DENISA Gáborová, a community assistant for medical education, is 35 years old and has four children. She was married at 17 and spent many years since then on maternity leave; but after giving birth to her last child she returned to school and has been studying and working as a medical assistant.
How did you get married? When did you meet your husband?
DG: Among the Roma it’s like this: one family comes courting. They came; they asked whether their son could go out with me. My parents agreed and then I agreed. We went out for some time and then we got married.
Had you seen him before then or was this the first time you’d met?
DG: No, I’d never seen him before in my life. But I’m happy with him. He listens to me and I have everything I need with him. He’s educated, he works and our children are raised well.
And where was love?
DG: At first there was no love, only that I liked him. Later I started loving him.
Did you go out together for long?
DG: Six months. I was a month pregnant and he still let me attend school. So I could finish school, because he is also educated. He didn’t prevent me from finishing. And I admire this. Because, you know, in the Roma community when a Roma woman works, there are doubts among the other Roma. And not only did my husband not stop me, he supported me. And he still supports me.
You married into a family with different values than you had at home. What was the most difficult thing for you?
DG: The most difficult part for me was getting used to the Roma in the settlement. I don’t mean my husband’s family, because they are on the same level; they had completed school. However, they grew up among the Roma and from a young age I grew up among the non-Roma. I attended a non-Roma school and it took me about ten years to get used to life in the settlement.
Does this mean that you come from a different world and that you, as a Roma woman, had to get used to the Roma?
DG: Yes; no non-Roma lived there at all. I asked my mother: Where are the non-Roma? Where is the shop? Where is the school? And she replied: It doesn’t matter; you’ll get used to it. You’ll walk a kilometre to the shop and when you have children, they’ll go to school. There is a Roma school here, so my children go there. So I live my own life and I’m raising my children the way my parents raised me.
How did the local Roma receive you as a different type of Roma woman?
DG: They laughed at me because when my children were born I taught them to speak like the non-Roma, and they asked me what am I doing acting like a non-Roma? But in time they got used to me. The worst of it was when I finished maternity leave and went to work. My children got the worst of it. They scolded my children, saying that I don’t care for them. And my boy said to me, “Mama, do you know what they told me? That you don’t take care of me, that you go to some training and don’t care for us.” That lasted about two years, until my children got used to it.
In the Roma community, people think that a wife should be at home, cooking, caring for her children and husband. And in non-Roma families, it’s the opposite. When a non-Roma woman doesn’t work, she is inferior. And among the Roma, a wife cannot work, only a husband.
What did your mother and father-in-law say about this?
DG: My father-in-law was glad that I was working, but my mother-in-law had doubts about it. She thought I should be home. She wasn’t very pleased about it. But she is now.
Today you actually live in your own home and have four children. Where do you work?
DG: I work in the regional office for public health as a community medical assistant.
How did you get involved in this work?
DG: In 2005 there was recruitment in Kecerovce. I went there and they selected me. I worked for a year in Europlus. Then for four months I didn’t work. Then they heard about us at the regional office, that we worked there. We went there and they took us on.
Did you take part in some sort of training, or how were you able to get this work when you didn’t have the education?
DG: I worked in Europlus. I have three certificates from there and I have three months' training in health-care services.
How did you feel at the first training session? When you went there among so many non-Roma and educated people – you a Roma woman from a settlement?
DG: When I heard about the recruiting, I thought: How should I dress for this? How should I speak? And I said: I’ll dress simply, cleanly. When they ask me something, I’ll answer them. This gave me strength: the fact that I passed and that there were five of us from one village. And they chose me.
You work as a health-care assistant and go to Roma settlements. Is what you witness there difficult for you to handle?
DG: It’s pretty difficult. We recently were in Jasov to vaccinate children. A lot of children there hadn’t been vaccinated against tuberculosis.
When you come to a settlement, do you speak with people in the Roma language?
DG: Yes, in Romani. I’m not ashamed of my native language.
Do the Roma believe you?
DG: They believe me, and it’s good that there is also a non-Roma woman there.
DG: When a non-Roma woman comes with me, the level of respect is higher. And a non-Roma would say the opposite: that it’s better when a Roma woman is there with her.
You study at the same school as your daughter…
DG: We attend the Private Pedagogical and Social Academy in Košice. My daughter wants to be a teacher in a preschool. I’m in the second year and she is in the first. Before that she studied design, but she didn’t like it. She is a coordinator in the Stop project. She also attends training courses and I’m glad that she likes them.
What do other Roma girls say to her?
DG: They say that she won’t turn out to be a good girl, because she’ll grow old and never get married. That who would take her, that she goes after men… She’s suffered in this settlement enough, but I always tell her: just ignore them. Once you start to work, they’ll come and then they’ll see. So I support her in this.
How is it going for you in school?
