It was an ordinary day at school in Gribova, Drochia district – with lessons, breaks and biscuits in the cafeteria, when the auditorium door opened and a team of doctors from the district came in for an unannounced check-up. For the 25 sixth-graders, that meant a quick check for head lice, scab between their fingers and a quick look down their throats, over their tongues sticking out.
„It’s normal,” Angela thought, a child with pale hair braided into two thick pigtails thrown back. The impending scrutiny gave her no thrill. „My mother was taking good care of me. I went clean and tidy to school, my clothes carefully pressed.”
As they approached her desk, a tall man dressed in a white robe and holding a journal complimented her neatly groomed hairstyle. But when he heard her surname – „Rădiță is a Roma name, and anyone can tell you’re Roma when they hear this last name” – the doctor furrowed his eyebrows, looking hard at Angela and then at the teacher, and asked bluntly:
– What, are you a gypsy?
– … Yes, the child muttered, her chin tucked down and cheeks burning with shame.
They pulled her out of desk and searched every millimeter of her. She felt like an auctioned exhibit. They unbraided her heavy pigtails and, for half an hour, checked every strand of hair, every fingernail. „No child had ever been checked like I was. Not one. They’ve all been checked for lice just for convenience. They’d just toss two strands of hair aside and that was it. I was the only one they checked thoroughly.”
The Roma community in the Republic of Moldova constitutes 0.3% of the total population and is estimated at 9,300 people. However, these figures are questionable, with some Roma leaders promoting the idea that there are 250 000 Roma living in Moldova, according to the UN Moldova‘s Common Country Analysis.
Although long years have passed since that day, Angela still recounts it with a voice full of emotion. She says she had heard the word „gypsy” uttered by villagers behind her when she walked down the road, just as the children called her at school when they argued, but it never hurt her as it did that day.
„I felt aggrieved. The whole class was looking at me. They were learned people and could have approached it differently, but as it were, they chose to do it in front of all my classmates. They drew a line from the start. That was very painful. I didn’t know then about discrimination and how to approach such situations. I felt separated from the rest of the group, even though I was just like all the other kids.”
When she came home from school, her mother noticed not only her unbraided hair, but also how tense and despondent she was. „It’s tradition for girls to wear plaits. My mother wouldn’t allow me to unplait them. If she braided my hair, it meant that I had to come home that way. I was afraid she’d scold me for coming in shock-headed. I thought it was my fault.”
Angela Radita is the only daughter of her parents. When they got divorced, she stayed with her mother Olimpiada, who „worked a lot [in the kolkhoz]”, living under the same roof with her grandparents and her mother’s five sisters. In all, eight women. „Can you imagine? That’s something for a Roma family,” Angela recalls.
Still, being an only child played a huge role, the woman admits. „I was coming from school and I could afford to do my lessons. Nobody bothered me with anything. Everything was in an ideal order, which the rest of the kids didn’t have. For some of my peers school was just: ‘Sure, go to school because that’s where they feed you twice a day.’ For me school was more than that.”
Moreover, she was a keen reader. She loved reading novels, poems and novellas so much that if she took a book out of the library, she wouldn’t put it down until she finished it. „I could stay up until 2-3 at night and read by candlelight.”
This helped her pass a rule, „perhaps the strictest”, that marks the life of the Roma woman – staying a virgin until marriage, a custom that influences access to school education. „If, until you’re 10, you can still play outside with the other kids, well, when puberty starts, around 11-12, you’re not allowed to go out anywhere, especially where there are lots of boys. So when you’re still a child, in the 6th or 7th grade, you’re not allowed to go to school anymore.”
The custom continues to this day, Angela points out, although the number of people with higher education, including women, has increased in the Roma community. „Stone is breaking up, drop by drop.”
So, in the 7th grade, marriage was not even an issue for her. „I also have a slight disability – a problem with one of the legs, and I walk more slowly. My mother spared me from the start from any hard farm work and let me dedicate myself to my studies.”
The Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and for Ensuring Equality carried out the study on perceptions and attitudes towards equality in the Republic of Moldova in 2015 and repeated it in 2018, aiming to measure the social distance towards certain social groups. The data show that, after a difference of 3 years, there has been a decrease in the social distance towards Roma ethnics, thus registering an improvement in the perceptions of the general population. While in 2015, Roma were accepted as fellow citizens, in 2018 they were no longer rejected as co-workers.
Nevertheless, Roma women and girls continue to be one of the most disadvantaged groups in the Republic of Moldova, according to the report „Profile of Roma women and girls„, conducted in 2016 by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
In this context, Roma women face triple discrimination – as Roma, as women and as members of a disadvantaged social group. They are at greater risk of social exclusion compared to the men in their community and most women of other ethnic groups, according to a study on the situation of Roma women and girls in Moldova by UN Women, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Moldova.
Their vulnerability to social exclusion is determined by a series of discriminatory factors based on gender, social class, ethnicity, race, which influence not only their role and position in the community, but also their equality in terms of access to education, labour market, income, health care, social protection, quality of housing, civic and political life, justice, the same NBS report stated.
„Consequently, all this deprives Roma women and girls from participating and contributing fully to sustainable development” as they have „modest support from institutional mechanisms that are not equipped to create opportunities for those most vulnerable to social exclusion.”
Four years had passed since the incident in the sixth grade, when a second one, also within the school, came along and left an equally deep impression on her. She was in 10th grade. She had done well in her exams and was one of the top students in her class. The pride of her mother and grandparents.
Then there was the prom. The headmistress announced that the opening ceremony will be introduced by a boy and a girl, fellow students from parallel classes, as smart as Angela, who will also give a speech. ‘But Angela speaks so nice. Let’s have her give the acceptance speech,’ her classmates suggested to the headmistress. But the proposal didn’t work, as everything ‘has already been decided‘.
Angela felt left out again. For one thing, the whole scene was happening in front of her, without her even being asked whether or not she wanted to participate in the festivities. Then, she had felt the same injustice she faced in the sixth grade all over again. „I hadn’t been accepted just because I was Roma.”
However, about an hour before the ball was due to start, the headmistress announced to Angela: ‘You’ll get to say a word, after this girl and the boy have given their speech’. The young girl tried in vain to retort: ‘But… I’m not ready. The presenters have had two weeks, while I have only one hour and the festivities begin. Ma’am, I don’t have… how can I… I can’t… Please, it’s unnecessary.’
Faced with a fait accompli, Angela stared blankly for a while, then gathered herself, composed her speech in her mind, and when it was her turn, „not that I’m bragging, but everyone who was there said, ‘My God, how beautifully the girl spoke. Nicer than those who learn well.’ I mean, you know, there’s this separating line thing though.”
After the prom, no one in Angela’s family expected the girl to want to go on to further education. Her grandmother and mother had in mind a job as a seamstress for her: ‘You won’t be able to do agricultural work, but you have to learn this profession from a seamstress. You’ll never be out of money’.
Only one day Angela announced that she wanted to become a librarian. „I loved going to the library. A lot of people came there, as even common workers used to read back then. I’m a communicative person and I thought I’d be able to interact with people, and I’d get the chance to read.”
Her family did not object. It was somewhat predictable. Angela had often heard her mother complain: ‘Eh, if I’d gone on to study, maybe it would have been easier for us. Maybe it would have been different, but like this…’. And the teachers, whenever they had the opportunity, would stress it out for Olimpiada: ‘You must let the girl go to school, she learns well, she has skills, you must give her the opportunity for more’.
„Elena Sîrbu” College of Arts in Soroca, currently „Nicolae Botgros”, lies 40 kilometers away from Gribova. „I didn’t have to go very far.” Angela submitted the documents „and I got through!”, the woman still recalls happily today. She was the first Roma girl in her village to achieve this feat – „incomplete higher education”.
