Peer-reviewed articles gender equality. An intersectional analysis with focus on Roma women in Hungarian NGO’s

In assessing intersectional sensitivity of the three NGOs here examined, one can conclude that all three identify the crucial interrelatedness of social marginalization with other marginalizing mechanisms. CfCf elaborates the intersection between ethnicity and social differentiation, where the main focus is on majority society’s institutional discrimination examined in the context of school segregation.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4 2015, pp 34-46
Published on on November 19, 2015

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I will focus on the ways that agents of NGOs engaged with Roma and/or women’s recognition struggles can be classified, and how these constructions make sense of the conditions forming the lives of Roma women and furthermore how Roma women’s interests are positioned. Detacting the intersecting aspects of ethnic-, gender-, and class-based relations that constitute Roma women’s position, I seek to identify which segments of the complex of relations different NGOs articulate as central. I aim to explore whether Roma women’s NGOs can be seen as more reflexive of the intersectional complexity of Roma women’s relations compared to Roma and women’s organizations.

KEY WORDS:  Roma Studies, intersectional analysis, gender equality, civil society, discrimination, marginalities.

Intersectional perspective has gained wide recognition within gender studies.1 Despite its breakthrough in the academic world, this approach is only slowly gaining recognition in political discourse.2 Similarly, Roma women have been put into focus as a multiply marginalized group in recent research.3 This research has identified the following key systems of dominance as those which impact negatively upon Roma women’s integration and life chances: human rights abuses including domestic violence, arranged marriages — which includes forced marriages and child marriages — trafficking in human beings and enforced prostitution, threats by right-wing extremist groups, multiple disadvantages in education, lack of access to employment, lack of access to social benefits, intersectional discrimination in reproductive health, and lack of access to financial resources. These exclusionary practices emerge along multiple intersecting systems of differentiation, such as class, ethnicity, and gender.

However, the intersecting aspects of Roma women’s marginalization have for a long time been left unexposed by radical social movements, since feminist women’s movement lacked a sensitivity to the specific concerns of Roma women4 while Roma organizations lacked sensitivity to gender aspects.5 In postsocialist regimes, an emerging mixed welfare model6 characterized by state with a diminishing role, civil society plays an increasing role in forming the living conditions of diverse underprivileged groups.7 NGOs represent societal interests and are formed along with struggles for recognition.8 They advocate in a social context for the position of the political subject representing their constituency and its perceived interests. These interests are formed in reference to policy frames and discourses.9 Discourses attribute meaning to the physical and social world, they “delineate what is sayable from what is not sayable”10 while also offering a diagnosis of the state of affairs as well as a prognosis over potential solutions.11 Discourses reveal or conceal intersecting aspects of relations in their ways of organizing fragmentary information.

NGOs engaged with Roma and women’s issues create their agenda by identifying social problems and concerns facing the discourses and practices formed in a broader societal context. Roma women’s reproductive role has been central in framing Roma “otherness” in conservative as well as right-wing politics and media.12 State institutions as well as the media are part of what forms public discourse. Stigmatizing ethnified and gendered images formed from the “outside” has real life consequences for those they signify.13 Similar to the case of women of color, Roma women’s struggles for recognition emerge at the intersection of political struggles for recognition for color, gender14, and class.15

Lombardo and Agustin16 differentiate among three main types of approaches that problematize the relation between intersecting inequalities: inarticulate, additive, and mutually constitutive. Yuval Davis17 focuses on gender-, class-, or ethnicity-based inequalities. Nonetheless, depending on the context, one or the other of these systems of dominance is more central, and any conflict would reflect conflicting interests: “[…] women of color need to intersect two different political agendas which are, at times, in conflict with each other.”18 Political strategies that might focus on one of the inequalities impact the perception of other inequalities.19 There is a dynamic relation of competition and alliances between different groups concerned with particular inequalities. Therefore, there is also a risk that the autonomous effects of inequalities become obscured by intersecting recognition claims.20

Dorothy Smith21 “argues” that it is from the position of the weakest that social inequalities can be revealed most comprehensively. From this perspective, Roma women’s multiply disadvantaged position makes possible the opportunity to problematize their situation in the intersection of different inequalities. The intersectional marginality of Roma women was also a potential source for the rise of Roma women’s political subjectivity from the “inside”22 in opposition to stigmatizing frames from the “outside.” Roma women’s NGOs “are able to assure the participation of multiple Roma women voices” in this process, which opens the window of opportunity to address the intersectional aspects of their marginalization.23

Dombos, Krizsán, and Zentai24 differentiate among three major frames addressing gender equality concerns: GBV (Gender-Based Violence issues incorporating concerns with domestic violence, sexual harassment, and trafficking); IC (Intimate Citizenship focusing on concerns in divorce, marriage, separation, sexual orientation, discrimination, reproduction rights), and NE (Non-Employment with concerns regarding employment, tax and benefit policies, care-work, reconciliation of family and work, gender pay gap and equal treatment). Kóczé25, exploring the emergence of the discourse of domestic violence in the Roma Women’s movement internationally and in Hungary, elucidates the difficulties of addressing critical GBV issues within the Roma women’s movement, due to Roma women’s intersecting marginalities.

In this paper, I cannot cover all aspects of gender equality struggles. I chose three NGOs, each of which addresses some of the key issues within these three frames.

The intersection of ethnic-
and class-based marginalization

Social inequalities often emerge along ethnic cleavages between majority and minority groups. While roots of inequalities diverge, approaches to overcoming the inequalities caused by ethnic cleavages tend to problematize the underprivileged.26 A norm-critical perspective on the dynamics of ethnic cleavages focuses on a critical assessment of how entitlements and policies are formed according to the norms characterizing the majority society. Approaches towards issues of socio-economic inequalities can be grouped into two major types: assimilative vs. integrative. Assimilation assumes the minority group’s alignment with the norms of the majority society as the precondition for social equality.27 State socialism was to abolish social inequalities, improve the education, employment, and living conditions of formerly excluded Roma communities. The condition for social mobility for the Roma was “to fit” them “to the customs and norms of the majority (in praxis to the state power).”28 The “Gypsy” question was treated as a poverty question, denying recognition of ethnic identification. At the end of the seventies, urged by the failure of assimilation policy and rising Roma consciousness, the state acknowledged Roma as an “ethnic social strata,” but not as a minority29 and resources and opportunities increased for Roma cultural activities. Meanwhile, Roma were problematized as a separate group, an expression of which was the appearance of segregated Roma school classes. In this sense, state-socialist Roma and women’s emancipation had a similar logic: equality was to be achieved by assimilation to the male/majority norm.

In contrast, an integrative alternative is to be based, according to Lahdenperä30 on a norm-critical perspective that implies multicultural tolerance and an intention to find mutually satisfactory normative grounds for co-existence. Multiculturalism implies an increasing tolerance for differences in culture.31 A further stage in norm-criticism would imply the deconstruction of norms, making possible reflexive modernity32 and cultural individualism. Postsocialist ethnic policies concerning education varied between “segregationist,” “difference” based approaches (compensating Roma children’s disadvantages in special line schools for “disadvantaged” Roma children), characterizing conservative governments, and “integrationist,” “likeness” based approaches (promoting integrated education) characterizing liberal and socialist coalition governments.33

State-socialist citizenship advocated both the right and the duty to work. Roma were employed during state socialism primarily in low skill occupations in mining and industry, which were the hardest hit during de-industrialization, when 1.6 million people lost their jobs from a labor force of 5.2 million. Meanwhile, the dependency ratio increased from 98 dependent on 100 employees in 1990 to 167 on 100 in 1995.34 This was accompanied by increasing social inequalities and frictions in society. Contra-selective mobility patterns increased spatial segregation leading to the rise of regional “rust-pockets,” typically small communities with extremely high unemployment.35 Large segments of the population became increasingly marginalized, which led to the creation of a spatially segregated ethnified underclass.36 The neoliberal retrenchment of the postsocialist welfare regime hastened by international monetary pressures on governments led to the emergence of welfare redistribution, with its sharp bifurcation into systems for “citizens” and systems for “the poor,”37 creating two classes of people. Welfare responsibility was delegated to the newly decentralized municipality system in a state with drained resources.38 Poverty became ghettoized: “Both the issue of poverty and that of the defenseless minority were confined in the limits of the administrative boarders of villages.”39 The postsocialist municipality reform split society: “the ‘social’ element has now been merged into the ‘minority’ […] comingling poverty and ethnicity and ‘ghettoizing’ the minority question while ‘ethnicizing’ […] the social question.”40 In exploring the emergence of the ethnification of poverty, Emigh, Fodor, and Szelényi41 combine the analysis of “objective” conditions, such a lack of skills and de-industrialization, leading to structural unemployment and the impact of subjective factors, such as classificatory struggles of ethnicity and gender, which demarcate boundaries between “hopelessly poor” and “deserving poor” in producing and reproducing poverty. As an outcome of classificatory struggles, the social features of poverty become attributed to supposed characteristics of the agents themselves, thereby reinforcing the cleavage between the poor and the not so poor. These moralizing discourses contribute to the long-term reproduction and perpetuation of poverty and prevent economic forces from dissolving it. Ethnification of poverty is closely intertwined with ethnifying discourses of those deserving of assistance. Unemployment and poverty became associated with undeservingness and Roma.42 Thus poverty obtained a “Roma face” with Roma women and children as its strongest signifiers.

The ethnified feminization of poverty
in postsocialist transitions

Women at large were not seen to have been impacted more negatively than men in the postsocialist transition in Hungary.43 The uniting feature of state-socialist gender regimes was the high level of women’s employment and education. Meanwhile, men remained the main breadwinners, and concentrated in the previously privileged “soft budget” sectors, such as mining, and heavy industry, which was protected by the state.44 Mining and heavy industry, along with agriculture, declined most rapidly during the transition to capitalism. In contrast, women were employed in lower paid and lower prestige jobs primarily in the less privileged tertiary sector.45 This sector was not hard hit by the transition to the same extent. In fact, it expanded the most during the transition period, in part because of the newly emerging welfare provision jobs.46 That the postsocialist transition has not led to a mass feminization of poverty has to do as well with the high proportion of state transfers to women.47

Exempt from this trend are Hungarian Roma women, who experienced mass exclusion from the labor market following the transition.48 The growth of the ethnicized feminization of poverty has to do with the ethnically differential distribution of resources during the postsocialist period among women, where Roma women are “devoid of […] resources and are the most vulnerable social group” on the fringes of society.49 Half of the Roma, while only 10% of non-Roma according to Emigh and Fodor’s research samples live in poverty in Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. The poverty gap is higher for women than for men.

Hungarian gender equality policies
and Roma women’s “otherness”

Dahlerup50 argued that different gender equality struggles make fundamentally different claims about the roots of inequalities and potential vision for overcoming these. She differentiated, based on the ontological assumptions made about the nature and origin of differences, between concepts focusing on the fundamental “likeness” between men and women and those claiming the existence of an essential “difference.” Approaches further differ depending on whether change was perceived to come in reference to a male norm or by dissolving such a norm. A “likeness” approach sees equality as something to be reached by inclusion of women into the man’s sphere, which is taken as a norm, without problematizing its gendered nature. Difference-based approaches claim recognition for the female condition by “reversal” of the male norm. Finally, norm-critical approaches argue for the “displacement” and deconstruction of norms51 and “diversity.”52

State-socialist women’s emancipation rhetoric in the early 1950s in Hungary had as a norm the wage-laborer man, without reproductive responsibilities. Women were to achieve equality by taking on men’s work, symbolized by the tractor-driving woman53, while care duties were to be socialized by the state.54 In contrast, from the late sixties to the early seventies, women’s maternal contribution was reappraised, women were encouraged to engage with maternal roles, for which society was to compensate them by paid maternal care during the child’s first three years.55 Although later even fathers could have limited access to these childcare benefits, they were almost exclusively utilized by mothers. As the system of women’s double burden continued, women’s care duties have not been seen as of equal value to men’s wage labor, the Hungarian state-socialist gender regime was a difference-based model with clear primacy for the male norm, the lack of reproductive responsibility.

