Romnja and  Institutional violence

This text discusses gender-based violence, focusing on institutional violence against Romani women in Serbia. It highlights alarming statistics, including coerced sterilizations, and details instances of obstetric violence in a Serbian maternity hospital. Romani women face verbal abuse and segregation during childbirth, leading some to forgo having children due to traumatic experiences. The text emphasizes the need for a comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach to address gender-based violence, involving healthcare, protection, and psychosocial support.


Milena Reljic

11/25/20233 min read

The term gender-based violence is used to distinguish common violence from the violence that targets individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of their gender, sex, sexual characteristics, gender identity/expression, and sexual orientation or perceived gender, sex, and gender identity. Gender-based violence can take many forms and ranges from its most widespread manifestation, intimate partner violence, to acts of violence carried out in online spaces and state institutions. These different forms of gender-based violence are not mutually exclusive and multiple incidences of violence can be happening at once and reinforcing each other. Inequalities experienced by a person related to their race, (dis)ability, age, social class, religion, and sexuality can also drive acts of violence. This means that while people face violence and discrimination based on their gender, some experience multiple and interlocking forms of violence.

According to a UN women's report, in Serbia, 92% of Roma women have experienced some type of physical or sexual violence since the age of 18. In this paper, I will focus on Institutional gender-based violence.

Romani women face significant discrimination and inequalities in accessing state services, including health, education, employment, and housing. Their limited access to services, information, health, and care, significantly affects their rights in building healthy sexualities and negotiating equality and respect in their relationships. In the past years, Romani women have also been victims of coercive/forced sterilizations in some EU countries (particularly the Czech Republic and Slovakia) as a widespread governmental practice. These sterilizations were performed without the knowledge of the women themselves, during Caesarean sections or abortions.

Nis, September 2022: The maternity hospital in Nis is at the top in terms of reports from women who have experienced obstetric violence. Women's testimonies showed that obstetric violence in Serbia is widespread and brutal, that they experienced as many as 16 types of violence during childbirth, and the Clinic for Gynecology and Obstetrics of the University Hospital of Niš was among the maternity hospitals with the most such reports.

The report showed that women during childbirth most often experience verbal violence: insults, cursing, humiliation, yelling, calling names. They point out that the examples of women in labor have shown that medical treatments are applied in such a way that they are exposed to additional suffering and pain, and no measures are taken that would lead to relief of suffering and pain.

The experiences of Romani women during childbirth go beyond trauma. Some Romnjas have chosen not to have kids anymore because of the trauma they have experienced because they are Romnja.

„It was a traumatic experience, “says 33-year-old Jelena a Romani woman from Nis. „I was segregated from the other women when I came to the hospital to give birth because I was a Roma. I was left alone in the room which was far away from other women who were giving birth, I couldn’t call for help, I thought I would die and nobody would come to check up on me.„

Another 27 year old Kristina a Romani woman had a similar experience. „I was isolated with another Romani woman when i was about to give birth in the hospital, the medical staff isolated us in a different room because of our nationalities and away from the non-Roma women as we were less worthy.“

When Romnja came to give birth at the hospital in Nis they were isolated away from the other women and medical staff because of their nationality. At first, they thought they were getting a VIP apartment just for themselves, later on, they found out they were just being segregated from the other women and medical staff who were supposed to help them.

The exclusion goes beyond the issue of discrimination as it goes into the violence as well. Romani women during childbirth most often experience verbal violence: insults, cursing, humiliation, yelling, and calling names. Romani women are forced to give birth alone, they are more likely to be exposed to the risk of abuse and harassment by racist medical practitioners.

Access to social and protection services for Romani women remains almost negligible. Present racial discrimination and violence exercised by authorities themselves (authorities unwilling to intervene to protect the rights of Roma) significantly prohibit Romani women’s access to justice and redress, resulting in many Romani women ending up suffering in private, without any means of breaking the cycle of violence.

To be able to effectively respond to gender-based violence and increase the safety and protection of people at risk of experiencing this type of violence requires a multifaced, multidimensional, and multisectoral approach. The relevant sectors include health care, protection (including safety, security, and legal support), and psychosocial support.