• Anđela Davić

Roma people in Serbia: The biggest problems — poverty and child marriages

Poverty is one factor that affects a bad position but brings with it many other significant consequences. Poverty and an insufficient amount of money affect the poor integration of Roma in schools, so we have a large number of uneducated but also bad jobs, general living and housing conditions and short life expectancy.

Because Roma are the poorest national community in Serbia, most live in unhygienic settlements without basic elements of infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewage networks. Because of living in extremely poor conditions, the Roma have the shortest life expectancy and infant mortality is three times higher than in other nations. So says Duško Jovanović.

There is a high level of discrimination against the Roma, which is why a large number of members of this population seek asylum in Western countries. Low levels of education and unemployment are the main reasons for the great poverty of the Roma. Unfortunately, living conditions are very difficult because there are still a large number of Roma settlements in Serbia that do not even have drinking water.

Child Rights Monitoring Specialist for UNICEF, Ana Prodanović, states that the poverty rate is highest in the region of Southern and Eastern Serbia.

"In general, poverty is more pronounced in the region of Southern and Eastern Serbia," says Prodanović, "but secondary analyses of MICS data show that poverty among children in Roma settlements is most pronounced in Vojvodina and least pronounced in Šumadija and Western Serbia."

The pandemic has further aggravated the situation for the Roma.

"The closure and restriction of movement has hit the part of the Roma population that collects secondary raw materials as well as musicians, i.e. people who work in catering facilities, and for many Roma, these are the only sources of income from which entire families live," Duško Jovanović said.

Institutions don't see Roma children as the same as majority children

As far as child marriages are concerned, the problem is that they present themselves as a Roma tradition and poverty has a very big impact on marriages in such an early period.

Of course, child marriages are not a Roma tradition and they are not in the Roma culture; they have remained only with the Roma, primarily in poor and rural areas. The economic factor has the biggest influence. They believe that it is a 'must' and that in that way they will help their daughter or son“, believes the member of the Roma Media Service, Biljana Jovanović.

Biljana also adds that the institutions do not see the same Roma children as the majority, and that the formal existence of the law is not enough, but that something must change.

One of the biggest consequences of having child marriages is the health problems that arise due to early sexual intercourse and early motherhood. Although it seems to be a short-term problem, the consequences are being felt many decades later and in future generations.

"This creates a vicious circle of poverty—when a 15-year-old child from a poor family goes to another poor family and gives birth to a child, she cannot finish high school and so she is without the possibility of something better and without the opportunity to give her child a better life," said Biljana Jovanović.

Roma coordinators are means to reach voters

Most Roma families are poor. The example is when we look at the Belgrade settlements and the people who came from Leskovac, who live by mendicancy. Their children cannot go to school or receive social assistance because they do not have a regulated residence status.

"Social assistance helps, but it is not enough. It is necessary for the state to be more involved in helping the Roma", says Biljana.

Duško Jovanović believes that the problem with social assistance is that it is paid for only nine months, followed by a three-month break, which creates big problems for many families, especially the slightly older and sick.

In addition to social assistance, social housing is a big problem, where Roma have to pay around 20,000 dinars for an appartment on a monthly basis, which they can use because they are socially endangered. The question is - how can a socially endangered Roma family pay 20,000 dinars?

There is also a problem with coordinators, people who should represent the Roma community, who should be the link between the Roma community and institutions, but in fact, they are used in most municipalities as a means of reaching voters.

"The coordinator should primarily be a Roma man or woman with a minimum of three years of high school and know the Romani language, but in fact it happens that they are municipal people in the settlement and not people from the settlements in the municipalities. The state says - we gave it to you... Yes, but you did not give us people, our people, who know what hurts us" adds Biljana.

Roma in media: „We are only in black chronicle“

The Association of Local Independent Media "Local Press", of which the Roma Media Service is a member, conducted a survey on media coverage of the Roma population, which showed that Roma were dissatisfied with how the media reported on them.

"Roma are only in the black chronicles—it is very scary when someone from the majority population creates a problem, their nationality is not indicated; and when a similar incident occurs in a Roma settlement or if it is committed by a Roma, a member of the Roma nationality always stands by their name," says Biljana.

Even when they want to show something good, they show it in the wrong way-he/she is a Roma but he/she is successful.

As for television with a national frequency, Biljana points out that she is not satisfied with the time of broadcasting shows on the Roma channel on RTS (Radio Television of Serbia), which is in the early morning hours on weekends, but she still likes it because it is uncensored, unlike other experiences.

"Roma Media Service previously launched a show about Roma on Dunav Television. We were not allowed to say what we wanted, but it is purely project-based and predetermined what we should say," she adds.

Other television stations, however, do not leave room for the Roma community to express itself.

As for the space in the media during the election campaign, Biljana believes that due to inadequate coverage, the majority of the Roma population is not aware that Roma parties participated in the elections.

"We are very numerous and it does not suit other political parties for us to be independent and united because we are their strong political weapon. The dispersion of votes suits them" Biljana points out.

Where to start with solving Roma problems?

There are too many systemic problems with the situation of Roma: poverty, child marriages, illiteracy and scholarship deprivation, poor media coverage, inadequate media coverage, dispersion of votes, discrimination, prejudice, unregulated residence and social housing problems… Where to start with reforms?

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