In the postsocialist transformation, a public, maternalistic gender regime was reproduced.56 During the first conservative government, MDF, starting in 1990, gender difference ideology was enforced, extending state support to so-called full time motherhood. In 1995, the socialist (MSZP) and liberal (SZDSZ) coalition attempted to cut back on maternal benefits due to external pressure by global monetary institutions (IMF), while the populist conservative (FIDESZ) reinforced maternal benefits in 1998. During the following two terms of socialist and liberal coalition government family policy emphasized the importance of childcare benefits as means of decreasing social inequalities and social support to poor mothers.57 In contrast, the turn to a national conservative/Christian (FIDESZ/KNDP) regime reinforced the role of childcare benefits to compensate for loss of work income, differentiating levels of transfers for those who had been employed previously and those who lack such entitlements. Conservative governments took a critical position towards HBTQ movements, women became increasingly marginalized in politics, and the levels for childcare transfers were falling. These trends indicate the current strengthening of difference-based conservative gender politics.

In this conservative climate, Roma women appear in public discourses as giving birth to too many children in order to access social benefits related to childrearing. Framing Roma mothers as irresponsible has been central in constructing Roma as “others,” and as undeserving citizens. “Everybody knows that the majority of children are born in order to provide income,” argues a small community mayor writing an open letter to the parliament urging new laws that would abolish family subsidies for families of children under three, and would channel child support payments to institutions rather than families.58 She claims that many use social welfare child benefits “to go straight to the local pub on the payment day for social benefits only to behave aggressively with people after getting drunk.”

This ethnified discourse is combined with a social conservative rhetoric arguing “that many have a better living from living on subsidies than from real work” and thus the current system of benefits is encouraging irresponsible family planning practices.59 This argument echoes earlier parliamentary debate, in 1996, when the generous state-socialist childcare subsidy policy was reformed, abolishing the employment based Childcare Allowance [GYED], which was proportionate to the loss of wage based income, while maintaining the flat rate Childcare Subsidy [GYES]. Maintaining the subsidy was a central pro-natalist measure, and arguments on its behalf were framed either in terms of a social need, as in the strategy of the socialists, or, in a nationalistic context, in terms that refer to the dying out of the nation, the strategy adopted by FIDESZ. However, the danger of being misused by “certain groups in the population to make a living by having a string of children, with all the undesirable consequences that go with that”60 echoes concerns similar to those raised by the mayor cited above. The true object of these concerns is certain groups, yet they generally are not directly named. Hungarian human resource minister, Balog, utilizing similar ambiguous rhetoric, recently announced that “[…] the most alarming consequence of the demographical transition — in addition to the fact that there are too few children born and that society is aging — is where those children that are born are born” a statement that generated public outcry.61

In this way, stigmatizing62 discourses blame Roma women for their poverty. Meanwhile, Roma men are often criminalized in media images where Roma culture is associated with violence.63 Identifying stigmatized groups as “problemholders” can further stigmatize them in political discourse.64 Bacchi65 argues that even if framing is not necessarily intentional, “hegemonic discourses” in the Foucauldian sense may enable or constrain agency. The articulation of grievances may be influenced, even silenced, by prevailing “master frames.”66 An ethnified moralizing of standards of parenting and mothering also has real-life consequences. Eastern Europe — and Hungary in particular — has a comparatively high frequency of institutionalization of children from families identified as not having proper childrearing practices. Roma are overrepresented among institutionalized children.67 Although poverty cannot officially be a reason for institutionalizing a child, when health and social welfare workers make decisions about Roma mothers on childrearing standards, references to a parent’s reliability in providing a proper standard of living combine with considerations regarding an absence of proper childrearing standards.68 Forced sterilization has been placed in the international spotlight, even if documented cases of Roma women’s victimization through forced sterilization are, so far, not numerous in Hungary.69

Roma women’s vulnerabilities
within their own community

Beyond the classificatory practices of majority society, even gender relations within Roma communities and in intimate relations contribute to Roma women’s multiple marginality.70 Kóczé describes the tasks of Roma women activists being double-edged: to “fight against the norms of their own family and community and to challenge the existing and persistent racial hierarchy.”71 Roma women show alarming reproductive health issues72 and are overrepresented among the victims of trafficking.73 Neményi argues that Roma women’s responses to reproductive challenges and ability to manage their reproductive health are contextualized within poverty, classificatory practices by the health regime of majority society, and their own families.74

There is an increase in early births, especially among Roma women in segregated settlements with low socio-economic status.75 One third of Roma women give birth for the first time before the age of eighteen, and two thirds before the age of 20.76 Teenage mothers are less educated, and newborns to those who have not completed at least eight years of primary school weigh on average 257 grams less than the average for newborns generally, and experience medical complications more often.77 Health professionals emphasize that these trends are related to malnutrition, risk behaviors, and the state of the body at such a relatively young age.78 These trends among Roma women not only have adverse health effects but also worsen their possibilities of completing their education and finding employment (70% of Roma teenage mothers remain housewives), which contributes to a long-lasting feminized poverty.79 Durst80 argues, based on statistical and qualitative studies, that the increase in teenage pregnancies cannot be explained by cultural factors. Highly educated Roma women have similar demographic characteristics as Hungarian. Meanwhile, poor Roma youth discover that becoming a parent is the only way to become an adult and achieve respectability in their communities. However, critical voices emerge among some Roma women’s activists concerning this pattern. The Boyash Roma women’s movement has been engaged in consciousness-raising about the impact of early pregnancies for Roma women’s education and employment chances.81

