“Roma Women in Bosnia and Herzegovina” – Hedina Sijercic

©Hedina Sijercic, 2007, all rights reserved. This was a speech given by Hedina Sijercic at a conference during the Festival Tzigane Romani Yag / Romani Yag Gypsy Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on October 14, 2007.

Aven saste thaj baxtale, Romnjale, Romalen, Chavalen! My name is Hedina Sijercic and I am a journalist, teacher and writer. I am Romani, Canadian, born in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and now living in Germany.

For 15 years now, I have lived between three cultures: Balkan, Western European ‚ and North American. My life experience as a Romni (Romani woman) living between those three worlds has been very rich. I have met Roma from countries all over the world – both domestic and refugees.

I have met our Romnije (Romani women) all over the world, and especially our Romnije living in Bosnia, Germany, France, Italy and Belgium. The lives of all Romnije are the same – it doesn’t matter where they live. Our tradition and culture are too heavy and too powerful to change the suffering faced by our women throughout the history of our people.

I am here to talk about Roma women from Bosnia and Herzegovina, about their problems and their situation in their families and in the larger society. But I cannot talk about this without informing you at the same time about the whole Roma situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and their position there which is ultimately reflected on the women.

I will also speak on the implementation of the framework convention on the protection of national minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I got much of this information from Mr. Dervo Sejdiá, Coordinator of the Council of Roma in Bosnia and Herzegovina, after I told him I would be in Montreal at this conference. So in his name, in the name of Romani Bosnian women, Romani Bosnian women displaced in Western Europe, and in my name too, all the best to the Roma women all over the world, and many congratulations for holding this conference.

At first I am going to speak about the Roma problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Until 1992, as you know, Bosnia and Herzegovina was just one of the republics of the communist federation of Yugoslavia. Since medieval times three religions have co-existed there: Islam, Catholic and Orthodox, appropriate to the three nationalities: Bosnian – Muslim, Croatian and Serbian. Many national minorities lived here as well, but the major minority was Romani.

Mr. Edhem Mulabdic, author of the first novel about Bosnia and Herzegovina, wrote this passage in 1910 about the Romani people there, called “Cigani” by the other inhabitants of the Balkans:

“How would it be if there were no Roma here? Who else would be the object of ridicule for the rich? Who else would be blamed for stealing horses? Who would be humiliated? Who would carry the mark of moral and intellectual backwardness?

Perhaps it could be considered that for that the Cigani were born. In our country you could find amongst many of our own people more poverty than in any Cigan home. Yet we would not make fun of our own poor. We would not make fun of their moral and intellectual weakness. But to make fun of the Cigan is simply amusement, considered to be no sin. The Cigan is accustomed to such mistreatment. He doesn’t know how to be angry. He doesn’t know how to seek protection as a citizen.

If a horse is taken away, first they would search the places where Cigani live, and only after that would they search the neighbourhoods of non-Roma, even though they may be more notorious or shrewd than any Cigan. In that way are the Cigani lucky in our country: it doesn’t matter if they are as diligent as an ant, and quiet as a lamb.”

At that time, in 1910, Roma couldn’t read this attempt by one Muslim writer to acknowledge the discrimination against them in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But the Romani golgotha started a long time ago in India, in the middle ages. After the first signs of discrimination and persecution, Roma left India and, in quest of better living conditions and prosperity, settled in Europe.

The first written documents about their settlement date from 1416 and are from Transylvania, Rumania. In 1422 they are mentioned in the chronicle of the city of Forli, Italy. In the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina they were first officially mentioned in the early 16th century when Sultan Pasha Suleiman approved their settlement and cultivation of land in a part of his pashalik. However, the Roma were not accepted by the indigenous people so were forced to move frequently. Nomadism has been associated with Roma ever since. Even nowadays, the word ‘çerga’, meaning ‘caravan’, is used in literature and everyday speech about the Roma.

In socialist Yugoslavia, where I spent my childhood and youth, I remember that the Constitution granted equality for all nations and nationalities. Basic education and the right to work were guaranteed for Roma. But it was just on paper.

At that time in Bosnia and Herzegovina there existed two groups of Roma – the Gurbeti–Chergash, my grandmother’s group which moved during the summer, and Roma, who remained in their houses over the whole year. My father’s family belongs to the Thanesko Gurbeti group. For many years they had been settled in Sarajevo in Gorica, the oldest Romani mahala. My grandfather was a blacksmith, and earned money for whole family. The third group of Roma living in Bosnia and Herzegovina are Shiptar Roma, Roma, from Kosovo and Macedonia.