In the first semester she even got the Lenin scholarship, „the highest scholarship at that time. I remember that, at a gathering with all the students of the college, after reading out who the scholarship holders were, some Roma students approached me and asked, ‘Do you really have this scholarship?”
But Angela’s dream of becoming a librarian was only fulfilled on paper. „I’ve run into that silly stereotype again.” She completed her two years of college with high grades, says the woman, got a certificate from the Ministry of Culture and, with the required documents, went to the districtual department of culture in Drochia.
‘We’re very pleased. We really need young specialists, especially such nice ones‘, Angela remembers the first reaction of the head of the department. Except that, just like in sixth grade, the kindness ended when it came to last names. ‘But I see you’re Radita. Where are you from? And who is your family? … Oh, you are a gypsy? Good! Yes, yes, yes… Here’s how it is right now. Unfortunately, we’re in a bad situation with jobs.
„It’s changed at the moment, you see? Funny thing is, he was from Gribova too,” Angela explains.
The rejection was not so much a disappointment to herself as to those around her. „What will my folks say? I’ll be a bad example to the next generation.” So she kept going back and forth to the district council for months on end, but the head of the department kept shoving „No!” in her face. She got to know all the villages where there were vacancies for librarians, and she listed them each time, but „he kept telling her there was nothing available.„
The way Roma women and girls assert themselves is also influenced by members of society’s perceptions of their personality and character, which continue to be controversial, says the NBS report. These perceptions oscillate between the negative stereotype – stemming from prejudiced thinking caused by a history of social exclusion and institutional racism, and the relatively positive stereotype – originating in the exotic-romantic and endearing-empathetic image promoted by written literature, modern cinema.
Thus, from a negative point of view, more than 70% of the respondents of a survey on the perceptions of the population about the phenomenon of discrimination in the Republic of Moldova, conducted in 2014, consider that most of the Roma women are fortune tellers ready to curse you if you do not give them money. In a positive approach, however, the Roma woman can only be a „beautiful, passionate gypsy with a gypsy heart” and in no case can she be an intellectual, an educated person with something to say in any field.
In the 2018 SURVEY on perceptions and attitudes towards equality in the Republic of Moldova, respondents gave more negative than neutral or positive ratings to Roma people. In general, more than a third of respondents (36%) associated Roma people with liars, while 31% – mentioned thieves and 30% – lazy people.
„This is how negative stereotypes are combined with positive ones to create a distorted and potentially discriminatory image of Roma women. Sometimes this stigma becomes internalized and causes Roma women to feel frustrated in society and react as such, according to the social label that is placed on them. All this results in various existential failures,” the same NBS study states.
Finally, tired of making trips to Drochia and broken in spirit, the young graduate of „Nicolae Botgros” College of Arts returned to her mother and grandparents who welcomed her with open arms. „So and so I never worked on my profession. I went to the kolkhoz, as a simple worker, with my mother. That’s all!”
Angela says the Roma in her community have always worked in the fields of the kolkhoz. Among them were even some of the prize-winners, as was her mother, who were put on the honor board. „If elsewhere they were into trading or working’ abroad, in our area, many Roma worked in the fields.”
„It was cheerful work,” Angela remembers. „I was glad to be among my own kind.” On Sundays, with a few friends, they went to the town of Drochia. They’d shop, go for a walk, have ice cream. Only, „every time I went to town, the police would harass me. They’d ask me for my passport, one thing or another.” If she tried to fight back against the harassment, she’d be met with, ‘Well, if you’re really working, then I’m a priest.’
„The discrimination mostly came from people with studies, with education, with positions. It didn’t come so much from the common people, the ordinary people. When working in the field, I would sit next to any another woman and we could share our food. And it was absolutely normal. But when someone with studies or position does that in public sight, people change their opinion of you, even if you haven’t done anything bad.”
