“Bela Osztojkan, who was a Roma leader, called me the first Gypsy feminist for standing up for the rights of Roma women. He did not mean it as a compliment.”
Ilona Zambo was raised in the town of Hajdúnánás on the eastern border of Hungary. She comes from an educated family and went to school in Debrecen, which meant that her Roma background was quite different from the experience that other Roma women had growing up in a more traditional community. One major factor that Ilona was spared was the severe discrimination of Roma women, which she encountered later on, when she moved to Budapest.
When moving to the capital, Ilona first started to struggle with discriminating attitudes on a personal level. Both she and her husband both had college degrees in restaurant management, but when they sent an application for running an establishment, it was denied, and another, less qualified, candidate got approved instead.
“There was a “glass ceiling” for us economically. They allowed us to prosper to a certain degree, but then the local Party leadership put a stop to it. They let us achieve only mediocre success…”
Following this episode, Ilona notified the local Communist Party office as well as a journalist from Budapest and told them, how she and her husband had been disqualified on basis of their ethnic background. Her quest for justice was successful, as they received the license to run their establishment three days later.
Years later, in her job as an accountant for a Roma non-profit organisation, she got proper insight into Roma public life and began noticing the scope of discrimination of Roma people in general, but especially Roma women – who were also discriminated within their own environment. She saw how some of the men working at the NGO dominated their households, keeping everything in line according to the traditional Roma expectations, while still seeing other women.
“Women are the lowest in the family hierarchy. After they get married they are only allowed to do what their husband allows them. Women have to endure infidelity, physical and emotional abuse, humiliation. Violence against women is widespread.”
The job with the Roma NGO also provided Ilona with a feel for running a non-profit organisation. After meeting other Roma mothers, through her son’s dance classes, who, unlike Ilona, were caught up in the restrictive family patterns of the Roma norms, she took the initial steps towards advocating for bettering the conditions of Roma women by starting The Gypsy Mother’s Association.. She was surprised to learn about the pressure that these women experienced and her immediate thought was ‘why not gather them together and form a Roma women’s association?’ At the time, several Roma organisations were being formed, but Ilona recognised that none of them accommodated the women’s cause.
While continuing her work as an accountant, Ilona worked tirelessly on advocating for the Roma women’s cause, bringing their issues to the Hungarian parliament, EU-institutions, and to the ’95 World Conference on Women in Beijing. “If I look back, I think our organization covered a lot of ground by taking small steps. We began very naively and ended up contributing to the UN CEDAW report on women…”. She also managed to set up summer camps, where some of the educated Roma girls could connect with their less fortunate peers – a connection which the more educated girls previously had been reluctant to engage in. She also helped refer some of the girls to the AFSC Roma youth program and went around the countryside to educate young girls about their options to apply for scholarships.
Nevertheless, her organisation was repeatedly met with resistance. For instance, when they reached out to the Roma Parliament, wanting the women’s organisation to become part of a larger umbrella network, they were given the message that they were not welcome. However, Ilona concludes that her organisation’s “accomplishments (…) made it worthwhile, even if we had negative experiences along with the positive.”
By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern