Take five: “After this pandemic, we will have to work much harder than before to improve Roma women’s lives”


Originally published by UN Women's regional office for Europe and Central Asia

Photo courtesy of Slavica Vasić
Slavica Vasic. Photo courtesy of Slavica Vasić

Slavica Vasić is the chair and one of the founders of BIBIJA Roma Women's Centre in Serbia, a partner of the EU-UN Women regional programme “Ending violence against women in the Western Balkans and Turkey: Implementing Norms, Changing Mind”. She spoke to UN Women about the impact of COVID-19 on Roma women and girls and vulnerable groups in Serbia and in the region, and how the lives of many women will change after the outbreak.

What is the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak among women, especially Roma women and girls?

Violence against women and children during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased, including in Roma settlements, where three generations live together in a single room. We are trying to support women by talking to them every day, telling them who they can refer to, and providing them with psychological and legal support. Self-isolation during lockdown enables abusers to assert greater control and revert to violence, and prevents women from contacting support services and institutions that provide protection.

What are the specific challenges Roma women and girls face during COVID-19?

Many Roma, including Roma women, do not have the necessary knowledge about what they need to do during the state of emergency declared in the Republic of Serbia. It is difficult for many of them to access timely and accurate information. In Serbia, 25,000 Roma people live in informal settlements without adequate living conditions, including access to running and clean water. They are often confined to overcrowded conditions with many family members living in a small space where it is impossible to effectively implement isolation measures. So, this population is particularly vulnerable and women and children, especially young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, are the most vulnerable.

Vulnerable groups, including Roma families living in informal settlements, need to be able to access health-care and other support services available to all citizens of Serbia during this period. They need to have timely and accurate information on what their rights are and how they can exercise these rights. But they are not able to obtain such information, and we believe that certain services that were previously available to them are now not sufficiently at their disposal. 

What was your immediate response to the current crisis in addressing women’s needs?

From the very beginning of this crisis, with support from various donors, we have been trying to provide hygiene and food packages for Roma people living in non-hygienic settlements. We believe that all resources at this time should be directed to this activity as Roma people live in unhygienic conditions, lacking access to water, electricity, and food. This will be our priority in the next few months. We also aim to support women in enrolling their children in pre-school, primary and secondary education.

How did COVID-19 influence your work and how did you adapt to the changing context?

We had to reduce our activities on the ground during the pandemic [due to the state of emergency]. But we know that Roma women need help, so we set up a call center to support them with their questions and needs related to the pandemic. Women call us every day because they face many problems, from poverty and inadequate living conditions to domestic violence. Women who do not have a phone credit to make a call can send us a text message, and we call them and answer all their questions. We also try to support Roma communities through online consultations we organize for the settlements. In crisis situations, violence against women and children in the settlements increase. So, we are trying to help as much as we can in this situation.

How do you think this pandemic will have an impact on Roma women and girls in the future?

This pandemic affects everyone all over the world, but like any other disaster, we know that after the pandemic, the poorest will be even poorer. We know that discrimination and violence against women, especially women from vulnerable groups, will increase, and that we will have to work much harder than before to improve women’s lives. Prior to this crisis it was bad, but now it will be even worse. Our message to Roma women and girls is to stay at home, if they have one, and to take care of their health and the health of their loved ones. They need to be as strong as they can and cope with this situation. We urge all Roma women, and women from other groups, to report violence.