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October 24, 2021



Martina Horváthová on building a network of Romani feminists in the Czech Republic

23.6.2018 13:05
Martina Horváthová (PHOTO:  Personal archive of Martina Horváthová)
Martina Horváthová (PHOTO: Personal archive of Martina Horváthová)

Martina Horváthová was once on her way to becoming one of the first Romani doctors in the Czech Republic. "Our parents always told us we had to be at least three times better than the gadje for us to even be noticed and recognized by them," she recalls.

The endless memorization involved with her medical studies and the uncertainty of their outcome led her to make a basic change. She left the First Medical Faculty and launched herself into a not-yet-researched field, the emancipation of Romani women, at the turn of the millenium.

Martina began to build the Manushe group, which today brings together as many as 170 Romani women around the entire country. As she admits, it took her a while to get used to the subject and to understand that being a feminist does not mean being in opposition to men.

In her work, Martina does her best to reach out to men - and some are also members of Manushe. Its aim to connect Romani women in particular with each other to mutually support one another and fight for their rights where they are, through their daily lives and their movement in their own communities.

The more active and famous among them naturally inspire the others, very often women from localities where they frequently want to continue their educations even at an advanced age. "Some of them are even competing with their children over who will graduate first," she laughs.

Working with Romani women has also aided Martina herself to cope with her Romani identity, as she did not grow up in a Romani neighborhood. Despite the fact that she is internationally recognized for her work, she must daily grapple with prejudices from those around her - on the street, at the checkout counter in the supermarket, or from security guards in drugstores.

Martina is able to cope with this, thanks to her position, but she emphasizes that others can be crushed by such experiences. People without self-confidence, in her view, will never successfully manage to direct their own lives and fall into even deeper problems as a result.

The education and motivation of Romani people is something Martina wants to continue doing. She has returned to school herself and is currently completing her Master's in andragogy (adult education) at Charles University in Prague.

She is the oldest of four siblings and grew up in Prague. Her grandparents came from Slovakia to Bohemia after the war to work together with her parents when they were young children.

"My grandparents were really big workers," Martina recalls. When they reached retirement age and stopped working, they very rapidly deteriorated and died relatively soon afterward.

"They were just used to working hard," Martina says. Education was always paid great attention to by her family, despite the fact that her parents had never gone to higher education themselves.

Martina's father was a trained industrial painter who worked at the Letov airplane factory for most of his life before beginning his own painting firm. His great passion, though, all of his life, has been reading and self-education.

"He has read just about everything that exists," Martian describes, adding: "It's a lot of fun when we get together, because sometimes I come away with the feeling that we are really not normal people. Instead of talking about the banalities of daily life, we talk about why the Neanderthals died out."

"My brothers, thanks to my father, have an encyclopedic knowledge about all kinds of things," she laughs. Martina's mother did not complete secondary school for completely prosaic reasons, as Martina relates.

"She attended a management school, but she did not have a typewriter of her own. She had homework that she had to do with a typewriter, but she felt stupid going to the teachers to use their typewriters all the time, so she dropped out," Martina says, shaking her head.

"In a way my mother has achieved her own realization through us, her children," she goes on to say. Despite that fact, several years ago her mother completed a requalification course to be an executive assistant and today works as a secretary to the head of an enterprise in Prague.

Three times better than the gadje

"Our parents always told us that we must be at least three times better than the gadje for anybody to notice and recognize us," Martina recalls. According to her, this notion, which might have been stressful for somebody else, was not experienced as stress by her and her siblings.

On the contrary, for them such remarks were an effective motivation. Her brother Zdenek, who is three years younger than she is, is the director of the Integration Centre Prague today, an organization established by Prague City Hall for the purposes of integrating new arrivals.

Martina's two other brothers are much younger than she is. Her 20-year-old brother has completed his studies in English at English College Praha thanks to the Václav Havel Scholarship and is now planning to attend university.

The youngest, who is 15, has just been accepted to college preparatory school. "Our academic or work success is probably because we have never had to overcome any extra barriers. Learning is no problem for us," Martina says.

