Migrant and Roma women in the Czech Republic and other parts of Europe face economic and social inequalities and live in a position particularly vulnerable to violence and discrimination. Compared to most women in the Czech society, these women are often at higher risk of social exclusion, live under worse material conditions, and have a lower quality of life. The problems of these women are often overlooked, which is why the Invisible Power coalition, with the support of the German EVZ Foundation, was founded—to give these women space to be seen and heard. The coalition represents a collaborative effort of the Czech Women’s Lobby (CWL) and its member organizations Association for Integration and Migration (SIMI) and SLOVO 21, under which the Roma women’s group Manushe operates.
“As member organizations of CWL, we have long dealt with the fact that women from disadvantaged groups, such as Roma and migrant women, are not very visible or heard even among women from the feminist movement. And so, we were looking for opportunities to raise more awareness of the issues these women face. (…) One of the goals of the project was to involve Roma and migrant women in working groups within CWL that would cover various areas, such as obstetrics, violence against women, or women and the economy. It is into these very areas that we try to bring the views and perspectives of these women—migrant and Roma women,” says Eva Čech Valentová, the project coordinator for SIMI, in an interview with the editor Goranka Oljača during the show Us and Them, broadcast on the Czech Radio Region (recording from 05.09.2020).
The Invisible Power focused on two levels of support for Roma and migrant women. The first was to involve these women in a network of women’s rights organizations and to strengthen mutual solidarity also between women from disadvantaged groups. Secondly, we wanted to raise public awareness of the situation these groups of women find themselves in. Another equally important goal was to strengthen the self-esteem of these women through self-expression, especially by means of storytelling during events organized for the general public, writing articles about their stories, and participating in public debates.
As the first step to make the voice of disadvantaged women more visible, it was necessary to help them overcome their fear of public speaking and remove often great barriers when it came to sharing their attitudes and opinions. They improved their communication and presentation skills through storytelling workshops. “For migrant women, it was about creating the structure of the story or communicating with the listeners and, in general, the ability to pass the story on to other people," says Marie Leopoldová, the event coordinator for SIMI, during the show Us and Them, broadcast on Czech Radio Region (recording from 22.02.2020). While migrant women often suffer from low self-esteem due to fears of their Czech being imperfect, the experience of Roma women is different, as Claudia Laburdová, the coordinator of the women’s Roma group Manushe, reveals:
“What I enjoy about my work is that I can meet women who have increased their self-esteem during their time in the women’s group (…). But you have to look at Roma women with open eyes and not compare. Because right next to women who have low self-esteem and come from socially excluded families, there are also women who are educated and filled to the brim with self-esteem.”
The project provided women without self-esteem with space for self-expression and made it possible for Roma and migrant women to be seen and heard at 4 public events, 5 thematic meetings, 3 networking meetings, and 1 conference, alongside other media outputs and networking meetings. A total of 34 migrant women and 148 Roma women took part in these activities.
In addition to supporting disadvantaged women, the coalition had another goal, namely to interconnect and develop collaboration between organizations that have long been dealing with the topic of supporting marginalized groups of women. During the project, we were looking for both common and contrasting themes and were enriching each other with experiences with these groups of women during joint interdisciplinary meetings, which gave us a more comprehensive insight into their specific situations. One of these meetings was devoted to the evaluation of our collaboration within the coalition, which on the one hand gave us new ideas on how to further improve the situation of these women, and on the other hand, laid the foundations of a strategy for further collaboration of partner organizations. It was especially important to look back at the project in the form of a SWOT analysis, which summarizes a critical assessment of successes, failures, risks, and opportunities. This was later followed by activity planning during ongoing joint projects, implemented with the support of the U.S. Embassy in the Czech Republic and the British Embassy in Prague.
