Female experts represent the importance of women’s groups: Our role is to give women a voiceWe have been working with women who live in social exclusion in our community centers for a long time. Since last summer, also within the framework of women’s groups, which we organize in cooperation with the Vyrovnávanie šancí association. We talked to Janka Urban and Edita Kovář, who lead the women’s groups, about how these meetings take place and what they give women. They were also joined by Monika Bosá, an expert from the EsFem association. In which of our communities do you organize women’s groups and how often? EK: We go to three community centers: Roškovce, Kojatice and Petrovany, where we are twice a month. We each do our part, Janka has women’s groups and I work with parents. They are mostly mothers, but I often have fathers there as well. In addition we talk to them about common things, which are focused either on personal development or on other topics. I also give them some tasks that they could use to influence their children. These are simple practical things, for example a worksheet, or learning a poem and drawing something, so that they can come home with something and show the children something. MB: There is a difference from the activities that are normally done in community centers. These are planned and have a specific content, from counseling to tutoring. We are trying to create an unstructured space for women to tell themselves what they want to do. It hasn’t quite worked out yet, but they can say it with support. What do you think is the most important contribution of women’s groups? JU: Our task is to give women a voice, because they are not used to thinking for themselves. Sharing sorrows and joys is already a huge superstructure, women usually do not share such things with each other, they only talk about practical things in order to solve the problems they have as quickly as possible. EK: Our discussions with them are something new for them. It can be seen on the women that they are talking about such topics for the first time and are often taken aback by what they are supposed to talk about. What do women’s group meetings look like? JU: Edita and I are both based on the experience of our association Vyrovnávanie šancí, we use a lot of didactic games and books and, let’s say, handicrafts, which, however, are only the basis from which the topics we start talking about emerge. Sometimes it is difficult to explain some abstract concepts, for example, that someone should concentrate. And with these games and books, we can materialize it. For example, look, was she thinking about something else now? That’s concentration. If you try it somewhere else, things will go better for you. EK: I always choose a framework topic, for example last time it was health, which I was a little worried about at first. I talked about childhood diseases and asked women to tell me how they treat them. What methods do they use, for example, for fever and colds, and I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely the mothers responded, they could tell me everything. From there we got to women’s diseases and women’s problems, and they opened up and wanted my advice. I also brought old medicine boxes, I showed them how to read the validity of the medicine, it was all new to them. And gradually we went through men’s diseases and what to do about them. In the end, it was all very pleasant, I left satisfied and they also learned a lot of new things.
Our task is to give women a voice, because they are not used to thinking for themselves. Sharing sorrows and joys is already a huge superstructure, they usually only talk about practical things.You said that the meetings are rather unstructured. What exactly does that mean? JU: We started with a much more structured form of meeting. I had individual activities planned in my head and where they should lead. However, I often found myself dragging the women somewhere they didn’t even want to go. It meant for me that I should prepare less and go with the flow. Our goal is not to solve the tasks correctly, but to develop the debate and, if it develops, to continue it. MB: The important thing is that women take the initiative. Empowerment comes from them being the ones who know. They have shown that they can take care of children when they are sick. The experience of being appreciated by someone is immensely empowering. And when they say what they want, and we listen to it, that some wise teacher comes who had a prepared program and suddenly she listens to them, is just as fundamental. So can it be said that even women from excluded Roma communities can teach you something? JU: I remember a situation in one community where we knew we would have to fundamentally change our approach. I came there and said: look, I have nothing ready today. I only came to talk to you and agree on what we will do here together. My throat was dry for the first fifteen minutes because I was the only one talking. But gradually we got it going and came up with some ideas that they would like to do. They balked at some, for example, when I suggested that when it warmed up, we could go to the settlement and they could teach me something. When I asked why not, they said they were ashamed. And when I asked what could help overcome that shame, they admitted that maybe time, because we don’t know each other well. But it emerged from this debate that they might enjoy knitting. Helenka, who is our link in the community, knows how to knit, the other mothers did not know how to knit, so we decided to teach knitting together. I’m the most awkward member in that group. But it works, women are relaxed when they are knitting. When they repeat the activity and have to focus on it, they can relax their heads. Do you notice a change in women who visit women’s groups, are they more confident, talk more? EK: The change can be seen in those who come more regularly, we have been doing groups since last June. They are more open and communicative, it is better than at the beginning, a relationship has been established. Last time they didn’t even want to let me go as they wanted to talk. I had a good feeling about it. I feel that they are starting to take me as a close person. They also thought that they had enriched me with something. But there are still some new people coming, which is also good. What age groups of women attend the meetings? EK: Teenage girls would also come, they like to do their homework, they are happy that they can paint something, for example. In Roškovce, we also have three elderly ladies who are already grandmothers, they talk about their grandchildren and their lives with grown-up children. There is also intergenerational sharing. When they live in the same household, the grandmother has the same influence on the children as the mother, sometimes even more. Grandmothers try to pay more attention to children emotionally, they told me that sometimes they even read them a fairy tale. It is certainly good that grandma is also involved in the family. JU: That is a positive side of things, but it often turns against the mother, who is suddenly a little incapacitated, because her mother and the mother-in-law know better and steal her competences. Women sometimes talked about it too, but it was rather formulated by the elders, as today’s girls don’t know. EK: The dominant role of the older woman in the house is also about the fact that the daughter-in-law who came into the family has to listen to mother-in-law, for example about how to cook. JU: The multiple disadvantage of Roma women is also about this, when a woman breaks ties with her family and goes to live with her husband. The status of the mother-in-law is very strong in Roma communities, it is almost abuse of the daughter-in-law, unless she gives birth to enough children for her to gain that status as well. I think women’s groups can bridge this as well. We are two women, you experienced it too, let’s not push it further. The project Gender equality for Roma communities, which was supported by Norwegian grants and the Slovak state budget, is implemented together with EsFem and Vyrovnávanie šancí.