Growing up as a Roma girl from a low socio-economic background to later become a human rights advocate
By Simona Gamonte, ESU’s Human Rights and Solidarity Coordinator
On this [and any other] day, we must allow the voice of all women to be heard, especially the voice of women from minority backgrounds and who usually face intersectional discrimination. On this day I would like to give a voice to the child inside of me, a child that grew up feeling ashamed and embarrassed for being a poor Roma from the rural area of Romania. If I am to celebrate the woman I am today and my achievements, I must recognize and acknowledge my past. It is ironic to think that up until a couple of years ago, I still kept the memory of my childhood somewhere blocked because I didn’t want to remember the experience of growing up in a house where we didn’t have windows, a house in which the mice were quite settled and comfy, or of our new one-room house, where I was sleeping in the same room with my parents and 2 siblings and where the kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom where one and the same room.
I have never had the courage to share these stories to any of my friends because I didn’t want them to define me. I also didn’t want to be another “poor Roma” with the typical life story that we usually see in the media and which represents the general perception of Roma in the Romanian society. I felt ashamed of where I was living and for lacking a similar social status than that of my classmates. I was terrified that my classmates will one day find out about the living conditions that I had and that I was basically ‘poor’ and that I have lied to them by hiding who I was. That was my reality until the 5th grade, a reality that I have managed to hide in the outside world, or at least that’s what I thought. That reality of the living conditions is not applicable anymore and all I can say is that I have amazing parents who have first and foremost encouraged us to study and have made sacrifices so that I and my siblings would never have to go through the same struggles they did when growing up.
I am not sharing my experiences to seek pity, but to show the trauma that such experience can bring to a child who does not understand how social injustice works and why it even exists, how it is embedded in racism and that it is nobody’s fault for being born poor. My story also reflects why it is important to use an intersectional approach in feminism, activism, or when talking about inclusive education. I am also sharing my story to celebrate my parents and their strength for raising 3 children in harsh conditions and who, against all the odds, have graduated university.
Me and my siblings are among the first [if not the only] ones who have graduated university in my family. I am aware that I am a happy case and that, even though I grew up experiencing poverty, I became to be a privileged Roma woman who is highly educated and who got to experience studying and working abroad, speaking English fluently, traveling to different countries to share my knowledge and meeting great people along the way, and who has few years of professional experience in human rights advocacy.
My story demonstrates why education must be as open, inclusive and as barrier free as possible since I would probably never have reached so far in my studies and in my career if it wasn’t for the support of my parents, my teachers, and the existence of different affirmative actions and programs’ opportunities within Higher Education – programs that I probably would not have been able to afford otherwise. It was also a matter of how much encouragement I received from my teachers who saw a potential in me and did not put me down or discourage me from studying just because I was Roma – experiences that sadly are very common among many Roma pupils and students. Such attitudes destroy the self-esteem of those who already have a low self-esteem if they grew up lacking their basic needs.
On this 8th of March, I celebrate myself, my mother, my sister, my Romani friends and all the Romani women out there who are strong and powerful in their existence. I celebrate those who understand the struggle of living under harsh circumstances and who still manage to keep a positive attitude towards themselves and their families, succeeding in raising beautiful human beings… I also celebrate those women who have helped me and believed in me and have had a positive impact in my life.
Simona Gamonte, ESU’s Human Rights and Solidarity Coordinator, has one Erasmus Mundus MA in Gender and Women studies, one MA in Politics, Gender and Minorities studies, and one BA in Political Science. She has 3 years’ work experience at Central European University – Human RightS Initiative. In 2015, Simona was appointed the Humanitarian Aid Coordinator for the Refugee Task Force Team at Central European University and was awarded at the Romani Gala Women – Human Rights Activism category – 2015 edition.