Challenging closed and patriarchal societies
Rromnjako Ilo (A Roma Woman’s Heart) fights homophobia, patriarchy, racism, and the invisibilisation of LBQ Roma women in a closed, patriarchal society. Twelve years ago, LBQ Roma activists, empowered by the emergence of feminist movements in Serbia and the social changes they were witnessing, founded Rromnjako Ilo.
Today, the group remains the only organisation serving LBQ Roma women in Serbia. Working intersectionally and recognising the impact of gender, sexuality, class, race, and disability, Rromnjako Ilo builds support, both within the Roma community and the larger society, for Roma women’s bodily rights.
The group also raises awareness about the violence and discrimination that Roma women face within their communities and in the larger society. For instance, even the non-Roma lesbian movement in Serbia tends to ignore the experiences of queer Roma women.
Women within Roma communities often experience sexual abuse and are frequently sold into marriage at 12 or 13 years of age. Working in Roma settlements, Rromnjako Ilo has begun to work collaboratively with other organisations to introduce therapeutic counseling and legal aid for Roma LBQ women. These services are often an entry point for the group’s more long-term work to shift social norms. Their peer support workshops and counselling also contribute to building a community for LBQ people who often have no other safe place to be themselves. This has created access to resources for many LBQ women, bringing visibility to their needs. However, it has also forced Rromnjako Ilo to disguise their identity as an LBQ organisation in court proceedings to ensure, to the extent possible, that LBQ women can pursue divorce or custody claims without encountering discrimination.
Using a feminist disability lens, Rromnjako Ilo works holistically to support all Roma LBQ women, including those with disabilities. In building awareness of diverse sexualities and disabilities among Roma women, they support women in the community to recognise and name their multiple identities. Supported by Rromnjako Ilo, many Roma women realise for the first time that they have a right to make decisions about their bodies and to claim any sexual identity they wish to. Their advocacy against early and forced marriage, imposed heterosexuality, and sexual abuse, as well as their efforts to increase the visibility of LBQ Roma women, underscore the group’s holistic approach. As a member of the group says:
“We have established new norms about sexuality in a closed society. We are breaking taboos.”
This is inherently risky work. Their community-based activism and resulting visibility have led to physical attacks, threats to burn their office, and repeated hacking of the group’s website, all of which have forced them to flee their office space and develop countermeasures to ensure their safety.
Since its inception, Rromnjako Ilo has struggled to find consistent long-term funding. LGBTQI rights gains within the Balkans (for example, more tolerance of Pride parades and recognition of same-sex relationships in Croatia) have led many bilateral donors to stop funding without recognising that gains have not been consistent throughout the region and that in countries like Serbia, women still lack economic and bodily rights.
Working at the intersections of identities also raises fundraising challenges. For example, if the group tries to access funding for Roma communities and discusses their work with LBQ women, they are told to apply for LBQ-specific funding by donors. Similarly, if they apply for LGBTQI funding and speak of working in the Roma community, they are told to apply for funding for Roma people or ethnic minorities. Rromnjako Ilo struggles to resource their direct service work to build knowledge and self-esteem among Roma women, and they also have difficulty raising funds for the digital and physical security of staff.