DG: I’m trying to do what I can. I have to handle the household, school and work.
How is life going for you? You got married early and had children. You had to adjust to new surroundings and obey. So how does your life look today? Have you so far achieved what you wanted?
DG: Some things have happened and others haven’t. It’s true that I got married early and went to live with my mother-in-law. There were five boys at home and she was the only woman. There is a problem with water in the settlements. And water is important. We were the sort of Roma who were able to carry water so that we could bathe and clean. My mother-in-law was strict, but I admire her. I was the second oldest daughter-in-law. She taught us a lot. Mainly this: that we should care for our husbands.
Do you think that a non-Roma woman has an easier life than a Roma woman?
DG: No. She has a harder life. Because she has to study, work and take care of everything.
Every woman interviewed thus far has said that the life of a Roma woman is more difficult than that of a non-Roma woman. Why do you think otherwise?
DG: I say it because when a non-Roma woman doesn’t work, she is deficient. With Roma women, this is the opposite. Particularly in the settlements.
What are the most beautiful situations you’ve experienced that you’ll remember?
DG: The first time I went to Bidovce I had no idea how people live there. We spoke with the mayor because they didn’t have a well there. The first time we came, people lived on a trash heap, but when we came for the third time, there was a great change. Houses were clean, no junkyard there now.
We didn’t return there, however, for perhaps half a year, and again it’s like a junkyard there. These people need someone to check on them and educate them.
They do this only if they feel ashamed in front of other Roma?
DG: Yes, this too. Only they must feel this inside. Not because of us; because of themselves. This only lasts until they understand.
Have you experienced a situation when your relatives highly regarded what you do? Were they proud of you?
DG: Yes. My father-in-law had an accident. He fell from some steps and broke his ribs. I went with him to the emergency room. There was one acquaintance there who also works in the regional public health office. She said hello to me and my husband and father-in-law were proud that such people greet me and know me and value me.
If you could now, what would you change in your life? What would you have done differently?
DG: Complete school and go to university. This is my dream. And I plan to write a book about my life. I would like to help the Roma if I can. If I have such an opportunity. And so that there were no only-Roma schools. Because this creates differences between children in childhood.
Are there many such women here like you, who know what they want from life?
DG: Yes. Three from a 700-member community.
Do you think that if Roma women were more active that something would change in the Roma community?
DG: Yes. And this is something I would like to change.
If someone asked you to get involved in politics… what would you say?
DG: I would go.
To regional or to bigger politics?
DG: To bigger politics. I wouldn’t want to be a mayor, because I would rather do more good and whether some people liked it or not. Here there is a great deal of envy.
If Roma women were to go into politics, what should they say to our political representatives or members of the European Parliament?
DG: Let something be done in these settlements regarding unemployment.
Do you think this depends on them, or on the Roma? What should be done for them?
DG: Well, if it were only as it was under totalitarianism. Things were better for the Roma then. A Rom who didn’t work was punished. And now when a Rom goes to look for work, they don’t take him. I also know Roma who want to work and who have studied and when they come and people see them, they don’t want to employ them. This should change.
How is it, for example, with the modernity of the community? Do you live a modern life at home?
How could you dress in your home?
DG: When I liked a pair of pants, for example, mama bought the material and I had them made. I had clothing made. Or mother went to buy them in Ostrava.
And how were you able to dress at your mother-in-law’s house?
DG: I couldn’t wear anything short or anything elastic.
Is it still the same?
Does this mean that a woman here cannot expose herself?
DG: No, she can‘t. Not even a swimsuit is considered appropriate here.
And what about young girls then? Are they used to going out with skin exposed in summer?
DG: My daughter does. She’s young. She goes out quite lightly dressed. These older women keep an eye on how the young girls dress, but they do it anyway.
So that cultural dress is maintained?
What kind of cultural traditions or Roma traditions are kept in your family?
DG: A girl has to be honourable if she’s not married.
And in the Roma language?
DG: We speak both Slovak and Romani.
Do you have any Christmas traditions?
DG: I’m in my own house, but other members of the family go on visits. I tell my husband: it’ll be the way I want it. Everyone will be at home for Christmas Eve dinner and no one will leave home. This is my tradition.
Didn’t your husband have a problem with this?
DG: He did. At the beginning. At first he went to his parents and left me here alone. I wasn’t even angry with him. Then he realised that this isn’t right.
So the women have won rights in your family?
DG: We’re terribly proud women. And we are great martyrs; we can withstand anything. Everyone has suffered something in life. But we are able to forgive, too.
Does this mean that the women in your family suffer because they go after their life goals?
DG: Yes. They know what they want in life.
Interviews with Roma women are part of a project by the Roma Press Agency and will be published in a forthcoming book.
12. Oct 2009 at 0:00 | Kristína Magdalenová and Jarmila Vaňová