In 2004, Angela recalls, the Roma issue began to be raised not only at local level, but also at national and even international level in Moldova. Then a fellow citizen suggested that they found an NGO together. „By 2004-2005, Roma organizations popped up like mushrooms after the rain.”
They registered it with the Ministry of Justice, but what was the next step, the women had no idea. That was when they saw by chance, on a TV show, Marin Alla, president of the Roma Youth Union „TĂRNĂ ROM”, appointed in 2020 advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office. „Mrs Maria, let’s go to Chisinau and meet Mr Alla”, Angela suggested.
After that encounter, the woman’s life began to spiral. She attended numerous trainings and national events discussing women’s empowerment in public and political life, as well as human rights, learning things she had never even suspected existed.
„These seminars have been the foundation of our schooling as community mediators,” said Angela. „Nicolae Rădița (former director of the AO „National Roma Centre”, director general of the Agency for Inter-ethnic Relations in 2019-2020, later appointed advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office) and Marin Alla raised the issue of mediators with the Government and insisted that it be included in the nomenclature of professions and that this function exist in the state.”
Angela’s work in supporting the Roma minority in her community continued on and off and mostly on a voluntary basis until 2013, when she officially became a community mediator at the Gribova Town Hall. There she is still a bridge between the authorities and the Roma.
„I deal with various issues: I link the school with the parents, help them get different documents, fill in applications for jobs, welfare, medical care. At the same time, I also work in several projects, which are aimed at the development of the Roma community, so that people can get work, do something in the community they can be proud of.”
In those years, with the support of some organizations from Chisinau, she opened a school of democracy for Roma children in the gymnasium of Gribova, but soon the classes started to be attended by other children as well. „By the end of the year I had a group of more than 20 children attending the school of democracy. The non-Roma children were coming more than the Roma.”
Her new job as a community mediator hasn’t spared Angela from unpleasant cases. „I had a situation where I was asked to be present at a discussion between a policeman and a Roma person. The gentleman [the policeman] said to me: ‘What are you doing here? Are you trained as a lawyer or what?’„.
The presence of mediators in such situations is mandatory, as it is also stipulated in the job description, she explains. „Roma people don’t know what they are signing and I intervene, read their statements for them, etc. It was very annoying for me, because I got kicked out of the office in front of my people. I was not aggressive. I said, ‘OK, I’ll close the door on this side, but tomorrow I’ll open it somewhere higher’. ”
The next day, the mediator went to Drochia and reported the incident to the commissioner. She read to the official what stood written in her job description and how she was forbidden to do her job. „They gave the policeman a reprimand, asking me if I wanted to say something to him. ‘We are human beings and I would like him to control his emotions in the future.’ That’s all I said. Then the gentlemen from Drochia said: ‘See how the lady talks?’„
Discriminatory rhetoric against Roma people is used in the public space, in the media and online, according to Promo-LEX monitoring. Most of the time, Roma ethnicity is not directly condemned and is not the subject of aggressive or violent discourse, but it is manifested in the promotion of stereotypes and prejudices, which can lead to increased social rejection of this group.
Thus, in the period 2018-2020 (during 16 months of monitoring), Promo-LEX identified 28 cases of hate speech and incitement to discrimination directed against Roma. These cases were manifested both in the political and electoral context and in the social context.
„For example, the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of emergency of the early 2020s have been a fertile context for intolerant messages, hate speech and hate speech against Roma. These messages were most often identified in the comments section of articles that targeted in one way or another the group represented by these people”, concludes Irina Corobcenco, from the Promo-Lex Association, which specializes in identifying hate speech.
In 2019, Angela’s life took a new turn. It happened after she attended several seminars on voter civic education before the February parliamentary elections, and then went to her community and informed Roma about the right to vote. Already on the eve of the local elections in autumn, during a training session, Angela was suggested to run for councillor in her home village. Especially as she already had experience in convincing Roma to vote. „To be honest, I didn’t expect it. I went to the seminar to gain knowledge and to be as informed as possible, but then…”.