Since the middle ages, the situation of Roma women – and all Roma – has been terrible. It does not change – we continue to suffer from childhood poverty and discrimination, starting with difficulties in going to school. I know what that is like – I remember the experiences of my childhood and youth. I wrote about this in my novel, Rom (like a thunder) which I think should be published in English by Magoria Books of Toronto. Magoria has just published my book of poetry, “Dukh” – “Pain”.

There are not enough history books of Roma, for adults and for our children, not enough books in the Romani language, and nothing which would bring cultural prosperity to our Roma nation. There is no standardisation of our language. All this time there is communication based on the basic dialects, and that which changes according to the different Romani groups – and that brings difficulties in getting standardisation in our language.

Our Roma are not united. Each group, better to say, each group of Roma persons, looks after just the prosperity of its own members. Our Roma men have the right to be at the conferences – they think they have that right just because they are born as men. They show their macho side but often not intelligence. There is no place for Roma women; this is for men; this is “tradition”. Women should be at home with their children and should keep quiet, mouth closed.

Another problem is that our Roma don’t have any media in our mother tongue. When I lived in Bosnia from 1986 to 1992, there was a Radio and TV program for Roma and about Roma in both the Roma and Serbo-Croatian languages. I was editor and moderator of the programs. The programs were a cultural mosaic, dealing with history, language, problem with education, custody, employment, housing and all things that Roma like to hear and see. At that time our Roma worked for different firms as craftsmen, and women worked as cleaners or kitchen helpers. Many of them got apartments from the firms they were working for. They ended up moving to other quarters of the city and they assimilated, and they never ever liked to know anything about their Roma origin.

Then between 1992 and 1995, as you know, was the war in Bosnia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina you could hear people say: more Bosnians died, or more Serbians died, or the Croats are those who were the most displaced. No one counted Roma suffering or Roma displacement, and dead Roma are not important to anybody. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an enormous number of Roma were displaced from their prewar homes. According to estimates, in this period more than 1/3 of the BiH Roma population emigrated and more than 85% of the Roma population of the Republic of Serbia that were not able to emigrate to third countries took refuge in the Federation. More than 70 % of Roma do not have a house, while the rate of Roma returnees is very low. They are very often evicted and compelled to change their place of residence often, which makes schooling of children and development of social security charts difficult.

Discrimination, intolerance, mass extermination and persecution of Roma continue to put our people on the margins of society and have made us generally unacceptable, unequal and less worthy people wherever we go. Nowadays, at the dawn of 21st century, Roma live below the minimum social, economic, educational and cultural level enjoyed by civilized human beings.

Bosnian Roma are the major national minority in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to the 1991 Census, only about 9,000 Roma live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while statistics of Roma NGOs show that between 75,000-100,000 Roma are living in BiH. The Roma population in Bosnia and Herzegovina has the lowest ratio of housing reconstruction; and commitments for reconstruction by the Ministry of Social Security, Displaced Persons and Refugees have not been honoured yet.

The only good example of cooperation and engagement of local authorities in the housing of Roma is the Municipality of Centar, Sarajevo, which helped in the implementation of a project funded by the Dutch Government involving the construction of 30 flats for inhabitants of Gorica. Sadly, it is the sole good example in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As to education at all levels, statistics show that before 1992 about 36,5% Roma children were included in education while after 1996 hardly 12,5 % Roma children were included in education. Only at the beginning of the 2003/2004 academic year was there a significant increase in the number of Roma children enrolling in primary and secondary school, while only 4 or 5 students, who come from well off families and whose parents are in regular employment, enrolled in university. The poor interest and inclusion of Roma children in education result from a few negative elements, starting from identification documents (failure to register children in birth registers), housing and permanent residence related problems, financial condition (primarily unemployment, the lack of means to buy textbooks, school utensils and school brunch or lunch) and finishing with discrimination of Roma children in some communities. Most female children quit schooling after finishing 3rd or 4th grade of primary school.

Most Roma men of working age joined the army, as obliged to, during the hostilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but after the war they were prevented from returning to their pre-war posts. They have been put on “waiting lists”, dismissed without severance pay or payment of statutory contributions in the pension fund. The only benefit that some of them, mostly young men, managed to get from the labor exchange office (unemployment bureau) is the health insurance card (so-called health booklet).

No comments should be given on newly employed Roma people because there are hardly any, since companies are privatized and therefore there is no chance for Roma to get employment. A great number of young and able Roma leave the country because of such a policy. More than 85 % of Roma in the 15-65 age group do not enjoy social security or health care, while this percentage is lower in other age groups. Some maternity wards do not send birth reports over to registry offices when Roma women give birth to a child because they do not have money to pay for the delivery, so the children remain unregistered in the birth registers.