All of the siblings have attended mainstream primary schools. "We lived in Kobylisy. There were a total of about four Romani families living on a rather big housing estate," she recalls.

The siblings did meet a few other Romani children at school besides themselves, but the others were very quickly reassigned to attend special school. Martina and her siblings managed to remain in mainstream school, but she recalls having a problem with her homeroom teacher during the first two years of school.

"She gave me average grades, because she really couldn't give me worse ones. That average grade was rather unfair. I was a good learner, it was natural for me," Martina says.

In the third grade a different teacher came to the school and, according to Martina, did her best to develop the potential of all the children, which meant Martina's achievements rapidly changed as well. "I had the advantage of absorbing things easily. I didn't even have to try," she explains, adding that she and her brother Zdenek were the only Romani children in the school by then.

After completing primary school, it was natural for Martina to continue on to college preparatory school. In those days however, that was considered exceptional for a Romani person.

Another world

Martina never encountered many other Romani children, not as a child and not as a teenager. Because she grew up in a non-Romani neighborhood and Romani children did not attend her primary school, non-Romani children were her friends.

Her parents played a certain role in that. "What I am bit reproachful of them for today is that they did not teach us to speak Romani," she admits.

Even though Martina spent most of her free time with her friends from the neighborhood, she still had the feeling she was missing something. "I saw a documentary film on television about the Athinganoi organization. I saw several young Romani women who had completed their studies there and I was blown away. I told myself that I wanted to meet them someday," she recalls - which she managed to do after several years.

Helping people in Africa

In her final year of high school Martina still had no idea what university she wanted to apply to. "All I knew was that I did not want to sit in an office," she says, rolling her eyes.

Her family and friends guided her in the direction of medical school and the idea was inspiring. "I said to myself that if I did that, then I might be able to aid people in Africa. I was really out of it," she laughs.

She was accepted to two of the three medical schools in Prague and registered at the the First Medical Faculty. However, she soon ascertained that memorizing information and dedicating her life to endless study was not what she had imagined the medical profession to entail.

"I lacked determination," she now admits. Despite successfully passing the exams, the moment arrived when she had to decide whether to continue or whether to change course.

In her third year of medical school, Martina withdrew from her studies in order to join the Romani emancipation movement. "What aided me with that decision was the fact that I had worked at Slovo 21 since my second year of medical school. I was doing work there that delivered results, which brought me a kind of satisfaction. At medical school that was absolutely not the case," she explains.

Martina joined a project that at the time in the Czech Republic was rather innovative - the emancipation of Romani women. "I was able to work on my own Romani identity there, because I had not really worked that out for myself yet," she notes.

"Our parents told us we should be proud of being Romani, that we would be constantly abused because of it, but I never had Romani friends who were addressing similar situations to the ones I was in," Martina continues. "That is what I found at Slovo 21. It really kick-started me."


As Martina admits today, supporting the emancipation of Romani women was at first a rather foreign concept to her. "It took me a long time to find my way towards understanding gender," she nods.

In the beginning she was concerned, like part of the public is today, that to be a feminist means being constantly in opposition to men. "I knew that what it does for women is brilliant, but I had a problem with the rhetoric around it," she laughs.

Eventually, however, her concerns were not borne out. The program was based on negotiating with the men in the Romani community as well about changing the position of the women.

"The women, at the same time, must comprehend and recognize their own value," she emphasizes. The Manushe group was established prior to Martina joining Slovo 21 and still functions beneath it to this day.

Its aim is to connect Romani women from abroad and from all over the Czech Republic so they can mutually support each other and fight for their rights from within their communities by their day-to-day movement in the community. Romani women are understood to be discriminated against on three levels in society.

Generally, both Romani people and women are generally discriminated against in Czech society, and Romani women are also discriminated against within some parts of the Romani community. "Because Romani communities are more traditional, they are more persistently patriarchal," Martina explains.

The starting line for many of the Romani women involved is never the same, for different reasons. "This is about building self-confidence, self-respect, the art of self-appreciation, attempting, at least for a moment, not to think about everybody else around you, but to think about yourself - exactly because then, as a woman, I will be better able to perform my roles as a woman," Martina describes.