In the end, she decided to enter the electoral race as an independent candidate. She knew all too well the problems faced by the Roma and change, she felt, had to come from within.
She was very nervous. „Am I going to make it? Will I be able to do something for these people so that when I meet them, I won’t be ashamed to look them in the eye? But how am I going to be accepted onto the board if I win?”
She also had strong competitors. „There was a man who had a mill in the village and another man who did a lot of good. If someone approached him for help, he never turned his back on them. And there was another person, who was active for a long time in groups of tractor drivers, drivers, he had many friends…”.
Thus, in the local elections of October 20, 2019, Angela Radita became one of the 12 Roma elected as local councillors and the first and only Roma local councillor from her home village.
When she heard the result of the election, the woman was stunned.” I rejoiced and I was scared at the same time. I understood that I carry a great responsibility. This is not just a simple whim for one.”
In the survey „Perceptions of Roma people and party members on political participation in the Republic of Moldova” the respondents – party members in the focus group discussion, claimed that Roma people do not get involved in political life, but mentioned that they would generally „feel safer” having a Roma person as a fellow party member.
The village librarian, Galina Novațchi, has nothing but praise for Angela. „Every time I ask her for advice, she gives it to me. And good advice at that. She has brought a lot of social projects to the village. She’s a strong advocate for the people of the commune and for the Roma. I see her as the mayor. In the future, if she wants to run, I will support her.”
Her daughter, Romanița, is proud of her as well. The teenager, who dreams of becoming a lawyer, says her mother is an example to the Roma nation and especially to Roma women. „When I grow up, my biggest wish is to become an independent woman, a woman who can make decisions on her own, who doesn’t expect help from anyone, who inspires and brings color to everyone’s life.”
In February 2020, the Republic of Moldova was evaluated by CEDAW – the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In its recommendations, the Committee urges the state to extend the coverage of existing social protection schemes to women belonging to disadvantaged groups, including Roma women and rural women, as well as to retired women in difficult economic circumstances, to strengthen funding for such schemes and to ensure that social protection schemes are gender-sensitive.
The People’s Advocate also recommends that the authorities adopt temporary special measures to accelerate equal access to public office, education and employment for women from underrepresented groups, such as Roma women, women from national minorities, rural women, older women and women with disabilities, says the report on the respect for human rights and freedoms in the Republic of Moldova in 2020.
Although „at the council we tackle Roma problems and try to solve them”, explains Angela, especially since „the City Hall, so to speak, doesn’t get too involved until you raise a certain question”, there is still a lot of work to be done. For example, together with the school administration, she managed to get almost all Roma children into school. Yet migration is taking its toll.
„They leave for two to three months and return to the country. They stay for three weeks and leave again. I can’t force them to stay. Their parents don’t have work here and they have to go abroad. Our instinct is not to leave our children in the care of others, not even grandparents. If the state doesn’t pass a law stating that the child must not be taken out of the country by the parents from September 1 to May 31, what can I do?”
Instead, Angela now prides herself on being able to help not just the Roma, but the whole community. It’s a motivation and a boost for her. „If the issue of me being replaced hasn’t come up, from 2013 until now, it means I’m doing my job well,” she smiles.
Being a local elected official hasn’t permanently rid her of remarks about her ethnicity, but she says she has become immune to those who draw a „line” between the Roma and the rest of the community.
„In my work there are cases where people don’t always accept to include this part of the community in their activities. I really understand what’s going on, but I don’t draw attention to it. […] It all comes from the education you have and that your parents give you. When they are born children know nothing about discrimination. But where do they learn it from?”
Text and Photos – Polina Cupcea
Editor – Nicolae Cușchevici
Any person who is a victim of discrimination can lodge a complaint with the Council for the Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and Ensuring Equality, in person at its headquarters or via the COMPLAINT platform on https://egalitate.md/depune-o-plingere/.