Addressing Roma women’s high fertility rate and its adverse effects is a sensitive question as a result both of the way fertility is stigmatized as well as the high status fertility occupies in disadvantaged communities. High fertility is even attached to men’s control over women’s fertility, and negative sentiments towards birth control practices.82 Others,such as Roma ethnographer and writer Ruva Farkas praises Lovári Roma ethics about high fertility as insurance for “recreating the race” [fajfenntartás].83

 Roma women victims of domestic violence face difficulties obtaining support from majority society institutions as well as from their own communities, an issue that European Parliament Country Report on Hungary, Empowerment of Romani women within the European Framework of National Roma Inclusion Strategies NSIS, 2013, emphasizes. It formulates Romani women’s situation from a multidimensional perspective emphasizing both internal discrimination seen as: “deeply rooted in the patriarchal family system characterized by a strong asymmetric distribution of power between genders in the communities” and external: “Roma women face higher risk than non-Roma women of being exposed to all forms of violence, notable domestic violence, trafficking and exploitation, while facing additional obstacles in accessing protection.”84

In a joint conference with IRWN (see below), JRWI formulated a path-breaking declaration arguing that: “One cannot fight racism in a society while discriminating others on the basis of gender in their own community.”85 Ruva Farkas described Roma people’s patriarchal praxis from the “inside”: “if a wife does not enter the marriage with honor [i.e. as a virgin], this will follow her through her life. A wife that will not be hit, dishonored in a marriage is rare […]. The value of a child born from a “whore” wife is not the same as one born from a virgin.”86 Meanwhile, Roma feminists problematized practices, such as virginity tests, child and arranged marriages calling on their elimination as harmful for young women and men. The declaration problematizes whether these practices can be considered as part of some kind of “Roma” traditions. Rather, they claim that such “exist in every patriarchal society/community. They called for legal repercussions: “law must prevail and culture should not be used as an excuse whenever such practices are being performed.” 87

NGOs addressing the conditions
of Roma women

The postsocialist transformation created specific conditions for the emergence of civil society.88 Feminist mobilization was hindered by the alleged association between state socialism and women.89 Emerging NGOs embraced different issues compared to Western civic organizations: “Despite their widespread rejection of exclusively gender-related identification and tactics used in Western democracies, a minority of Central and Eastern European women began to mobilize and lobby, mostly around a series of welfare issues.”90 Such welfare issues focused primarily on reproductive rights, raising the pension age for women, and the restructuring of maternity benefits.91 It was argued that raising issues of domestic violence by feminist movements in general was strongly hindered by anti-socialist sentiments, questioning state interference in matters of the family.92 As Fábián93 argues, civic organizations that compose the women’s movement in Hungary manifest a mixture of “antifeminism and hybrid feminisms” with only a few adhering openheartedly to a feminist agenda, defined as having “a political agenda to end the oppression of women”.94 These often reformulate rather than openly challenge traditional perceptions that “view the welfare of children as women’s main public concern”.95 Women’s NGOs, which often grew with foreign support, such as support by the Open Society Foundation, and which worked more on a national scope, such as NaNE, have been instrumental in placing the issue of domestic violence on the agenda.

Civil society mobilization played an important role in the institutionalization of support for female victims of gender violence during the second MSZP/SZDSZ government period, while the support of conservative women’s movement for the reinforcement of maternal benefits96 supported the shift of government towards the populist, conservative FIDESZ in 1998.

Most of Roma women’s organizations focus on the promotion of specific Roma cultural values as sources of positive self-identification, claiming a specific role for Roma women as mothers in the transfer of culture.97 Roma women organizations as well as Roma organizations on both the national and international level seem reluctant to take on GBV issues (including domestic violence and trafficking), due to fear of constructing it as a Roma issue and thereby contributing to the “othering” practices.98 Similarly suppressed is the interest in addressing IC issues, concerning sexuality and fertility. Even Roma women and their reproductive role often configure as stigmatizing and transmitting culturified images. There has been a renewed interest during the past 2—3 years in raising the topic of GBV issues, in which national-level feminist organizations were actively collaborating with Roma women’s organizations. Even international Roma organizations promoted this change.99

Data and methods

This paper explores the perceptions of those agents representing civic organizations who are engaged with issues that have relevance for the conditions of Roma women. I studied nine Roma NGOs. Out of these, four of the interviews were conducted with representatives of these NGOs, which were formed with the specific purpose of representing Roma women’s interests. A further three organizations were Roma interest organizations, not specifically engaged with women’s issues, while two were Roma NGOs that had some specific projects concerning Roma women, even if they were not formed with the specific purpose of assisting Roma women. I conducted interviews even with three non-Roma NGOs whose activity had relevance. I chose three NGOs from a broader sample to represent Roma, women’s and Roma women’s NGOs. The chosen NGOs also exemplify three distinct areas of engagement: NE, IC and GBV. CfCf: Esélyt a hátrányos helyzetű fiataloknak [Chance for disadvantaged youth] fights against school segregation; Khetanipe is a Roma civic organization with special programs and engagement for Roma women’s health; NaNE: Nőka Nőkért Együttaz Erőszak Ellen [Women for Women Together Against Violence] works against domestic violence.

My major research method was based on in-depth semi-structured interviews. In some cases focus-group interviews were also conducted and there was also some participant observation. Beyond oral sources, I have also consulted web pages and publicized policy documents. The first round of interviews took place in 2012. Interviews and web page studies were repeated in 2014. Only written documents were analyzed in case of Khetanipe NGO.

I utilized a frame analytical method.100 On the one hand, I have explored the hegemonic/master frames that the NGOs and their representatives were relating to and exposing in their speech, as an analysis built on “inside” logic. On the other hand, I exposed these to the frames developed in intersectional analysis of Roma women’s conditions, as an analysis relating to an “outside” logic.