In her view, a self-confident person is able to manage her own life and be successful in it. Those without self-confidence frequently are unable to do so.

"Mainly, each of us has the right to choose for ourselves what, from all those roles, we want to take on as our own," she emphasizes. Manushe is built on the basis of that philosophy - as Martina says, "It is not possible that girls' families designate for them whether they can or cannot go on to higher education."

Female forces

Manushe involves 170 Romani women today and was first established by Marta Hudečková, a Romani woman with a wealth of contacts in the Romani community, and Lidija Grebo, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia. "Those women have great hearts and minds. They have never done anything in a way that was standardized," Martins says.

At the turn of the millenium, those women intuited the necessity of Romani women networking, above all. They convened the first wave of those who were already activated - activists, social workers, students.

"That was terribly powerful, everybody there was really somebody," Martina laughs. An association was created that naturally reached out to other women, very frequently from excluded localities, who were inspired by those who were more successful and did their best to transform those experiences into the conditions of their own environments.

As part of their successful "Jileha" (With Heart) project, local groups in the regions have arisen at the instigation of the women themselves. "It was up to the women we trained do to their own work with other women in their towns," Martina says.

Since 2015, when the support groups began their activities, 12 have been created throughout the country. Some have split off and are doing their own independent activities, which Martina confirms is the case.

The aim, among other things, is for the groups to establish themselves at local level and be able to negotiate about the needs of the community with local administrations, which according to Martina is succeeding in some places. She believes women are the ones who can bring about change in Romani communities and Romani families.

Romani women have the most influence over how children are raised, take care of how families run, and network families together, including beyond the community itself. "It is exactly the women who are the ones in contact with institutions - doctors, local authorities, schools. The men begin to get involved only when a problem arises," she describes.


At a time when Romani communities across the Czech Republic are frequently falling into greater and greater poverty, these self-help groups have naturally found another role to play - the women bring the personal problems they encounter to the regular meetings and get advice from the others about what to do. They have managed, through these groups, to open the subject of domestic violence, which to date has been very difficult to do inside the community.

Romani women very often are not able to address this issue with their extended family members, who frequently comprise the majority of their social contacts. Within the framework of these groups, the women have begun to mutually aid each other with addressing such situations and, in some cases, have also escaped from pathological relationships.

These groups also function as a unique source of inspiration, where educated, successful Romani women can have a big influence on other women through direct contact. Frequently the mature women in the groups want to enroll in higher education as a result of this influence.

"Some are even competing with their children to see who will graduate first," Martina laughs. Working with adult Romani women is how she herself found her way to her next course of study.

After taking a break after leaving medical school, Martina has gone back to university and is completing her Master's degree in andragogy (adult education) at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. "The education of adults and of Romani people are basically two branches that go together very well," she describes her motivation.

Every single day

Despite the fact that Martina Horváthová today is an internationally recognized successful young Romani woman, she too encounters prejudice and unpleasantness because of her origins on a daily basis in the Czech Republic. "I grapple with that every single day. I am a bit afraid that it will alter me somehow, I don't want to become paranoid," she says.

Those experiences happen during day-to-day tasks like shopping, whether it has to do with the way some salespeople communicate with her, or the behavior of security guards who frequently follow customers who look Romani around the premises they are in charge of. Martina says she sees her difference as a positive thing, though.

"Naturally it is psychologically demanding to stand out, but I think it's cool," she laughs. At the same time, she admits that many people become crushed and defeated by such baseless, constant, negative pressures and reactions.

Martina's life philosophy is connected with this challenge - while she acknowledges Romani communities grapple with many problems, she does not see the cornerstone of the solution as solving individual families' problems, but supporting Romani people's pride in their own origins, their becoming aware that they are equal to everybody else, and their civic involvement. "That will bring us exactly the self-confidence we need, and subsequently we will be better able to defend ourselves, to make our own way, and to orient ourselves in society," she says.

Originally written for the HateFree news server

Lukáš Houdek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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