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Swedish Minister: Romani women are doubly discriminated

Athens, 14.1.2010 14:16, (ROMEA)

The Second International Conference of European Romani Women took place in Athens earlier this week, at which Swedish Minister for Integration and Gender Equality Nyamko Sabuni also spoke. Romea.cz publishes her speech below in full:

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

This year we celebrated that it was 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall. The wall separated Europeans who lived with human rights and those without. Today the wall is gone, but many Europeans still live in fear, because their human rights are not protected.

In Europe 2009 we have witnessed repeated killings and firebombs against an oppressed minority. In August a Roma woman was brutally shot dead in her home in Hungary. Her teenage daughter was badly wounded. In February a Roma father and his son were found inside a burnt down house, shot and killed. The boy was five years old and had been shot 18 times.

These acts are almost too cruel to believe. But they happen again and again, despite all our conventions and declarations. Despite the United Nations and the European Union's treaties on human rights. We can no longer wait for implementation. Action speaks louder than words.

The violence does not happen in a vacuum. It happens because attitudes and misconceptions are spread and not countered.

We all know that the negative attitudes towards Roma are not only a concern for some countries - but for all of us. The EU agency for fundamental rights has concluded that the Roma are Europe's most discriminated minority. The social indicators on education, health, employment, housing and political participation for Roma serve as a call for action.

In all Member States far-right parties are gaining influence; either in parliament and governments or in the media debate. For them intolerance is a badge of honour. They promote the politics of fear. Their common idea is to portray immigrants and other minorities as a threat. We need to make our voices heard in order to make sure that these parties don't dominate the debate. This conference gives us a chance to do so.

The European Union must stand for more than economic cooperation; it should stand for values and ideas. The right to equal treatment and the right to live without fear of violence and discrimination must be protected by the governments. The Roma people's situation shows how much remains to be done.

Ladies and gentlemen, what should we discuss in order to improve the situation for Roma women?

First of all, we know that Roma women encounter a double challenge: On one hand discrimination for belonging to the Roma minority, and on the other hand discrimination as a woman.

All over Europe women face barriers to influence and power. Even in Sweden, which is viewed as the most equal country in the world, women are still the second sex. The lack of equality is seen in violence against women, lower participation in the labour market, and fewer positions of power in the business world. Roma women face all these challenges, in addition to the discrimination for belonging to the Roma minority.

As you know, the first conference for and with Roma women was held in Stockholm in 2007. One of the Roma women's goals was to make the conference an annual event hosted by the Council of Europe, together with a Member State.

Therefore, I am honored to stand here at the Second International Meeting of Roma Women. I convey my gratitude to Greece for hosting this second meeting here in Athens. I am also very pleased that Finland and Spain have announced that they will host the following third and fourth conferences.

Three challenges have been identified for our talks these two coming days: Roma women and media, harmful practices and entrepreneurship.

I would like to focus on the second challenge - changing harmful practices. I believe harmful practices and harmful traditions are the largest challenge for equality between men and women.

When I spoke at the Roma women's conference in Stockholm in 2007, I underlined the state's responsibility. Its responsibility to protect, preserve and develop minority cultures as part of the European cultural heritage. But let me be clear; the important work to protect and preserve minority cultures must go hand in hand with determined efforts to prevent traditions that harm the individual.

It is time to agree upon and implement concrete actions that guarantee all women and girls their fundamental freedoms and rights. Even if this means going against traditional customs and practices.

One such custom is underage marriages. A consequence of premature marriages is that girls are denied access to education. Access and quality of education are crucial elements for the inclusion of Roma as equal members of society. Access to high quality education can help break the vicious circle of exclusion from the labour market, poverty, poor housing, poor health and segregation. Education empowers individuals.

That is why the state and the Roma community - side by side - must ensure that all girls and boys have both access to education and that they complete their studies.

The success of Roma children in school depends on the support of their parents. Parents have to take responsibility for keeping both their daughters and sons in school. We will not reach this goal unless the tradition with underage marriages ends. I especially encourage all mothers and women to work forcefully to put an end to these practices.

Special efforts are also needed to establish trust between the parents, schools and other authorities. One way to create confidence and trust between actors is by using the civil society.

We find several examples in history of the important role of civil society in spreading democracy and human rights.

One obvious example is the American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and many more helped bring equal rights for African Americans. Another example is the important role grass roots movements played in making sure that women got the right to vote in, for example, Sweden.

It is equally important to include non-governmental organisations and civil society in discussions on how to implement Roma people's human rights. Therefore it is important to remember the added value that civil society can bring to discussions on minority policy.

Ladies and gentelemen,

During the Swedish Presidency of the EU, which ended less than two weeks ago, the situation of the Roma was highlighted on a number of occasions:

At the meeting of the Informal Contact Group of International Organisations and Institutions dealing with Roma, Sinti and Traveller, organised together with the Council of Europe;

at the Second meeting of the European platform for Roma inclusion, organised together with the European Commission;

at the 3rd Equality Summit held in Stockholm; and

at the 2nd Fundamental Rights Conference organised in Stockholm by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU.

One conclusion from these conferences was that we need to promote cooperation. Cooperation can empower. We should consider involving new partners that we don't involve normally. New partners can provide fresh ideas and bring our message to new arenas.

At the Equality Summit an idea that came up from the Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transgender movement, was to initiate cooperation between the LGBT-movement and the Roma movement. Today's conference gives opportunities to make new contacts and to find new partners for cooperation.

One important actor is of course the media. The media can bring attention to the Roma people' situation, as well as put it on the political agenda. Hopefully, media also checks that local and state governments implement and follow treaties and conventions.

The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health.

At the first conference of Romani women in Stockholm forced sterilisation of Romani women was discussed. The victims of sterilisation often feel shame. Since they are reluctant to talk about what has happened, they do not get the help and support they need. At the conference the meaning was to give voice to these women.

In the 1990s Sweden spent several years coming to terms with the fact that women - many of them Romani - had been forcibly sterilised. A Commission was appointed to look into the responsibility of the politicians, authorities, researchers and medical professionals. Possible ways of giving economic compensation to the victims was also included. A bill was later presented to the Parliament.

I am glad that the Czech government recently expressed regret over the illegal sterilisations of women that have been performed in the country. Sweden is certainly willing to be of assistance in the onward process.

To conclude, an important reason for this gathering is to create an opportunity for Roma women to meet and exchange ideas. But equally important is to find ways for Roma women to look beyond the basic struggle for survival.

We all know that for many women in the world the daily struggle for personal survival excludes them from active participation. We can not achieve human rights when people's basic needs are not satisfied. This conference is part of the important process towards giving women and girls better opportunities to shape their existence and exercise power over their lives.

Thank you!

ROMEA, ROMEA, English translation provided by the Government Offices of Sweden
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