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12. May 2022 - News

Serbia: Away from the patriarchal tradition

More than 58 per cent of Romani women in Serbia are married before their 18th birthday. Roma Novi Bećej (ARNB) is a partner organisation of medica mondiale who is working against these forced and early marriages. Their employees are frequently the target of hostilities and discrimination.

Campaign flyer from ARNB against child marriage
ARNB is running a campaign to draw attention to the problem of early marriages. Society as a whole needs to become aware of the issues around this patriarchal practice.

From the age of six she was harassed by her father, and when she was twelve he raped her for the first time. Reporting him to the police just ended up with him being released. Now 17, she fled to her cousin’s house, but they did not get along well and she was prevented from going out to meet other people.

Stories such as this, full of violence, are commonplace at Roma Novi Bećej (ARNB) – they show how women and girls are often left alone with very little support.

Roma Novi Bećej raises awareness of sexualised violence and patriarchal practices

ARNB operates an emergency hotline in three languages. Those in need of help can call or make contact via a chat service. As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, the number of calls went up. For more than a year, ARNB received calls for help almost every day. Many of the women calling were under 18. ARNB is working to prevent sexualised violence, domestic violence and child marriages. Their goal is to change the perception of under-age marriage, which is viewed as a Roma tradition: it should instead be seen as a patriarchal practice.

Political work: Against child marriage and the discrimination of Roma women

The organisation is networking with government authorities, seeking interventions against early marriage – which sometimes even affects 12-year-old girls. They raise awareness – but often have to defend themselves against disparagement and scorn. In Serbia, Roma are often discriminated against or treated with a lack of respect.

ARNB is trying to change this culture. The organisation operates crisis centres for women affected by sexualised violence and rape, and its staff members also provide practical assistance to young Roma women. It also conducts advocacy work with institutions, to try and influence the laws. This connection between practical experience and political work is rare, but extremely important – especially in this case.

“We frequently encounter resistance from society to our work against child marriage: verbal threats from male community leaders, fathers who do not allow their daughters to attend our events, and more,”

says Danica Jovanović, Director of the organisation.

“We have to increase our efforts to reach our target group, and the pandemic has not made things any easier. We are also the target of attacks because we are openly feminist and expressly include lesbian and queer Roma in our target groups.”

Legal advice, public awareness work and psychosocial support for women and girls affected by violence

In this way, ARNB is working practically to assert the rights of Roma women. As part of their legal advice provision they accompany girls to court, file legal claims, and offer psychotherapy. However, a large part of their work is simply about raising awareness. Young clients need to understand that early marriage is problematic, and the consequences it can have on their lives.

Luckily, cases such as the 17-year-old girl who was harassed and raped by her father sometimes do change in a positive way. Thanks to support from ARNB, the girl was able to leave her parents and live with her uncle, who had noticed that something was wrong. She received psychological help and can now find hope again.

Appeared in memo 2022/1 (german)