logo-en“Roma men just can’t survive without their wives. The family would not function without the mother,” says one Roma woman. The question is, how do we raise up these women so that they, in turn, can raise up their families and communities?

In my work as the Development Officer of the Reformed Church of Hungary‘s Roma Mission, I’ve always seen Roma women, Roma matriarchs, as strong people. I’ve noticed that they are the ones that hold the family together, not only responsible for the children and their education but also acting as bridges between their community and society at large.

Roma women are a vulnerable group not only because they are women, but also because they belong to an at-risk minority population. These are facts. But how do Roma women see themselves? How do they view their role in both the family and the community?

Answering these questions is not an easy task. We don’t have representative statistics on the Roma population at large, and we have even less information on Roma women specifically. Their situation differs from area to area, from village to city, and there are many factors that have an effect on their lifestyle: cultural background, family situation, education attained, and so on.

A colleague of mine once told me, “Roma men just can’t survive without their wives. The family would not function without the mother. And have you ever seen a big Roma family where the grandmother is present? Men don’t have much say there; hers is the decision that stands.”

As a church, the RCH is represented all over Hungary and our National Roma Mission Office oversees work with Roma nationally. Through all of our work, it has become apparent that while the general population often only sees Roma women as being oppressed, the true situation is much more complex than that. Some generalize that women don’t have much say in the finances of the family, and we can tend to look at the men of Roma families as overly dominant, but this is not always the case. Each Roma family dynamic is unique, just like each Roma woman, and so it is important to always delve further into the human story in order to do mission with this population.

Roma women give birth relatively early. In Hungary, one third of Roma women will give birth to their first child under the age of 18 and two thirds will have their first child by the time they reach age 20.

Giving birth early means that many Roma women never get to finish their education, causing them to be discriminated against in the job market because they do not have marketable skills. Due to this, the percentage of employed Roma women is quite low at just 16.3% — this is even lower than the already small percentage of employed Roma men, just 29.2%.

The population of Roma in university settings is also quite small. In order to begin to address this issue, the RCH runs a Reformed Roma Special Collegium in Debrecen for university students to live in during their university year where they receive moral and financial support, language courses, trainings and a supportive community to surround them. We not only accept students from Roma backgrounds, but also students who are not Roma but are interested in living with them to learn more about Roma culture. At the moment we have 26 students and 15 of them are Roma, 10 of whom are women.

I have had the pleasure to work with many different Roma women in my time here with the church, and to fully illustrate how diverse the situations of Roma women are, I will share a few stories with you about women that I have gotten to know.

Madléna is a 16 year-old girl from the slums of Budapest. She grew up with a mother who suffered from drug addiction and did not have any kind of support system. When Madléna was in 3rd grade, the public school forced her to be home schooled due to bad behavior in the classroom. Since then Madléna has not had any contact with the formal school system.

This is where we at the RCH stepped in. She joined our local afterschool program in her district at the age of 9 and came for a few years, working on her studies and doing arts and crafts with other children and mentors from the neighborhood. At the age of 11 she began to use drugs and became pregnant within a few years. She now lives at home with her 18 month old baby and a partner with a serious criminal record.

Madléna is a Roma girl, but her situation is not like this only because she is Roma. Living in a slum area, having a wounded single mother, and being turned away by a school system that told her she was not worthy of their education – these have all lead her to her life now.

Our second Roma woman is Móni, a 38 year old who has just given birth to her 4th child. She lives in the poorest area of a small town with her husband and their children where they all share one room to live in. They first connected with the church through its community projects and work with Roma youth in the area. Móni’s husband used to be involved in a life of crime; he has been to prison many times and has also struggled with alcoholism, but is beginning to turn his life around. In order to get more involved with the community, Móni has been doing public works and has attended every parent meeting at the school her children attend.

She has said many times that she yearns to move away from this area, that she and her husband want to have a nice house with space for their children and decent jobs to support them. They try very hard but they don’t succeed. It’s not easy to break the cycle of generational poverty that she was raised in – it’s all she has ever known.

Lastly, we look at Zsuzsi, a 28 year-old woman from a small village in a poor area of the country. She grew up with both her parents but lacked familial support from them. In primary school she had a very good teacher who helped her with her studies and motivated her to continue her education. She went to a very strong high-school in a nearby city where the expectations were high. She wanted to make her teachers proud and so she studied hard and decided to apply to university. She wanted to break the cycle of poverty that surrounded her in her hometown.

She studied physiotherapy and entered the Reformed Roma Collegium where she received support and found an accepting environment. She now has her degree and works full-time as a physiotherapist and part time at the Collegium so she can give back to the place that supported her in her journey.

It is hard to generalize Roma women after hearing these three stories. We cannot say that the situation of Roma women in all of Hungary is like this or like that. It is a very complex situation with many interwoven pieces that contribute to the hardships that these women face. When we at the RCH engage with them we not only have to consider their Roma background but also the unique environment in which they were raised.

As a Reformed church, we encourage congregations to reach out to Roma populations in their own communities. It can be a challenge, but it can also be very rewarding work to reach out to those who may be outside a congregation’s normal scope of mission. These women want what we all want – a better life for future generations. If we are ever to break the cycle of generational poverty that these women experience then we must come together and serve wholeheartedly in the name of God.

At the 2015 Roma Hearing at the European Economic and Social Committee, Krisztina Nagy of the RCH spoke about topics of gender inclusion within the Roma mission of the church. The key aim of the conference was to raise awareness about specific challenges that Roma women are facing across Europe regarding things like education, employment, and finding their polical voice. 


Original speech written by Krisztina Nagy

Text edited by Kearstin Bailey