And what are the biggest accomplishments that all coalition partners have agreed on? Mainly the participation of women from marginalized groups in organized events, workshops, and conferences, along with their active involvement and courage to present their stories in front of the general public (e.g., publicized stories of the migrant women Busra, Zulfyia and Natalia). This shows us that the project Invisible Power managed to provide these women with a safe environment for their expression, opinions, and stories, and helped them to increase the self-esteem necessary for public speaking. For women from disadvantaged groups, public speaking is far from easy, as Sabina Badžová, the coordinator of public events for Manushe / Slovo 21, points out in an interview with Goranka Oljača (recording from 05.09.2020).
“These women possess their own inner power that isn’t being seen and opinions and problems that aren’t being heard. Roma women do have an interest in getting to know themselves. They often lack the appropriate conditions to express themselves or the confidence to do so. We try to give them support, to reassure them that they can speak up. They usually have little faith in themselves. Society often doesn’t give both Roma and migrant women the opportunity to express themselves without criticizing them.”
The project allowed the involved Roma and migrant women to themselves become the actors of change. Through their stories, they brought their real-life experiences, as well as new ways of solving their problems, into the public debate, while also defining obstacles and needs. In doing so, these women helped to raise public awareness, for instance, of the issue of violence against women and of providing support to victims, which they addressed during a separate panel at a conference entitled “Together Without Violence”. Similarly, during a joint online debate named "My Body, My Choice”, which took place in Czech with an English translation, they addressed their problems in the field of obstetrics and reproductive rights. We also didn’t forget about the issues regarding the difficult situation during the pandemic. We organized online debates during which we addressed the topic of the effects of quarantine on disadvantaged groups of women and discussed the effects of the pandemic on migrant women in the labor market. As of now, more outputs have been produced, such as an interview with anthropologist Petra Ezzedine regarding the situation of carers during quarantine, an article by Rena Horvátová on the situation of Roma women in localities and their involvement in the fight against the pandemic, or What unites Roma and migrant women?—recording from Czech Radio Region from 08.08.2020, and much more.
Among other benefits of the project belong new ties between migrant and Roma women, as well as connecting organizations, both Czech and international, in order to jointly defend the rights of marginalized groups of women, make their stories visible, and strengthen mutual solidarity, particularly through networking meetings. These meetings provided room especially for informal dialogue and for getting to know each other through the experiences of these women’s daily lives. These events also included a joint picnic, which was successfully organized in person.
The collaboration which focused on the visibility of life stories accompanied the actors throughout the project, helped to identify common themes, and through various activities strengthened the interest of the general public in them. As an example, we can note two exhibitions, which through stories highlight the inner (invisible) power of Roma and migrant women—a power that drives these women to overcome difficult life situations. Both exhibitions (Women Without Borders, Invisible Power) thus compel the general public to look at these two groups of women from a different perspective and break down the stereotypes attached to them.
It is no wonder that the organizations involved in the coalition have decided to carry on with their ongoing activities, with the support of the American and British embassies, thanks to which the collaboration has once again moved a bit further. Collaboration with the U.S. Embassy helped the coalition with the implementation of the “My Body, My Choice” debate as well as with the preparation of a shadow report to the CEDAW international convention, to which other CWL member organizations operating outside the Invisible Force coalition also contributed. Thanks to the British Embassy, experiences and examples of good practice are going to be shared with similarly focused organizations from the United Kingdom that organize activities for Roma or migrant women. This will, on the one hand, enable the creation of new media articles that will bring international comparisons and insights into the situation of migrant and Roma women, and on the other hand, enable the establishment of foreign collaboration in this area. In March 2021, on the occasion of International Women’s Day (March 8th), we will conclude our collaboration with a joint online picnic, during which we’re going to discuss our collective accomplishments with the involved women and encourage each other to overcome the difficulties of the endless measures against COVID-19.
Come and join us to share your experiences and listen to the stories of other women. Sharing inspires and empowers.
Recording from the radio show Us and Them, Czech Radio Region (20.02.2020)
Recording from the radio show Us and Them, Czech Radio Region (08.08.2020)
Recording from the radio show Us and Them, Czech Radio Region (05.09.2020)
Without Wrinkles blog
This article was created as a result of an evaluation meeting on the project Invisible Power Rises, supported by a grant from the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Prague.