"My girl is not for sale": Escaping child marriage in Moldova

A Roma family challenges cultural norms by refusing a reparatory marriage. In their community, school drop-out rate is a staggering record 58 per cent, mainly driven by child/early marriages, unplanned pregnancies and childcare responsibilities.

Date: Thursday, October 6, 2016

Half the Roma girls in Moldova receive no schooling, only 20 per cent complete primary school, another 20 per cent finish a gymnasium, and only 10 per cent graduate from high school or university. UN Women Moldova is working through various partners, including with the media to increase the visibility of positive role models from the Roma community. Photo: UN Women Programme ‘Women in Politics’/Dorin Goian
Half the Roma girls in Moldova receive no schooling, only 20 per cent complete primary school, and only 10 per cent graduate from high school or university. UN Women Moldova is working through various partners, including with the media to increase the visibility of positive role models from the Roma community. Photo: UN Women Programme ‘Women in Politics’/Dorin Goian

Svetlana*, 12, was walking home from school when a 17-year-old boy—a distant relative who visited her home sometimes—insisted to give her a lift in his car. After that day, her mother Nona* would often find her crying. It wasn’t until Svetlana’s family took her to a doctor, that they realized the 12-year-old had been raped.

"It hurts me that she could not trust me enough to come and tell me immediately. This is a tragedy for our family and there is no way we can undo it,” says Nona. Svetlana belongs to a Roma family. The unwritten rules of their community say that no other Roma man will marry her.

Local community traditions dictated that Svetlana describe her rape to a group of local women in excruciating detail. Then the Romani Criss—the Roma tribunal—listened to both parties. It was not until Svetlana’s family threatened to report to the police, that the perpetrator finally admitted his guilt. The tribunal sentenced him to either marry Svetlana or pay a sum of money to her family for having stolen her virginity.

“We could not accept the money,” said Nona “My girl is not for sale. But neither could we have her marry at 12. What about her childhood, her dreams? What was the chance that such a marriage would last? Our decision took the community by surprise, but we knew that what she needed most was for us to stand by her and let her stay with her family, surrounded by our love.”

Svetlana’s family decided against reporting the crime to the police to protect Svetlana from further psychological stress, but unlike many other Roma girls, Svetlana continued going to school. Her teachers helped her in her healing process and encouraged her to continue her education. “We are now much closer than we used to be,” says Nona. “She wants to go to university one day, and we’ll support her. I know we took the right decision by refusing the reparatory marriage and her entire life will be better because of it. She will study, she will have a job. She will be happy.”

Roma women and girls are among the most disadvantaged groups in Moldova, discriminated both on the basis of their ethnicity and gender. UN Women’s programme, “Women in Politics” has focused on increasing their political representation in city councils. Photo: UN Women Programme ‘Women in Politics’/Dorin Goian
Roma women and girls are among the most disadvantaged groups in Moldova, discriminated both on the basis of their ethnicity and gender. UN Women’s programme, “Women in Politics” has focused on increasing their political representation in city councils. Photo: UN Women Programme ‘Women in Politics’/Dorin Goian

Roma girls in Moldova spend on average less than four years in school, compared to 11 years for non-Roma girls. Due to child and early marriages, unplanned pregnancies and childcare responsibilities, the rate of school drop-out among Roma girls is one of the highest in the region—a record 56 per cent (compared with 16 per cent for non-Roma girls) [1].

Data and analyses on the issues that Roma women are facing in Moldova has so far been fragmented. To fill the gap, UN Women, UNDP and the National Statistical Office have recently compiled a “Statistical Profile of Roma Women and Girls” [2]. The data and stories, such as those of Svetlana, collected through the initiative will inform future policies and actions.

"Violence against women is endemic in Moldova, and in cases like Svetlana's it’s a double curse: rape followed by a forced marriage," says Corneliu Eftodi, National Programme Officer at UN Women Moldova. “UN Women is working with Roma women to help them overcome their experience of violence and become role models who can support other women in their communities.”

With grants from UN Women, civil society partners across Moldova are piloting new approaches to end violence against women and girls, from championing role models to facilitating justice for child survivors and working with young men, police officers and religious leaders to prevent domestic violence. UN Women is also supporting Roma women’s political activism. Until recently virtually excluded from political representation, in 2015 the first two Roma women were elected into city councils.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals concerned.

Notes

[1] UNDP/WB/EC Regional Roma Survey, 2011.

[2] UNDP, UN Women (2016). Profilul femeilor şi fetelor rome/Viorica Toartă; Biroul Național de Statistica,– Chişinău, p. 44.