International Roma Women's Network (IRWN)
Published as part of the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID)'s Building Feminist Movements and Organisations (BFEMO) initiative, this 13-page paper discusses the efforts of two organisations to tackle the oppression, exploitation, and discrimination Romani women experience throughout Europe. According to Rita Izsák of the International Roma Women's Network (IRWN), Romani women face: double discrimination based on ethnicity and gender; denial of education (so they can take care of the household and other family members); virginity tests; problems accessing the health care system, due to factors such as discrimination and poverty; early and arranged marriage; high danger of being trafficked or forced into prostitution; and/or domestic violence. In this paper, Izsák explores how IRWN and the Joint Roma Women's Initiative (JRWI), a programme of the Open Society Institute instituted in 1999, have each worked to address these problems.
Specifically, a group of individual Romani women activists came together to launch IRWN on International Women's Day (IWD) 2003. Representing Romani women of all Romani groups from most countries of Europe, this umbrella organisation challenges individual and institutional discrimination at all levels, especially discrimination in housing, health care, education, and employment. IRWN collaborates with governments, developing and advocating recommendations to ensure that the culture of Roma/Sinti/Gypsy/Traveller women is recognised, respected, and resourced. IRWN encourages international organisations and institutions which work on behalf of women and Roma to actively support efforts on the part of Roma women's organisations to defend fundamental human rights.
To accomplish its objectives and tasks, IRWN organises fact-finding missions, "signal" networks, and other means of monitoring the human rights situation for Roma globally. In addition to maintaining a database on Romani women, IRWN collects information about international and domestic legislation, case law, and other practices in the sphere of human rights. IRWN members communicate as a "virtual" network; one of IRWN's most visible activities and achievements is the regular communication and news-sharing facilitated through its list-serve. IRWN has also participated in lobbying efforts at various levels. In the next section, Izsák outlines the major challenges IRWN faces. For instance, due to lack of funding, even 5 years after its launch the organisation has no office, no paid staff, no website, and so on. IRWN did not emerge as a result of national/regional/local cooperation of already-existing networks. Furthermore, IRWN is not immune to deep-seated confusions about addressing gender equality within the Roma community (e.g., some members of the older generation of Roma women reportedly believe and teach the younger generation that it is part of Romani culture to respect and follow male leaders. For these and other reasons presented in the paper, IRWN undertakes very few activities on its own and, rather, presents information and activities coming from its members. Similarly, since becoming part of the European Women's Lobby (EWL) in 2004, IRWN has not (as of December 2007) initiated any motions, mainly due to the lack of coordination and discussions between IRWN members prior to the EWL's General Assemblies.
Izsák proceeds to compare the evoluation of IRWN with that of JRWI, which focuses on policy development, the integration of women's perspectives into the main Romani movement, and the creation of links between Roma women and mainstream women's rights movements. JRWI has collected contact information from Romani women activists who work in public life and are active in promoting the rights of Roma, especially Roma women. This database of more than 135 entries from 12 countries is available online. In addition, JRWI has run numerous trainings and workshops, as well as a virginity project conducted in 7 countries aimed at promoting freedom of choice and gender equality. JRWI also launched a project in 2006 in 11 European countries to enhance the grassroots networking of Roma women. This involved several young and educated Roma women who conducted research in their respective countries. A few examples of planned future JRWI activities include: providing Romani women activists with education on topics such as gender equality and management, establishing national networks of Romani women and connecting them to existing resources and networks, opening channels of communication between Romani women activists and gender equality networks, and setting up a formal working group for Roma women's rights (providing this group with technical advise on issues such as women rights, human rights ideology, and diversity of women in the context of multiple discrimination).
Next, the author outlines IRWN's and JRWI's achievements to date, highlighting the fact that the process of evaluating the role of Roma women in their communities as well as in larger society, and of thinking critically about the education regarding Romani traditions that young women receive from the older generation, has begun. "From a feminist perspective, the biggest task for the future is to spread the message among the majority and among Roma people as well, that traditions like virginity tests, and arranged and forced marriages, are forms of oppression of women. They also represent a deprivation of freedom of choice and are human rights violations that should be fought against. This point of view has to be accepted, especially by those who call themselves Roma rights activists and represent the community in the name of defending human rights....The problem, like in any minority community, is to bring these issues and debates 'outside of the community' and admit that the Roma community itself is not united and has no common voice."
Izsák concludes that a key future goal "should be to allow IRWN and JRWI members to get together and freely talk to each other so they can create an agenda and a clear vision for both organizations' operation and, perhaps even more importantly, for their cooperation....[T]hey could very well compliment each other: JRWI has the capacity to create annual reports and strategies, and has a budget, office space, and staff, whereas IRWN has full independence as a registered NGO [non-governmental organisation] and a wide opportunity to do advocacy and lobbying through the umbrella organizations where it is a member."
Posting to the Women's United Nations Report Network (WUNRN) listserv on January 14 2009.