Zola Kondur is a human rights activist, Vice-President of the Chiricli Roma Women Foundation, UNDP Tolerance Envoy; She has worked for the Council of Europe since 2018. Photo credits: Kseniya Kravtsova and Vladyslav Nechyporenko

The Constitution of Ukraine guarantees all citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin, equal political, social, economic and cultural rights and freedoms, and supports the development of national identity and self-expression.

In 2013, the National Roma Strategy was adopted to ensure conditions are put in place to protect and integrate the Roma minority in Ukrainian society.

I am from a traditional Roma family, but my parents have always been quite progressive. I received a good education, and my voice has been listened to since I was a child.

When the law on NGOs was adopted in the early 1990s, my father immediately registered one of the first Roma NGOs in Ukraine. At that time, I was studying at university, but I was already helping my father to print documents, write letters and organize events.

We fought for the right of Roma to receive a quality education, adequate housing, employment, social services and healthcare, and looked for ways to counter discrimination. Today, about 120 Roma organizations are registered in Ukraine, but none of the issues above has been fully addressed.

In 2016, a terrible tragedy happened in the village of Loshchynivka in Odesa oblast: a man killed an eight-year-old girl. The man appeared to be half Roma, so the local residents, together with the village council, decided to expel a dozen Roma families from the village. These families lost their homes, they were abused, and their children will never forget the horror and humiliation. In 2018, Roma camps were attacked. To date, no one has been punished. Dozens of families lost their homes, and the government and society just forgot about it.

We provide training on overcoming stereotypes and negative attitudes towards Roma for teachers, doctors, police officers, social workers and journalists. For example, it is important to know that Roma can have two names. The first is used inside the community, and the second is on the passport. Oftentimes, there are conflicts: social workers or the police officers say, “He fooled me, he said his name was Vasia, but in his passport his name is Petia.” But this is not a deceit, a person has two names and that is absolutely fine for Roma people.

It is important to understand that Roma traditions developed during nomadic life. There was a high infant mortality rate back then. It was true happiness when two or three children out of ten survived. That is why many Roma families keep giving birth to many children.

The wedding tradition also developed at that time. And to this day, the traditional Roma family does not consider it necessary to register a marriage, but they always carry out the ancient rite before God.

Many Roma children do not have birth certificates because their parents do not have passports. And without documents, they are not admitted to kindergartens or schools, they are not let into hospital, they cannot get jobs, and so on. There are Roma legal centres providing advisory services. There is a mechanism for obtaining passports, but it is complicated and can take up to two years: We are working to simplify it.

We have a system of mediators who act as a bridge between state institutions and Roma families and communities. Mediators help collect documents and write requests. Sometimes, ambulance operators ignore calls from Roma camps, then people call a mediator who helps ensure that an ambulance comes, and sometimes they have to contact the (Health) Ministry for this.

We strive for equal access to quality education for all children. We conduct training for teachers to overcome stereotypical negative attitudes towards Roma children, and we work with Roma families to explain the importance of education for their children. Often, Roma children do not attend kindergarten, and thus they fall behind their peers at school. Teachers find it more difficult to work with Roma children, and other parents do not want Roma in the classroom with their children. But it is absurd at first to expel Roma children from schools and then to complain that they are not educated.

Conversely, successful Roma often hide their nationality in order to avoid prejudice. I know such a boy, a student at Shevchenko University. He only started attending our events and telling his classmates that he was a Roma in his last years of study.

I understand the anger of people who had been pickpocketed once on the street. I understand that they are very aggrieved, they remember this incident all their lives. Indeed, there are people who do such things, we cannot but admit it. Every time I go to the subway I always look at my bag, because I know that many people could steal my stuff in the subway. But you can see that Roma do not pick pockets in the subway: these are people from other ethnic groups that you never think about.

I would like people to understand that Roma are just more visible on the street. Yes, there are Roma who do this. But first, we can never say that only Roma do it. Secondly, we have to understand why they do it. Often, they have no other choice. Nobody employs them, they have no education, they cannot live in another way. I think these problems have to be addressed.

According to our survey, only 37 percent of Roma have official jobs.

It is extremely important to give people a chance, to show that they can earn money differently. It doesn't always work out, but we don't stop trying. Seven years ago, I was asked to hire a Roma woman who had been released from prison for theft. She has worked with us since then; she is extremely committed to her work and says that over the years the mind-set of her family has changed completely, because they never understood or knew and did not believe they could earn a living by lawful means.

Our ambitious goal is the full inclusion of Roma in all areas of life in the country. For this, political will is not enough, it requires fundamental understanding and acceptance of the value of human rights in society. There is a long way to go. But there are successful examples from other countries: for instance, in Finland, Romani has been recognized as one of the official languages.

Another issue is traditional early marriages. Girls are married at the age of 13-15, and often afterwards they drop out of school. We have programmes for girls, we do our best to persuade them to continue their education.

In 2004, my mother founded the Chiricli Roma Women Foundation to uphold not only her own rights but also the rights of all Roma women. Today, more girls are receiving a higher education, representing the interests of their communities, and working in decision-making positions.

The value of family unites all Roma. For us – family is the top priority. Then comes the cult of children, respect for elderly people, and the sense of community. My favourite holiday is Christmas, because all the family comes together. We live in different parts of Ukraine and this holiday is a reason to take a pause at work and meet everyone. Besides, on this day my mother celebrates her birthday – that is why this day is so special. We always keep in touch, call each other every day, and even have a joint “Family” chat in Messenger, and every day there are around a hundred messages sent there. Roma people value the family the most – that is why keeping in touch, asking what’s going on in the life of your family members and supporting each other are on the to-do list every day.

I can fight for human rights, for women’s rights, go on the march for equality and at the same time be a devoted mother, a wife, a Roma woman. I do not see any dissonance here; these are things that can be combined and are absolutely in harmony with each other. 

Background

On Human Rights Day on 9 December 2019, UNDP launched the “Just Like You” photo exhibition in Kyiv. It tells the stories of 10 Ukrainians who took up the challenge of protecting human rights. “Just Like You” is a joint initiative of Real Stories Production and “Human Rights For Ukraine” project, which is being implemented by UNDP in Ukraine and financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.

Icon of SDG 10 Icon of SDG 16

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Ukraine 
Go to UNDP Global