CfCf. Improved education
for Roma children

This civil right organization was founded with the goal of protecting equal opportunities and ensuring the scholastic success of disadvantaged children of primarily Roma origin ( CfCf concludes that obtaining many years of education is the way out of poverty and isolation. Referring to phenomena observed in other countries, the NGO argues that this cannot be reached in schools that are segregated according ethnic or social position. I studied the homepage of the NGO, and interviewed Erzsébet Mohácsi, director and head of the curatorial, who as a dedicated activist carried through a series of successful lawsuits against municipalities during the past decade. The interview aimed to explore the intersectional perspective of the NGO with special interest paid to gender issues.

The homepage of the NGO motivates its foundation by the fact that despite the existence of anti-discrimination laws in Hungary, required by the EU, in 2004, when Hungary joined the EU, there were 170 village and urban schools that were homogenously Roma and an additional 700 ethnically mixed schools where there were segregated Roma classes. Another motivation was the overrepresentation of Roma children among children classified as handicapped “fogyatékos”. Segregated schools have allegedly a lower educational level leading to failure on the labor market. Despite substantial resources, the Hungarian educational system reproduces poverty and vulnerability.101 Although state institutions should be the ones that guarantee that the schools live up to the law, they do not do so.

The CfCf project “What Roma kids dream about” addresses the main mission of the organization as follows: “While their dreams are not different at all from non-Roma children’, there is a still huge difference between the education of Roma and non-Roma children in Hungary”. This statement underlies the fundamental similarity between children irrespective of ethnicity. Social differences emerge due to differential access to education. CfCf’s project “Mellémülsz” [Sit beside me!] calls attention to the prevailing prejudices in majority society contributing to segregation. The project inspires Roma and non-Roma parents to create mixed study groups.

Mohácsi describes a critical turn in policy after 2002. The support of Roma children’s education has been on the agenda since the state-socialist period. During the former FIDESZ period, so called “felzárkóztatásinormatíva” [catching up norm] gave support to schools who took on the task of educating Roma children: “Those schools that started ‘catch-up classes’ obtained extra transfers beyond the normative transfers provided per child. This normative system existed even under socialism, and the ‘catch-up classes’ were equal with Roma classes”. Mohácsi argued that the SZDSZ-MSZP [liberal-socialist coalition] government intended to change this practice radically and work for the abolishing of Roma schools and special classes. They abandoned the “catching up norm” and replaced it with an “integration norm”, a policy forwarded by the former Cultural Minister, Bálint Magyar. The purpose of the new policy was

“to bring in the Roma children to the majority schools. By this they would get access to the same service as the non-Roma. […] The ‘catch-up norm’ promoted the segregation of Roma children in separate classes. In contrast, the new support promoted moving Roma children into classes with others, the schools obtained money, if they moved them in, if they integrated them.”

The foundation had its roots in the proclamation of the anti-discrimination law in 2003, which has prohibited the operation of these Roma classes and Roma schools. Erzsébet Mohácsi’s sister, Viktória Mohácsi, was the ministerial commissary for the integration of Roma children (Roma gyerekek integrációjáért felelős miniszteri biztos), which worked out the laws in collaboration with the ministry. The purpose of the NGO, which came into being with the support of the ministry, was to ensure that the laws were followed: “the purpose of the foundation was to stand up and watch over that the laws were followed.” This meant that the foundation

“[…] took over the task of the state, which nobody carries out, in other words: there was no inspection. If we had not existed, than all schools would do what they wanted. Nobody checks the schools […]. What does a school get its support for? How does a school utilize it? What level education is provided?” (Mohácsi)

CfCf has been dedicated to and has succeeded with several lawsuits in pursuit of this mission, which has without a doubt raised a neglected and central civil right issue. CfCf suffered a setback in 2015 when they lost a suit against the opening of a segregated Greek Catholic school in a disadvantaged Roma neighborhood. The same congregation keeps a school in the center of Nyíregyháza, where middle-class non-Roma children are enrolled. CfCf argued, based on expert support, that segregated schools reproduced disadvantages and are illegal. However, the Supreme Court ruled on April 22, 2015, in favor of the Church school, arguing that the existence of segregated schools is legitimate, where the maintenance of the community requires it. Thus, the fact that the Greek Catholic Church conducted Roma pastoral care (pastoration) justified its decision to open a school in a Roma settlement and to maintain a Roma-only school, because it could not conduct Roma pastoral care in a school where the ethnic composition of the students was different.102 Even the municipality was freed from responsibility with reference to the same argument, despite its shutting down the student bus service from the segregated settlement, and providing a school building for the church in the segregated area.

The organization is dedicated to the issue of Roma children’s educational advancement, where the clear target of the mission is to address institutional discrimination. This mission addresses the intersection between class and ethnicity, attributing the reason for ethnified social marginalization to ethnified, segregated schooling. Meanwhile, schooling is also the arena of gendered, intersecting marginalizing practices. Therefore, my question was to elucidate the way in which CfCf addresses a) the gender aspects of school discrimination in their mission and b) the interaction between the responsibility of the schools and of parents/community.

As shown earlier, early childbirth is contributing to the early termination of the education of teenage mothers, a loss that impacts their life chances.103 However, Mohácsi did not attribute importance to the frequency of early childbirth among Roma girls, describing it as “a general problem of teenage girls […]. I am sure that [early pregnancies] occur just as often among non-Roma girls […]. Hungarian girls have abortions, Roma girls cannot, since their family tells them not to.”

This statement makes two contradicting claims on cultural difference. On the one hand it states that early pregnancies (which assumes early sexual debut) among Roma youth are not more frequent than among non-Roma. Thus, there is no cultural difference. On the other hand, it states that there is a cultural difference, in the way Roma families handle their children’s early pregnancies. Roma families do not practice abortion, on the contrary, their families tell them not to do so. Mohácsi does not elaborate on the reasons for the different positions on abortion among Roma and non-Roma parents. Nonetheless, the issue with potential relevance, yet left unproblematized by CfCf, is how early child deliveries impact on the chances of Roma girls to obtain equal opportunities in their education. Nor is the question raised of joint responsibility of the school system and Roma families for these practices.

