From where I stand: “The more Roma women are visible, the more impact they have on society as a whole”
Christina Bilous is a Roma civic activist. She is also leader of a Self-Help Group in the community of Toretsk, near the frontline in the conflict-affected Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine. As an active community member, Bilous heads up the Roma non-governmental organization, Sumnakuno Petalo, advocating for the rights of Roma women and girls.
Roma women and girls often don’t have equal opportunities to meaningfully participate in the social, economic and public life of their community. Violence against Roma women and girls, economic dependency and discrimination are the major obstacles encountered by Roma women. We need to raise awareness on the issues faced by Roma women and girls and involve public authorities, law enforcement and health experts in designing and implementing locally owned solutions. We should make the contributions of Roma women visible and ensure that they are recognized as agents of change in their communities. This is because their contributions to local development are benefiting not only the Roma community but the whole society.
Bias and negative stereotypes about the Roma are deeply rooted in Ukrainian society. The main goal of my work is to dismantle these stereotypes and combat social exclusion, discrimination, and violence against the Roma. As the old saying goes: “knock and the door will open.”
Two years ago, with support from UN Women, I established a self-help group in my community. We already have some important and tangible results stemming from our active participation in the local decision-making processes. I am a member of the Community Security Working Group, which is a dialogue platform with the local public authorities. In this capacity I had the opportunity to raise the issues faced by the Roma women in Toretsk and draw the attention of public authorities to the inequalities they experienced.
To ensure access to services and contribute to the social inclusion of the Roma, last year I implemented a literacy programme for them. More than thirty Roma women and men learned the Ukrainian alphabet and basic arithmetic in this classes. Jointly, with other members of the Self-Help Group, I also advocated for the adoption of the Safe Cities and Public Spaces for Women and Girls programme in Toretsk. Now Toretsk is one of the four cities in Ukraine that adopted this programme based on the UN Women methodology.
I am convinced that to address the issues faced by Roma women and girls in our community there is a need to include more Roma women in local decision-making processes, giving them a stronger voice and a seat at the table where the major local development decisions are taken.”
Together with her organization, Christina Bilous actively contributes to improving the lives of Roma people in her conflict-affected community, including by running a literacy class. Jointly, with other women at the grassroots level, she has advocated for the adoption of the Safe Cities and Public Spaces for Women and Girls programme in Toretsk. This initiative is aimed at preventing and combating sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women and girls in public spaces and is implemented under the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme (UN RPP). This programme is implemented by four UN agencies, UNDP, UN Women, UNFPA and FAO. Thirteen international partners support the Programme including the EU, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the US Embassy in Ukraine, and the governments of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.