guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 29 June 2011
The many bars around the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid attract an eclectic mix of people, ranging from tourists to locals, all engaging in ebullient conversations over a glass of sangria. 35 year-old Maria is a different kind of local. Every day she makes her way through the enthusiastic crowds of tourists, armed with a cardboard sign stating her plea and a plastic cup, into which every once in a while a generous figure drops a cent or two. As most Romanian Roma, Maria has been earning a living from the flourishing begging business in Europe.
Although not a child bride herself, the issue of early marriage runs deep in her community and family. "Girls get married at 15, sometimes at 10. My daughter got married at 13 and she now has a little girl. Her in-laws married her off, without us being there. I don't know her husband very well. I only remember him as a little boy but well, his father came and took her so I didn't really have a say. She has a house, a good husband… I never had a house".
Host to the biggest community in Europe, estimated at around 2 million people, Romania is no stranger to the harsh reality of the often romanticised Roma life. The majority live below the poverty line, in inhuman conditions and face poor chances for personal development. For many Roma, early marriage is a relief from economic hardship but culture often precipitates the process. Virginity is an "asset" that families customarily trade for substantial sums of money, so marriage is arranged as early as possible in order to preserve the girl's "desirability". Tradition can be taken to extremes, as exemplified in the highly-publicised case of 5 year-old Marghioala from Ramnicelu, who became engaged to a teenager, 11 years her superior. "That way we can all be sure that no other boy touches the girl", the parents explained to journalists from AFP.
For Marghioala, school will never be a priority. It is rare for any Roma child to attain formal education but according to Maria, whose four children are illiterate, it is particularly difficult for girls. "Girls don't go to school. They don't need to because they are not supposed to work". According to the Roma Inclusion Barometer 2007, commissioned by Open Society Foundation, a staggering 90% of Roma had not reached high-school, while 23% had no education whatsoever. A 2010 report by Project for Roma Inclusion in Services for Early Child Development states that the four times higher than national average infant mortality rate and maternal death are also consequences of early marriage.
Poverty, lack of employment and the cultural inferiority of women in these societies have transformed domestic violence into an every-day reality that girls accept submissively. In a small Roma settlement in the village of Bencecu de Jos "women suffer greatly", as one woman reluctantly admits to Adevarul, a local newspaper. After one too many drinks, men savagely beat their wives and then force them to sleep outside in the freezing cold. They all live in appalling conditions, with no running water or electricity and extreme isolation has given way to incestuous relationships. One such case saw a 14 year-old girl marrying her paternal uncle, but local authorities claim that not even the police know how to handle the situation.
International exposure has been faltering since 2003 when 14 year-old Ana Maria Cioaba, daughter of self-proclaimed Roma king, stormed out of the church only to be dragged back in by her father. Intense scrutiny from UK media and the firm stance of Baroness Emma Nicholson on the issue prompted the otherwise passive Romanian authorities to intervene by demanding the separation of the newlyweds until both reached the legal age for marriage.
British media coverage has also attracted the attention of NGOs, although currently only a handful of charities focus on women development. In Timisoara, Letitia Mark, president of Roma Women Association "For our children", has been developing project FEMROM which aims to educate and integrate women. She admits that when it comes to early marriage, there is a vacuum of information. "Statistics, studies… I don't think there are any. It's a very sensitive topic".
In line with most activists, Letitia believes that change should come from within the Romanian society. "There should be more involvement at an institutional level, especially from Child Protection agencies. Government bodies and religious organizations should also have a bigger role in protecting children. This issue can no longer be dealt with in theory. There is a need for it to become an objective in practice, one that is under constant monitoring of authorities".
Despite the absence of projects tackling early marriage, those that target Roma discrimination seem to abound to no avail. As the Decade Watch for Roma Inclusion 2010 report suggests, most pilot programs are never developed nationally due to "lack of political will". In the foreword, Iulian Stoian of the Roma Civic Alliance of Romania states that "the real problem for the Roma minority is the gangrene of the systemic discrimination they are subject to". The Romanian press in particular, fosters hostile attitudes towards inclusion, especially through its representation of early marriage.
Bridging the gap between the two communities might be a first step in finding a solution, as there is no denying that specific Roma issues are a catalyst for early marriage. In order to achieve complete eradication of such practices, the Romanian society needs radical reform that would eventually benefit minorities as well. Without it, the involvement of international organizations will continue to register limited success. A slow transition is preferred in the interest of both parties.
However, during the dilatory manoeuvring of the government around the numerous projects proposed by the international community, thousands of girls will have to accept what Maria's daughter, Marghioala and the women of Bencecu de Jos have always seen as a duty; "That's our custom. That's what we do. There is no other way".