In Moldova, a Roma woman’s inclusive outlook beats discrimination

Photos: Ion Buga / UNDP Moldova

Angela Radita’s first encounter with discrimination was sudden and stinging. An avid student who stayed up late to read by candlelight before she had electricity, she had finished college and applied for a librarian’s post but was rejected because she belongs to the Roma minority.

“If something new comes up, I’ll let you know,’ the hiring manager told her. “But now we have no available places.”

“To this day, I’ve never worked as a librarian. I had studied and worked hard, but it wasn’t enough,” says Angela (49), local councillor, community mediator and social activist. “I just cried. For the first time, I had encountered distrust solely because of my name, which revealed my ethnicity.”

Beyond her own disappointment, she feared her experience would discourage other Roma girls from pursuing their dreams. If she — the first Roma child to leave this small village to attend college — couldn’t find work in her chosen profession, why should they try?

At every “next step” point in her life, Angela faced similar pressures of traditional societal views, whether it be about being a woman or being Roma.

When she turned 14, her mother told her she’d had enough of school and could get married instead. “She asked me to make my choice: marry or continue studying. And I chose school. I really didn’t want to be a wife at 14.”

Gender expectations continued as she decided what to study: “My grandmother saw me as a seamstress. But I really enjoyed reading.”

Leaving for college was the moment she realized she wanted to change things in her village, but upon returning home faced the biggest disappointment of the job rejection. She had grown up in this diverse community that embraced all ethnicities: her classmates were Roma and non-Roma and she always felt part of the village. But now she had lost that inclusive feeling.

For the next decade, she earned a living as a farm labourer, next to her mother and grandmother.

Roma make up only a tiny fraction of Moldova’s roughly 2.68 million people and, historically, are among the poorest, most vulnerable people in Europe. Roma women on average marry earlier, learn less, earn less, and are therefore especially vulnerable to poverty. They are rarely represented in public life.

But in 2004, the voice of Roma people began to be heard in Moldova. A relative of Angela’s visiting from the capital city Chisinau discussed the Roma movement with her, and encouraged her to start a local NGO.

And thus Angela’s civic life was born. Years of trainings, mentoring and advice has made her a genuine civic activist. She became a community mediator for the mayor’s office in Gribova, advising citizens how to solve their problems and interact with authorities. She might help fellow villagers with writing job applications or finding a doctor or other needed services.

In 2018, Angela volunteered for a UNDP-supported voter education campaign for upcoming elections, going door-to-door in Gribova informing people about their rights and encouraging them to “stand up and vote”. The campaign engaged 11,000 Roma, but she noticed there was a disconnect between the Roma people and the candidates.

That was the moment she decided to run.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy path. The Roma community was not active in the voting process, which meant more education about why representation is important.

“I told people it would be beneficial if there was someone from the Roma community to truly represent them in local or district councils, defend their rights,” she says. And there were many people who knew her and her activity at both local and district level.

Despite deeply entrenched biases against Roma and women in positions of authority, “people came forward and as a result we all succeeded. This is perhaps more their merit than mine,” notes Angela.

Last year, 12 Roma women and men — including Angela — were elected local councillors, a record in Moldova. Politics has long been considered a territory less accessible for minority groups and for women. Patriarchal norms make a women’s journey in public space harsher and more scrutinized. And Roma have long suffered discrimination and exclusion. Now Angela has broken both of those barriers.

Despite being new to electoral politics, and wearing two “minority group” hats, Angela Radita was determined to make a change.

As a community mediator, she was often confronted with scarcity of resources in local budgets and motivated to solve these issues from the inside, helping to redistribute local funds.

“The problems I see every day make me want to see what I can do. Hopefully I will make a good change, for both for Roma and non-Roma women. In Moldova, our fates are almost the same,” she concludes. “I want the collaboration and cooperation of all citizens of the community.”

She is already seeing the power of working together. As another local councillor, Aliona Ribac, says, “Together, we women mobilize and the men from the local council listen to us.”

In 2016, Moldova adopted a law requiring that women make up 40 percent of candidates fielded by all political parties. This was enforced in local elections for the first time in 2019, which made a difference. Now, 37 percent of local councillors are women, which is the highest gender representation across the levels of government.

But while 2019 also saw the highest number of elected Roma local councillors, they represented only eight of the 185 districts with discrete Roma communities. There is more work to be done.

“I hope my example will be compelling and in the next elections there will be more of us.”

For her next four years, she plans to develop more social projects together with the local council and mayor’s office. Things like renovating the local park (the only place where children and families can play and relax on weekends, ensuring all children can attend school, and work to create more local jobs through her initiatives.

Angela has made it her mandate to lift up her community, which includes everyone.“I will get involved in social projects that benefit the people. Because everything I do, I do for my village, for my community, for the people who live in this village, regardless of ethnicity”.

UNDP in Moldova is working to improve political participation by women, minorities, and other vulnerable populations through civic education, mentoring and working with the government to find inclusive solutions.

Photos: Ion Buga / UNDP Moldova

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