As shown above, early births increase among Roma youth and are typically combined with exit from the school and incomplete schooling.104 This jeopardizes to a larger degree young Roma women compared to men, even if young fathers might also exit the school system due to becoming parents, an issue that has so far obtained less attention.105 According to common practice, based on agreement between the parents and the school, these girls try to catch up as private students (egyénitanuló). However, this system has a very low rate of success.106 While the schools might be criticized for not making efforts to guarantee the equal opportunities of these girls to obtain an education, even the families of these teenage girls can be found wanting.

As the previous analysis elucidates, the focus of the foundation lies on watching over how the laws are followed. In that sense it fulfils a key democratic function, the surveillance of majority society’s institutions. However, seen from a more complex, intersectional perspective, there are several factors beyond the segregating practices of schools that contribute to the lower school achievement among Roma youth. From an intersectional perspective, taking on board both ethnicity, class and gender dimensions, schools might be seen as deficient in their efforts to collaborate with the families and/or to be more proactive in their information practices107 as well as in efforts to secure institutional conditions enabling young mothers and fathers to complete schooling. Alternatively, schools fail to provide viable life chances for the youth that could open alternatives to reach adulthood other than early parenthood.

CfCf’s lack of attention to the interaction between the schools and parental and community responsibility could be seen as the result of its simply falling outside their proclaimed mission: monitoring institutional discrimination. Resistance to culturification discourse and practices, i.e. the foundation of ethnic discrimination, in that sense, suppresses potential resistance to gender-based marginalities.

Kethanipe: strengthening Roma
women’s reproductive health

One of the issues with which the Roma NGO Kethanipe is engaged is Roma women’s reproductive health. Roma women experience higher reproduction-related risks than do women at large. The document published by Angyal108 as part of an EC-supported project summarizes recommendations forming Khetanipe’s policy. This document addresses, as the key challenges of Roma women’s reproductive health, the issues of poverty, chronic illnesses, and lack of knowhow. These challenges are seen as partly of structural and partly of cultural origin. First, Roma are overrepresented among those living at low living standards, unemployed and having low-incomes, while they are overrepresented among those living in large families, having low educational levels and those dependent on social benefits. Secondly, Angyal highlights the challenge of the abundance of chronic illnesses including epidemics. The high frequency of these can be associated with unhealthy lifestyles and abuse of alcohol and cigarettes. Thirdly, Angyal109 refers to the lack of knowledge, which might be bound both to structural issues, such as the low educational levels, and to traditional Roma beliefs and health-related culture.

Kethanipe also works for the principle of equal treatment, however, unlike CfCf, it situates the interaction between Roma women and the health profession (representing a state institution) in a broader community context. Roma women are perceived as agents acting as part of a community with distinct cultural and social conditions. Angyal’s overriding recommendation for health professionals is to work for integration with respect to values of cultural difference; they should work for a prejudice-free encounter, while being open to learning about Roma culture.

In her elaboration, Angyal promotes three different positions depending on contextual factors. On the one hand, health professionals should enforce prevailing regulations, even if this means going against the will of women as patients, if these regulations serve the improvement of health standards, for example in the case of vaccination, or pregnancy check-ups.

On the other hand, they should be open to accepting cultural difference, where the issue at stake is not a hard-core matter: “[health professionals] should learn from the Roma customs, values, ways of thinking, should accept their difference; they should consider culture as the bearer of different values”.

They should learn the specificity of culture and respect its various elements, such as the presence of family hierarchies or elderly women’s authority. They should respect beliefs “if the lifestyle evolving along traditions does not itself contain risky elements for health”.

Angyal promotes a third, intermediary position in cases where direct intervention is not recommended, yet where counceling and offering insights could direct the patients/recipients towards a healthier life. Early pregnancies were identified as an example where the risk of adverse effects for the young mother’s reproductive health was increased. Health professionals should thus work for change — if customs suggest a risk. However, Angyal argues that “to intrude into beliefs and customs directly or with a prohibition is counterproductive”. Instead, “careful convincing (rábeszélés) can bring about positive outcomes”.110

Comparing CfCf leader Mohácsi’s view with Angyal’s views from Khetanipewe, we find an acknowledgement of cultural difference in how families relate to early pregnancies, among other phenomena. It seems that Khetanipe addresses more explicitly the relation between welfare institutions and the Roma community, where a critical position is taken towards alleged Roma customs on issues potentially inflicting health damage. Meanwhile, Angyal argues for respect towards cultural difference on issues of large family size, elderly women’s authority, and women’s shyness when confronted with health professionals. Therefore, both balance between arguments of likeness (anti-segregation, enforced health control standards) and difference (acceptance of family preferences for early pregnancies or large family size).

The general trend identified by Fábián in examining CEE women’s civic organizations as one of either a hybrid-feminism or an anti-feminism — in the latter case, adhering to women’s caring role for society — seems to characterize Khetanipe’s position. Here, the lack of critical distance towards women’s position in the private sphere can be a consequence of the double-edged sensitivity (inside the community and in relation to majority society) elaborated by Crenshaw above.