Being politically unorganized Roma have not had political representation, apart from one municipal councillor, at any level of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina which is, in the opinion of the NGO sector, one more cause of this situation of Roma in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina was passed. Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) and other citizens living in it. This Constitution and Entity Constitutions (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Serbia) classify national minorities under term “Others”, without giving precise enumeration who the others are and how their rights and responsibilities are regulated.

Only in mid 2003 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Party of Roma BiH was established as the first and the only party of Roma. So far only sporadic examples of Roma standing for local elections have been reported, where they have been candidates of non-Roma political parties, but they have not had good results. Usually their names have been put on the candidates’ lists in order to satisfy the requirement of “civil society commitment” of the political party that has used them to get Roma voters’ votes.

Namely, Roma in Bosnia and Herzegovina established the Council of Roma of BiH as a representative advisory Roma council. Through work of the Council of Roma, the Roma Board within the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina was established. Authorities at all level of Bosnia and Herzegovina neither show any willingness to work with local Roma communities nor accept any of the two Roma bodies (the Council of Roma and the Council of Ministers of BiH Roma Board) as partners in the exercise and protection of human rights and freedoms of Roma in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The media in Bosnia and Herzegovina (we are talking about state and entity-owned public information services) seem to have never heard of the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities. None of them has provided any slot in their programme schemes to include any report, about either political or cultural matters, in the languages of minorities. The public information services are the best indicators of the respect for human rights of national minorities in BiH and the implementation of the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, because they are still in the hands of constituent peoples, who participate in sharing powers at all levels.

Of course, nobody is exempted from the obligation to pay TV tax. Unlike state and entity-owned public information services, private radio and TV stations in the City of Sarajevo, allotted slots to national minorities (Roma) to broadcast in their mother tongue. Amongst them the “Studentski IFM” radio station is on the first place, allotting slots to all national minorities that are interested in it. Alfa radio and TV station in Sarajevo and ASK radio in Ilidza follow.

When we talk about the press, we should point out that they are as impartial as allowed to be by “political people” who run them. The fact that is more noticeable than ever is that in all news the name of person involved is accompanied with his/her nationality, especially if the person has broken the law. However when somebody does a good deed, then his nationality is not mentioned at all. That is how the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina build intolerance and hatred of each nationality towards other. When a Roma man commits an offence or in any way breaks the law, his nationality is emphasized.

In the long run Bosnia and Herzegovina will still not be a country in which human rights and freedoms are not infringed or denied, and, in the long run, discrimination, national intolerance and hatred, corruption and crime will still prevail, very often backed up by high officials of State and Entity government and local self-government.

To put it simply, according to Mr. Dervo Sejdic, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still not a country with the level of conscience adequate for European integration, with the level of civilized relations among people where they respect each other as an equal human being. All of those are the problems of our Roma people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of those are the problems of our Roma women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All those problems affect not just Roma men and Roma women, but even our Roma youth and children. The question is: where is the Roma future?

Given the situation of Roma in BiH I am sure you can just imagine the situation of Romani women. Along with all this society’s discrimination, our women suffer from domestic discrimination in their families as well. They work at home, rear the children, beg, and work for the men who are mostly alcoholic. Our women also have cleaned other houses, and worked, and their husbands take this money to buy first alcohol and then food for the family. Men often beat the women and kids. Kids beat their mothers too, and often some of the men family members beat the women too.

There is just one example which is written about the violence against women in both: society and the family, in the book “How we live”, published by Medica Zenica u.g. Infoteka in coordination with Jennifer Erickson and issued in Zenica, 2001. The book shows statistics of violence in interviews with Romani women in Zenica. The fact is terrible. Nothing is changed since ever. And this statistic shows just one city of BiH.

Our displaced Romani women from BiH in Germany, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Italy are not in a better situation. As well, most of them have problems such as little or no knowledge of the languages in the country where they live: Italy, Germany, Holland or France. Many of the women are forced by the man to beg in the streets, sometimes to steal, and in some cases to work as prostitutes. After “work”, the men take the money, drink alcohol, and beat the women. After all these jobs the women are forced, after being beaten by husbands and family members, to go to jail because they were caught in doing this forced job. In jail they are quiet, they keep their mouths closed, and don’t say why all of that, because “it has to be like that”.

