"The social capital most squandered these days is that of young Roma women"

June 23. 2022. – 09:26 AM

"The social capital most squandered these days is that of young Roma women"
Gabi Bódi – Photo by Lujza Hevesi-Szabó / Telex

When talking about the situation facing women today or feminism, we rarely mention those who are not only disadvantaged because of their biological gender but also marginalized because of their ethnicity, gender identity, or physical health. Currently, one of the most important questions regarding disadvantaged women is how exactly the different disadvantages interact with one another and whether there is some more fundamental catalytic factor behind them. Why does the case of Roma women concern us all? Poverty, women, and Hungary in 2022.

"I was brought up in a safe environment in Budapest, in a stable family. I didn't have any serious illnesses, and I went to what were considered good schools. There's nothing noteworthy about it – except that I am of Roma descent on my father's side," begins Gabriella Bódi, an organizational development professional. As such, her story is not one of 'rising out of abject poverty' – the so-called self-made man who finds his way out of destitution is rather that of her entrepreneurial father. But Gabi's perspective on disadvantage is complex: after all,

she is female, Roma, and bisexual.

But from this bundle, it was not her identities that caused her the biggest handicap: she had to face more difficulties because she was born a woman and because it was hard to pigeonhole her. "At its core, my experience is that I stand out because I don't fit the expectations of what I should be based on my origin or physical identity. I was bullied as a child both for being Roma and for not being Roma, and later for being bisexual: am I straight or gay – I'm supposed to make up my mind. So I found out pretty early on that it's impossible for me to please everyone."

WOMEN, HUNGARY, 2022

How can women thrive in Hungary? What are their prospects of landing a job, having children, and getting health care? What has Hungary been able to achieve so far with regards to violence against women and the underprivileged? In this five-part series, Telex takes a look at the situation facing women today in five different settings.

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After communism fell in Hungary, Gabi's parents started a business in the construction industry, and she grew up working on construction sites. Eventually, at her parents' request, she was the first person in her family to go to college. She picked up two or three jobs on the side in order to support herself. Soon after graduating with a degree in economics, she and her partner started an organizational development company – which is also uncommon, given that the level of entrepreneurship among Roma women in society as a whole is practically negligible. "And yet there is an incredible amount of value and potential in the Roma population, both acknowledged and otherwise, which Hungary desperately needs," says Gabi.

As a send-off, Gabi's father shared with her that if she studies and works hard enough, her ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation will not matter. "These are important affirmations, but the world is just not that simple. As lucky as I am, I have faced discriminatory and hurtful situations. Especially when I strayed into a domain where not only Roma women are rare, but even women in general: I can't count the number of high-ranking women I've heard from over the years who at board meetings are simply expected to serve coffee to the men at the table. At the same time, their thoughts and observations are not taken into consideration. They are often invisible participants of the meeting, just organic decorations. My homosexual clients tell me that there is an expectation to laugh along with everyone else at homophobic jokes. And above a certain level, homosexual employees are not allowed to represent the company in more senior positions – of course, it is rarely expressed this way word for word. I also feel that we have a lot of work to do if we want to live in a fairer world. My experience as a woman and more specifically a Roma woman is that often I'm the one who has to adapt to a situation, and I have to know how to react properly, even if the situation is sometimes degrading for me."

And yet, there is another aspect of Gabi's Roma background that has also had a significant impact on her life: her father's business, her studies, and her profession have also shifted her further away from the "Roma cultural milieu". Differing worldviews, priorities and mentalities ended up making them drift too far away from the extended family, and so even Gabi experienced the process of family break-up. Although she now lives a Western European life, her extended family continues to go through the same lessons of being helpless as a result of systemic prejudice and discrimination to this day.

These experiences have made Gabi realize that, although she would like nothing more than to get away from these things, she would rather build on them and stand up for them. "I live with the awareness that I am always and everywhere a representative. I know that everything I say or do adds to people's perceptions of Roma and LGBTQ+ women, and in doing so, I can either tear down this image of ours or I can build and broaden people's perspectives."

Oppression Olympics

It would be difficult to say exactly how many women in this country are discriminated against because of their gender or Roma background, and this is mainly because the data based on self-reporting even leads to an inaccurate estimate of the total number of Roma. The number of people who identify themselves as gypsies in censuses is often lower than the number of people who are perceived as gypsies by their surrounding community or the outside world, which is approximately 30-40%. Although the term "perceived gypsies" can be off-putting, much of the research on the subject calculates (and probably underestimates) on this basis. Based on this approach, it is likely that Gabi, and perhaps even her father, would not count as gypsies. "According to the research definition, a gypsy is someone who is considered as such by the non-gypsy community on the basis of various criteria (lifestyle, way of life, anthropological character) and experiences of living together."

According to a 2010-2013 survey by the Department of Social Geography and Regional Development Planning of the University of Debrecen, 876,000 Roma live in Hungary, and it is estimated that this number will exceed one million in the coming decades. At the same time, while roughly 10% of Hungary's population are Roma, this ratio becomes at least 50% when considering people who live in extreme poverty. It is no wonder that when we tend to think of Roma women, we typically think of women living in poverty and who are often disadvantaged – those who don't have the prospect of a (first-rate) education, who lack the opportunity to get out of their situation, and who are therefore very much at the mercy of their partners.

They are indeed the vast majority. And in spite of it all, there is a growing Roma middle class – although they are rarely mentioned – and the study of this group has important lessons for the majority of Roma living in extreme poverty. The seventies, eighties and nineties marked a turning point in the development of this social stratum. Gabi's story is a good illustration of this change: her father is also a part of the generation that had more opportunities at that time. And even if they themselves could not yet take advantage of it in every way, a number of their children and grandchildren could. This rapid pace of change highlights the fact that, while various top-down measures focusing on a single problem cannot provide sufficient help for the social mobilization of Roma for decades, simply having access to more stable financial conditions and gainful employment can make a huge difference in just one generation.