NaNE: A Non-Roma
women’s organization

NaNE “Nők a Nőkért Együtt az Erőszak Ellen” [Women for Women Together Against Violence] was formed in 1994 and is one of the major women’s NGOs providing aid to women who have been victims of violence. They have a profile within the GBV frame and operate a hotline which women can call in an emergency. They are active in opinion-formation on issues relating to domestic violence, and educate institutions, such as the police, that deal with cases of violence or abuse. I interviewed one of the central people from NaNE, Judit Wirth, about the experiences they have had with Roma women as victims. I sought to explore whether NaNE followed any specific strategies in order to address Roma women’s issues. Until 2012 they did not have a specific outreach program for Roma women, nor differentiated between Roma women’s cases and others’. First, they had practical reasons: NaNE knew of few confirmed Roma cases, since people typically phone in anonymously, and NaNE gets to know the ethnicity of clients only if they volunteer the information. Secondly, NaNE perceives sexual abuse as a phenomenon which does not have race or class: “one can be a victim even if one is a millionaire.” They do not see that family violence would be more frequent among the Roma than among other groups. Rather, it might be perceived as more frequent, since those with more resources have better means to hide it, while the Roma are “more visible.” Thus, family violence is “more observable in a minority burdened by prejudices against them.”

Reflecting on the absence or low representation of Roma women among the clients of NaNE, Wirth finds several potential reasons. First, she there is Roma women’s reluctance to seek help from majority social institutions “since they [are perceived to] have less chances [to be helped by authorities] due to multiple discrimination.” Thus, Roma women distrust the willingness of authorities to be supportive. They place no hope in social institutions. This mistrust, according to Wirth, has two sides. On the one hand, there is no proper institutional solution for battered women at large in Hungary. There are only few “transitory family homes”, but no shelters that meet international standards. On the other hand, there is mistrust against institutions as majority society establishments, a mistrust extended to women’s NGOs. Beyond lacking sensitivity to the position of battered women at large, authorities often form their strategies based on, to use Wirth’s terms, “culturified position,” on ”culture relativist arguments […] claiming that among them [Roma] this is the custom, that the young girls are accustomed to it […] that it is normal to beat one’s wife, to have teenage girls become prostitutes […]”.

Secondly, Wirth argues that Roma women fear repression from within their own community. Were they to contact the public authorities of the majority society, resulting in action taken against Roma men, it would provoke the reaction from the Roma community as a whole. They would risk becoming labeled as “traitors”: “they can easily become targets [of violence] in their own communities […] if they say something bad about their community to outsiders, to the majority society, which commonly labels the Roma negatively.” Since Roma women are members of a stigmatized community, where Roma men have a criminalized public image, authorities are more inclined to take action. Roma women, who are dependent on their communities due to poverty, experience pressure not to seek help from majority society institutions of the state or civil society. As shown earlier, Crenshaw makes a similar argument about the impact of stigma on intersectional claims.

In addition, Roma women experience difficulties in making claims within their community as a result of unfounded internal community myths, such as the notion that Roma societies are matriarchal, where women rule within the families. Women making claims that they are victims of violence become accused rather than supported.

Although at the time of the first interview in 2012, NaNE did not have a special outreach program for Roma women, Wirth indicates that they actually have encountered a few cases filed by Roma women. One of these concerned a Roma woman married to an abusive Hungarian husband. The other concerned sexual assault in the workplace. Welfare law that came into force in 2012 made social benefits contingent upon participation in the public work programs organized by the municipality.111 Entitlements to welfare benefits thus now depend on confirmed participation in these. This creates extreme economic dependency on work providers through the municipality leading to “a new form of slavery.” The case referred to by Wirth concerned a case of sexual abuse by an employer, filed at the Equal Treatment Authority, which initiated collaboration with NaNE. One of the victims was a Roma woman. However, as it turned out, coworkers were bribed and were afraid to testify.

The above examples represent cases of abuse, where a Roma woman is abused by a representative of majority society (partner or employer). Thus, utilizing Wirth’s reasoning about battered Roma women’s reluctance to seek support from or contact authorities, we can see that these Roma women’s agencies are not relating in the most productive way to the Roma community. Furthermore, these contacts indicate that the concerned women were integrated with majority society. Wirth emphasized that the cases are similar to non-Roma women’s cases and refer to a gendered poverty trap, a situation in which ethnicity does not result in specific vulnerabilities.

Thus, while asserting that gender violence has “no class, no race,” Wirth raises the possibility of oppression of Roma women along multiple dimensions: via socio-economic vulnerabilities (i.e. Roma women being situated in a gendered poverty trap), by the institutions of majority society, and by their own community. Wirth’s primary critique is raised against the “culturified” perceptions of domestic violence. Majority society views wife-battering among Roma as part of Roma culture, which manifests itself in an institutional, discriminatory lack of assistance to Roma victims. Conspicuously, according to Wirth’s interpretation, Roma themselves view their “cultural difference” not as a culture of normalized wife battering. On the contrary, myths about the power of the matriarchy inhibit victimized Roma women from seeking help in their own communities. However, as shown above, we have Lovari’s socio-graphic descriptions, which argue for the existence of strong patriarchal control, a control that even permits battering under violation of Romani Kriss ethic.112

Therefore, despite the position that family violence has “no class, no race”, Wirth operates a complex intersectional framing: she is critical of both “culturifying”, that is, removing the notion of responsibility to assist battered women, as well as of the lack of support from the Roma women’s own communities. Nonetheless, in 2012, NaNE lacked intersectionally informed support for Roma victims. Thanks to increased interest in initiating specific outreach programs for Roma women, NaNE has engaged Lídia Balogh, a scholar and feminist activist, to develop co-operation between Roma women’s organizations and NaNE, and work for a strategy to improve consciousness and aid for Roma women victims of domestic violence. This outreach included consciousness-raising both within the Roma communities on the nature of domestic violence and among authorities, such as law-enforcement. With this, NaNE has moved towards a complex intersectional approach on GBV issues where Roma women are offered a voice in addressing domestic violence.


In assessing intersectional sensitivity of the three NGOs here examined, one can conclude that all three identify the crucial interrelatedness of social marginalization with other marginalizing mechanisms. CfCf elaborates the intersection between ethnicity and social differentiation, where the main focus is on majority society’s institutional discrimination examined in the context of school segregation. This discrimination is seen as the primary contributing factor to further ethnified social inequalities. Meanwhile, CfCf leaves the gender dimension unarticulated. Roma cultural differences, or gender relations within Roma communities, are posited as present, yet as insignificant as a cause of educational disadvantages.

