearheading local and national support for Slovakia’s Roma communities and leading efforts to combat anti-Roma rhetoric and fight against the underlying factors of their marginalization and isolation.
Can you tell me a bit about People in Need’s initiatives with the Roma community in Slovakia?
We have been working in marginalized Roma communities in Slovakia since 2006. We have four community centers in Eastern Slovakia and one in the Bratislava region. Apart from that we provide employment support in two other locations. Our work is based on providing complex support to vulnerable communities. We’re trying to tackle different aspects of marginalization, such as unemployment, debts, segregation or educational problems.
We are providing social counseling and financial education (not only) for adults, helping them connect with institutions, find and hold onto jobs, or solve their housing problems. Our colleagues are also preparing the smallest children for preschool and school, tutoring kids that already go to school, supporting them with stipends, organizing community activities and much more.
With the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, we shifted our focus on providing wider humanitarian support to excluded communities which we felt were more vulnerable due to poor housing, lack of access to water and information, or poor hygiene possibilities. In the first wave of the pandemic we provided excluded communities with jerry cans and disinfectants, as well as protective gear and food aid for the poorest communities. Since the second wave we have been focusing more intensively on long-term impacts of the pandemic.
One of our main priorities is education, since many children from excluded communities don’t have access to distant schooling, they don’t have internet connection or devices at home, or their parents can’t support them. We provided contact between schools and the children, helped them with homework. We also provided support to people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic or had to come back home from abroad where they worked. At the same time, we still continue providing the complex assistance I mentioned above.
Anti-Roma rhetoric is widespread at Slovakia’s political level: Is it really an easy way to “score” political points for politicians, and have you noticed any change (positive or negative) in that regard in the past year?
I think the society is more polarized now. This could have been seen before the last parliament election. The far right political party that is well-known for strong anti-Roma rhetoric scored around 10% in pre-election poll, but you saw also people protesting against that result. Even the Roma people are protesting more now.
We also need to mention the almost invisible and very subtle systemic racism, that is hard to imagine for the majority. But the Roma people face it on a daily basis, for instance when they are searching for work or accommodation and are turned down regularly because of their ethnicity. There are many politicians that take advantage of this internalized racism in people. In the past it was common even with the mainstream politicians, but I can see a shift with the new government. The rhetoric is less anti-Roma.
The situation was, however, slightly different with the first pandemic outbreak. There were many official press conferences focused on the help for the Roma in excluded communities and even though well intended, the wording perpetuated anti-Roma rhetoric. Roma elites tried to prevent for the pandemic narrative to be centered around Roma people. As it turned out, excluded Roma communities were not such a big risk at all. Actually they were affected less, which only proved how isolated from the majority they are.
Are there notable differences between Roma men and women in terms of access to education, employment and integration in Slovakia?
When we are talking about Roma people from excluded communities, with whom we work, it’s a rather patriarchal society. Girls usually face early marriages and pregnancies that prevent them from continuing in higher education. Some husbands tend to forbid their wives to find a job. On the other hand, even though Roma women are doubly marginalized, being both female and a minority, they are usually the strong ones and the advocates for change. They are the ones who are changing their communities from within.
Have you identified any specific trends in terms of industry Roma women tend to work in in Slovakia?
As mentioned above, many women from poor backgrounds don’t work at all. But when they do, based on our experience, it’s usually in factories, bakeries, as cleaning ladies or waste sorters.
What are the main prejudices towards Roma women in the Slovak population?
In general, and this concerns both Roma women and men, the main negative stereotype is that they are lazy, unreliable and more inclined to committing crimes. Roma women specifically are seen as only able to give birth to children.
Last year, Irena Bihariová was elected as head of the Progressive Slovakia party, the first Roma holding such an office. How come Roma women in national politics remain such a rarity today?
Since the last election, Slovakia has three MPs coming from Roma communities, which is a certain shift. The lack of Roma women in this field comes from double discrimination and marginalization: not many women have the possibility to participate in public life and are perceived differently. Irena Bihariová is a strong-willed and competent politician, yet she is still confronted with many prejudices, i.e. that Slovakia is not yet prepared for a Roma female leader and that she should rather work with Roma people in excluded communities. Which shows that we still have a long way to go.
The issue of Roma women’s sterilization has once more been a topic of public discourse in the Czech Republic recently, specifically regarding compensation: is there such a debate in Slovakia?
From what I observed this topic is not an issue in the current public discourse, since the last major case dates back about ten years ago.
Has People in Need (or other organizations) implemented successful actions to favor the empowerment and stronger integration of Roma women in Slovakia?
From our work we can see that women are the entry points to communities. For instance, one of our employment counsellors is a Roma woman, who is moving so many people and communities forward. Our latest initiative is to form more women groups focused on empowerment, sharing and building their self-esteem. We have already established two groups like this, in complete cooperation and initiative from the women themselves. And we can already see the first results – women that continue with their education, find their first jobs or move out of the excluded communities for new work opportunities. These are the small, but also big successes, that slowly allow change in the communities and give women self-confidence.
Anything you’d like to add?
Sometimes it can seem, in the public discourse, as if the integration of marginalized Roma people is not worth it, or not moving anywhere. On one hand, it is shocking how many locations in Slovakia still have no access to running water. On the other hand, there are many Roma people in excluded communities that have found a job, better housing or gained higher education. We can see that communities are moving forward and there are women that are participating in that change. We just need to continue offering them a helping hand, in a complex and sustainable manner.