But before looking at material conditions, it is worth considering how sociological approaches concerning disadvantaged people have changed over the past decades. Initially, researchers addressed the dimensions of inequality independently of each other, but since the 1990s there has been an effort to examine the interaction between the factors. Today, the disadvantages facing women are mostly approached from an intersectional perspective (i.e. considering the factors of inequality to be confounded rather than coexisting in parallel), focusing on how many facets of a given individual's or group's path are hindered.

However, this much more complex perspective in many respects also entails experts looking for the intersection of different aspects of disadvantage, trying to identify who is/are the most disadvantaged – i.e. for whom do the problems just continue to pile up. This approach, in turn, raises questions that are difficult to answer, such as:

is a Roma woman more disadvantaged than a woman who is a refugee? Who is more oppressed, a Roma or a transgender woman?

Is Gabi more disadvantaged than someone who is "just" Roma or bisexual? This approach is reflected in the European Commission's Gender Equality Strategy, presented in March of 2020, when it states that "Women are a heterogeneous group and may face intersectional discrimination based on several personal characteristics. For instance, a migrant woman with a disability may face discrimination on three or more grounds." This approach has come under more and more criticism in recent years for not addressing the causes of inequalities but rather weighing the dimensions of disadvantage, and further, for pretending that these disadvantages are not systemic but somehow linked to particular societal groups or individuals and concentrated on them through an unfortunate combination of circumstances.

According to sociologist Anikó Gregor, this approach is problematic for several reasons. "If we interpret these intersectional positions as individual-level characteristics, then the situation transforms into 'oppression olympics' – the focus shifts to who has it the worst. This is a very serious misunderstanding that is difficult to eradicate from the public mind, when in fact we should be talking about systems of inequality."

It's not about identifying the most disadvantaged Hungarian woman and coddling her (if only because the sum of one's disadvantages might not be characterizable at all) but trying to do something about the systems that interlock with one another, complicate the disadvantaged situation by reinforcing each other, and perpetuate each other, creating a much harder way out in the end – Gregor elaborates. In addition, the different dimensions of disadvantage do not in themselves provide enough information to determine to what extent someone is afflicted or what resources they have to overcome disadvantages and in what context they need to do so.

The fact that different disadvantages have a mutually reinforcing effect is not disputed by critics of the intersectional approach, also referred to as "Excel-approach feminism". However, the sociologist believes that what should be examined are the more general problems underlying the system as a whole and the inequality of women that perpetuates it. Basically, the problem is seen in the contemporary individualized form of identity politics and intersectionality, i.e. through the Excel approach.

If only, she adds, because this kind of division and the so-called "oppression contest" is much easier to eradicate than to bring about real change at the system level. Although it may seem that equal opportunities, and in particular equal opportunities for women, are also increasingly seen as an important issue at the corporate level, Anikó Gregor says that most companies today are still only diversifying their workforce on the level of slogans and for the sake of their productivity, reducing the issue to a stripped-down, misinterpreted intersectional quota system.

At no level are these measures intended to change the systems of inequality: the system remains the same, and at most, the roles are changed. Moreover, the progressive intelligentsia is buying this, because this 'Western' concept is very enticing on the Hungarian fallow.

Two-thirds of people living in poverty are women

Slogans and a diverse working environment alone will not address the biggest problem: difficulties in making ends meet affect women more than men in both Roma and non-Roma communities, as two-thirds of people living in poverty are women. In 2018, an exciting study was conducted on the situation facing women in Hungary. The work, entitled Women's Issues – Societal Problems and Solutions, revealed that while the glass ceiling, or the issue of work-life balance, is only encountered by women who enter the labor market at all, the most fundamental and universal problem across all age groups, both in and outside of Budapest, for Roma and non-Roma alike, is the increasingly unbearable difficulty of making a living.

"The primary key to emancipation would be a decent livelihood, which isn't possible for a significant proportion of Hungarian women,

and this is in no small part what creates really disadvantaged situations," says Gregor. "In order to compensate for the ever-dwindling public social safety net, people increasingly have to dip into their own or their family members' pockets: if you're sick and want to avoid the long waiting list for a state medical specialist, you go to a private clinic – if you can. If you want reassuring care for a sick parent, the first thing you do is try to find a solution with a high-quality (private) facility or home nurse. If you're not satisfied with the math instruction at school, you pay for a private tutor. Those who are unable to do all these things are left behind. Because the state has catastrophically diverted resources away from these sectors over the last three decades. Access to these services should not be permitted to be a question of luck or the size of one's pocketbook – not only from the point of view of the ability to work but also from that of a dignified life," she adds.

So in order to "empower" disadvantaged groups, it is not enough merely to identify the most disadvantaged groups and sensitize people to their problems. This is because there is a complex system that is currently at work to reinforce these conditions and render them immutable – both mentally and behaviorally. Change requires the strongest political commitment possible, a comprehensive program, and more fundamentally, a more secure livelihood. We cannot improve the inequality of opportunities for Roma, non-Roma, differently-abled, gay or other women by tallying, summing up and analyzing the dimension of their equal opportunities one by one.

The key would be to improve overall livelihood conditions – not, as the expert points out, disingenuous lending, which merely perpetuates such inequalities. To clear a path similar to Gabi's for more Roma women, high-quality social institutions are needed that can ease the burden resting on women's shoulders by enabling them to move in and out of the labor market more easily and seamlessly.

This article is the third in a series of Telex articles on the situation facing women in Hungary today. You can find the first article here and the second here.

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