Throughout 2021, I had the pleasure of training and running the Brighton Marathon for FARA and to learn more about the exceptional work that the charity does to improve the prospects of Romania’s vulnerable. In doing so, I saw for myself the lifeline the charity provides for children at risk, families in poverty and those with disabilities through their countless community projects which promote education, safe housing and employment training.
Concurrently, this has tied in with my own academic career which has seen me recently study at King’s College London for my Master of Science in Russian and Eastern European Politics. It is an opportunity that has seen me be able to research issues close to my heart such as Feminism in Eastern Europe and advocacy against gender based violence . In the weeks leading to International Women’s Day on March 8th, FARA has kindly given me the platform to speak about why their work is so relevant today and my own personal experiences of traveling around Romania.
It was Easter 2019 and I was traveling around Romania, particularly the Prahova region close to the country’s capital Bucharest. I remember being surprised by the sunshine, the overwhelming kindness of strangers who complimented my basic Romanian skills and the beautiful parks where I spent a lot of my time. However, one particular memory stands out more than others. It was a group of young girls that caught my attention, no more than 14/15 years of age, standing on the corner of Ploiesti’s Constantin Stere Memorial Park and were being interrogated and stopped by Police. I was told immediately that these girls were selling themselves in broad daylight and that this was a regular occurrence. I could tell that my reaction of shock and dismay was something not shared by the locals as they had come used to seeing this kind of activity happen regularly. They had identified the girls as being a part of the Roma community and it was from there that I began to learn about the class divisions that painfully bar Roma girls from realizing their full potential and put them at deep risk of isolation, exploitation and trafficking.
These were young girls who should have been in school. They should have been studying to achieve their career goals. They should have been discussing what to do after school with their friends. But the women I saw in the park that day were not an isolated group, rather they were an example of a wider social issue that still haunts Romania. The 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report has marked Romania as a country which ‘does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination
of trafficking’. Furthermore, The Global Slavery Index has recognised a total of 86,000 trafficking victims from Romania with the wide majority falling victim to sexual exploitation.
The Roma are a group that have settled and built communities all across Europe however Romania’s relationship with the Roma community is perhaps one of the most problematic. It is a country that continues to be under the spotlight regarding its outdated police brutality and entrenched Racism towards the Roma community. A vast amount of Romanians still hold the belief that the 600,000 strong Roma ‘deserve whatever happens to them’. This has led to a simply barbaric neglect of the community that live in extreme poverty and run the increased risk of falling into a life of crime and exploitation. Roma girls make up 50% of the prostitutes on the streets of Romania and perhaps even more worringly, these Women tend to find themselves in these posistions due to their families and partners forcing them there. A 2019 study found that 49% percent of Women trafficked are ‘sold’ by their families for money and in the most extreme cases, 9 year old girls have found themselves caught up in the system of exploitation.
This presents perhaps a very bleak picture for a Roma girl. Here is where the work of FARA becomes vital in providing that support system. Their work and vision aims to solve issues at their root, before the social issues have time to manifest. In doing so, FARA doesn’t take a political stance and operates solely for the community vs Government petitioning. When I ran back in 2021, I was fundraising for the Child and Family Center which funded services which promoted wider engagement with education such as homework clubs and mentoring, hot meals for children attending school as well as updated educational equipment. This provided a safe haven for children which might have otherwise fallen into a life of crime and extreme poverty.
As we approach this International Women’s Day, let’s continue to celebrate and shine a light on the work of FARA. It is work that is so necessary to ensuring vulnerable children have a chance at success. Let us hope that one day the stories that we read in the papers become a finished chapter of Romania’s history and we no longer have to look upon the Roma community as victims but as a group flourishing and succeeding.