Balkan women of all nationalities say that they don’t have their own history. The Balkans were almost five centuries under Turkish rule and all the powerful persons of the Ottoman empire who lived there didn’t open any school in the mother language. Sons of the wealthy families went to Istanbul, Baghdad, Cairo, or Tehran to get education in their own languages. I have never heard that some Roma son was sent out of the country to get an education. And women, including Muslim women, Orthodox women, and Catholic women, stayed at home, and were illiterate. At the time when Edhem Mulabdic wrote in 1910 about prejudice against the Roma, only two hundred or so of women of all nationalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina were literate. But if you compare Roma with other nationalities, the other nationalities had very brave women who started schools for girls. From Catholic women there was the first Paulina Irby from England, protestant, who granted the first school for girls in 1874. After that there was an orthodox woman, Stanka Skenderova, who granted a school for girls in the time of the Austrian empire in 1890. Muslims didn’t like their children to go to Western countries, but some of the most progressive families did it. Dr. Sevala Zildzic-Ibizovic, the first Bosnian general practitioner, got the licence to study medicine in Zagreb, 1920. Romani women didn’t have any woman to take on the role as educator. Educated women from other nationalities didn’t go to the Romani mahalas to educate the Romani girls as well.

Our men were in the some situation. There is the question: which is the role of Romani women in this environment? Romani women are left with their problems, ignored,and left marginalized in all aspects of life: education, access to employment, psychosocial and material support. No attention has been paid to the specific problems of minority populations such as Roma, and the problems of Romani women have been completely ignored. Furthermore, inside the Roma community itself, the women have an underprivileged position. In their social life women are not supposed to have a leading position, but act “at best” as personal assistants, due to the patriarchal cultural tradition (both in Balkans in general and in the Roma community in particular). For Romani women we could say they suffer from a triple form of discrimination: Being poor; Being Roma; Being a woman.

In addition to the direct discrimination against the Roma woman, that I have just said, they very frequently also suffer indirectly from the discrimination the husband suffers. According to information provided by Roma NGO representatives, the majority of the Roma women in BiH are housewives. Some of them could be considered qualified workers, with professions – such as hairdressers, textile workers, cooks, etc. The social security benefit they receive is 50 KM (25 Euros) per month. Some of the women described themselves as street vendors. Many Roma women can also be seen begging in the streets. The Romani women who are employed are selling textile goods such as clothes and underwear on the market.

The Romani women are registered with the Employment Agency in order to benefit from free health insurance. None of these registered women ever found a job through the Employment Agency. According to Roma NGO representatives a large number of Romani woman are illiterate (more than 65%) and in the best case have just 3-4 grades of primary school. Approximately 65% of them speak the Roma language.

There are no Romani women with a finished university degree in BiH. At the time I lived there I was the only one who was working as a journalist, speaking both Romani and Bosnian languages. But I must say, that I was never accepted as an equal conversationalist by our Roma men who reached something. And it is still like that, in each situation they ignore my existence even though they know that I am Romni and that I declare myself as a Romni.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak at this conference. Thank you, my sisters, that you haven’t forgotten me. I hope we ourselves could change our lives if we ignore just for 30 minutes a day our tradition and our men . May God give you power. Neka o Del del tumenge zuralipe.

At the end I would like to read my poem ‚ “The Earth” ‚ “Phuv”, first in English and then in Romani. This poem is published by Magoria Books in Toronto in my poetry book Dukh – Pain.


Romnije! – Roma women!

Because of all the dead and all the living,
Because of the Roma,
Put a curse on the Earth
To destroy the rats
To destroy the enemy.

Because of all the dead and all the living,
Because of the Roma
Turn the Earth upside down
And predict black destiny
To distract the devil (evil forces)
To distract the black night.

Because of all the dead and all the living,
Because of the Roma
Cast magic upon the Earth and predict love
Predict a fire without smoke
Predict damnation with the end.

Cast a magic spell, Romnije, save her!
She is yours, she is mine, Mother of God
The Earth.


Pala mule thaj dzuvinde, pala e Roma
Del armaja e phuvjache,
Te nashjares shimijake
Te nashjares dushmaja.

Pala mule thaj dzuvinde, pala e Roma
Chuv teleshoreha e phuv thaj del armaja kale sudbinache
Te xoxajves bilache
Te xoxajves kali jrat.

Pala mule thaj dzuvinde, pala e Roma
Del e phuvjache choxanipe thaj del cho mrtik pala o kamipe
Nek e jag na thuvljardel
Nek o dumutnipe na buhljarel.

Del o chohanipe, Romnije, del cho mrtik pala las
Voj si chiri, mrni thaj Devleski dej