By comparison, Khetanipe’s policy analyses of the health condition of Roma result in a broader action plan, where the role of both the institutions of majority society and of Roma communities is critically assessed. While the occurrence of discrimination within health organizations is criticized, the main focus of the policy document is a norm-critical assessment of institutions. This norm criticism assumes the juxtaposition of Roma culture and majority culture. This analysis offers a critical assessment from the “inside”, as well. The relative ill-health in marginalized Roma communities is partly explained by social deprivation and poverty, and partly by customs. Some of these customs are identified as non-ethnic, such as smoking, and addictive behavior in general, while others are identified as culture-bound, such as early childbirth or large families. These customs are articulated as different from those of majority society, and as an implicit claim for recognition. Khetanipe’s policy analyses have an articulated gender difference perspective, where women are attributed a central caring role. Ethnic and class-based marginalities are problematized, including gendered aspects of ethnic marginalities, such as the encounter between pregnant Roma women and healthcare institutions. Meanwhile, this gender perspective is not critical, but rather affirms Roma women’s responsibility for the reproduction of the family and community. Only a mild criticism is present concerning the function of men in limiting the use of contraceptives.

The most explicit gender perspective has been articulated by NaNE, which has to do with their specific engagement with GBV issues. Even though NaNE claimed in 2012 that domestic violence has no class or ethnicity, the organization manifest sensitivity to both class and ethnicity. This sensitivity led to a direct engagement with the intersectional approach and collaboration with Roma women’s organizations. In this engagement, NaNE turned against culturifying discourses, which are used by institutions to free themselves from responsibility to intervene in domestic violence cases in Roma families. Due to intersectional marginalities, such as the stigmatization of Roma communities, Roma women experience a lack of support from majority society institutions while they fear repercussions from their own community, if their claims cause damage and criminalization to their partners. In addition, cultural self-images of Roma communities as maternalistic make it difficult for abused women to find sympathy within their communities.

Crenshaw’s 113 remarks can be of relevance in this respect. She argues that women of color suffer multiple marginalization and that in struggles for recognition, claims rooted in differing loyalties might come into conflict with one another. Ethnic recognition struggles might overshadow potential claims of inequality based on gender. What the three cases above have in common is the persistent negation of hegemonic essentializing culturifying discourses. This overriding frame appears to dominate gender-based claims to varying degrees: fully overshadowing gender in case of CfCf, while merging with gender-based recognition struggles in the case of NaNE, and arguing for women’s gender differential identity in the case of Khetanipe. Despite refuting culturifying discourses, all three NGOs give expression to some degree to the claim for recognition of cultural difference characterizing Roma communities. A strategy of reversal is strongest in Khetanipe. Refuting stigmatizing discourses constitutes an obstacle to the formation of a critical position on internal marginalizing relations, such as domestic violence and teenage pregnancies. Internal claims on identities of difference need by necessity positive self-images. Despite this need, both NaNE and Khetanipe exercise self-criticism concerning some perceived Roma cultural features, such as unhealthy lifestyles or a lack of solidarity with victims of domestic violence. Most importantly, those criticized aspects of perceived Roma culture that are acknowledged, such as risk behavior leading to poor health, are not considered as essentially associated with Roma culture. Rather, these features are the consequences of other related conditions, such as poverty and low educational attainment.

As shown above, the four organizations identify their mission out of different positions placed in a matrix of societal relations. CfCf’s concern with educational segregation raises a central NE issue, Khetanipe’s inquiry into health issues falls in the area of IC, while NaNE’s focus on domestic violence is a key issue within the GBV field. Based on the way they position themselves within these relations, different aspects of intersecting relations are revealed, while others become suppressed. With the exception of NaNE, the two other civic organizations do not deploy a feminist gender-critical perspective concerning domestic violence in Roma families. Rather, they resist culturifying perspectives contributing to external stigmatization. In this effort they turn their critical focus primarily to the role of majority institutions. As current developments show, NaNE increased engagement with Roma women’s civic associations.114 Engaging Roma women’s associations allows the issue of domestic violence to surface from the inside of the Roma community. This circumvents the utilization of the theme in the service of stigmatization, while at the same time it allows the issue to be voiced by Roma women115 — which, as argued earlier, makes it possible to address the intersectional aspects of their marginalization. ≈



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Asztalos Morell (forthcoming).

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Gabriella Szigethy, “Kisgyermekes Anyák Munkaeröpiaci reintegráaciója: a Csereháton,” [The Reintegraion of Mothers with Small Children to the Labor Market: in the Cxerehát) in A kirekesztés társadalmi nem alapú elmélete és gyarkorlata a Csereháton [Exclusions Gender Based Theory and Practice in Cserhát], ed. Andrea Petö (Miskolc: Miskolci Egyetem, 2004), 179—192.

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Angyal (2007): 66.

Asztalos Morell (fortcoming).

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Asztalos Morell (forthcoming).

Vincze (2005); Fiona Williams, “Contesting ‘Race’ and Gender in the European Union: a Multi-Layered Recognition Struggle for Voice and Visibility,” in Recognition Struggles and Social Movements: Contested Identities, Agency and Power, ed. Barbara Hobson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 121—140; Fraser (2003); Lídia Balogh, “A Roma Nőkkel Kapcsolatos Szakpolitikai Megközelítések,” in A romapolitikák értékelési módszerei és a Magyar kormányzatok romapolitikái: Tanulmánykötet, ed. Balázs Vizi (Budapest: Nemzetközi Intézet, 2013): 17—28. Accessed March 25, 2015,

  • by Ildikó Asztalos Morell

    Associate professor in sociology at Mälardalen University and is currently affiliated with the Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies as senior research fellow. Her current research explores processes of marginalization in rural Hungary from an intersectional perspective.

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