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A Democratic Experiment Gives Voice to Hidden Roma Communities

In Mizil, a small town of 19,000 in southern Romania, resting by the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, a democratic experiment is happening. As the European Union elections draw closer, a grassroots initiative called E-Romnja is attempting to engage a hidden electorate: Roma communities whose votes have always been bought, and women who have been denied a vote by conservative family convention.

The name of our project translates as “Get involved and change perspective.” But we are also using another, which came straight from the Roma community: “Vote for respect.” We started this project in Mizil, in a community where around 1,400 Roma live. Here, many men have emigrated to find work, often leaving women as lone parents.

We frequently hear that Roma women vote “according to their man,” and we wanted to see if this was myth or reality. We want to know how Roma women vote and what issues they care about. Often, matters such as housing and health care are at the forefront for women. We are designing a questionnaire to see what this community expects from their politicians, mainly in local government. Roma tend to be much more linked to leaders in their proximity, rather than to national or European Parliament representatives.

We hold debates and discussions with them about their hopes and expectations, and inform them how to vote, because for many it will be their first time. Sometimes women will vote for more than one party on their ballot, as perhaps they like two candidates, or they don't want to hurt another's feelings. We monitor, educate about, and guard against parties that espouse extremist anti-Roma discourse. Sadly the clichéd image of the Roma as a beggar or vagrant is widely used by politicians, and this is one of the reasons we started the initiative.

We have to contend with systemic Roma vote-buying in Romania, especially in Mizil. It is a very delicate issue with a lot of conflicts. Though the real politicians never go to these areas, they use Roma intermediaries to offer votes in exchange for livestock, water, or just money. Votes can be bought for €10, which is a lot for someone who might only make €50 per month.

For Roma leaders, it is hard to have credibility when you have bought a vote. MPs are sitting in parliament right now who have been elected because of these corrupt practices and have never delivered on any of their promises. This creates apathy and disillusionment in the community and turns them off politics altogether.

Even though we are well-known in these communities, we are still outsiders. That's why we work with local women who are popular figures and have influence. They can tell other women, “Come on, let's give this a try." The electoral meetings are even a good chance to get out of the house, as Mizil does not offer many places for adults to socialize, short of the church and the market.

It is challenging work. We recently had a meeting where only men showed up and we told them, “Don't you think it's a problem that only half of your community is represented?” The men replied that we need to be careful with what we tell their women as “they will start to make chaos in the house, and God forbid they will stop to clean or cook!” We explained that equal partnership doesn't have to mean domination, although this can happen because women may adopt male models of leadership, rather than developing their own. This is another challenge.

Roma settlements are usually located on the periphery of town, and it is shocking to see the lack of services: potholed roads, intermittent electricity, and no running water for example. Often rural communities are more developed than Roma communities in urban areas. But neighborhoods can only hope to change this by being an active part of the political system and becoming a force to be reckoned with. And that is what we hope to enable people to do.

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