During this past summer, I had the good fortune to undertake a six-week research trip throughout much of rural Romania. The team I led conducted a water quality and sanitation needs assessment survey in five geographically diverse, but predominantly Roma, communities in order to explore potential improvement options. The Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, comprised of about 12 million individuals across the continent and in the United Kingdom, with the largest concentration located in Romania. While official government statistics place the Roma population at approximately 500,000 in Romania, numerous unofficial NGO estimates suggest that their total number in that nation is closer to 1.5 to 2 million (World Bank, 2015), making them the second largest minority group in the country.
Tracing their origins to northern India, the Roma first appeared in European history around 1100 A.D. (Harmon, 2012). Originally thought to be of Egyptian descent due to their dark skin color, they became known as ‘Gypsies’ and were greeted with discrimination, imprisonment and for more than 500 years, enslavement. During the course of several centuries, Romanians who enslaved the Roma forced them to work as farriers, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, horse trainers and even bear-handlers, chosen to train the indigenous brown bears of the Carpathian Mountains for circus performances, or to fight humans in modern renditions of gladiatorial combat. As slavery was fully abolished in the Romanian territories by 1864 and the Roma gained their freedom, they nevertheless continued to gravitate toward these historical skill sets, cementing their reputation as able craftsmen (Petrova, 2004). From the 1860s through the late 1930s, just prior to World War II, the majority population in Romania slowly began to associate the Roma with a nomadic lifestyle, partially the result of being expelled repeatedly from various parts of the country as Romanians increasingly discriminated against the traveling bands. That prejudice arose from the Roma’s “different” skin color and a growing, but unsubstantiated, popular belief that they were thieves and beggars with no moral compass.
Unfortunately, Romania’s modern society has been only marginally kinder to the Roma than earlier generations proved to be. They are often a convenient scapegoat for that nation’s politicians, both conservative and otherwise, seeking to place blame for poor economic policies or performance or failed initiatives. Moreover, they continue to be excluded by both government institutions and their fellow countrymen from general society and deprived of their rights as European Union (EU) citizens to legal documentation, education, health care and municipal services (including trash disposal and water and sewage treatment) (World Bank, 2015).
Given this somewhat bleak outlook, many of the researchers and experts with whom I spoke prior to my departure indicated that I should rethink or at least temper my expectation to rely on one-on-one interviews and the capacity of volunteer participants either to appreciate and embrace the goals of my project or be literate, at even the most basic level. I was therefore quite surprised to encounter numerous Roma more than willing to talk to our research team, answer our questions and share their stories and struggles. Certainly, we did everything within our power to ensure the confidentiality of our participants’ responses, and will continue to do so as we work to simulate potential solutions for the many issues that we identified as requiring government intervention and support in order to reach a just and desirable resolution. However, the vast majority of the Roma with whom we spoke were unconcerned with our assurance of confidentiality. In any case, they proved more than willing and able to share their views and concerns.
Our team members spoke to Roma farmers, fruit pickers, craftsmen and bottle scavengers who freely admitted to (on average) possessing only an eighth-grade education (or less) and reading little. Nonetheless, these individuals could explain the need for crop rotation in their backyard plots, how they used salt to treat hastily dug water wells and why a cold, refreshing nearby spring seemed to provide better water than any other source to which they had access. Despite being unfamiliar with germ theory, they nonetheless engaged in basic shoestring epidemiology and could identify the uptick in diarrheal disease occurrence in their children and readily connect it to warmer weather or heavy rains and flooding.
Perhaps needless to say, my expectations concerning their intellectual preparation, facility and articulateness were in fairly sharp contrast with the reality I encountered. I had anticipated a minority population, severely hamstrung by injustice and popular and institutional racism, and in many respects, that was indeed the case. The Roma have a higher rate of infectious disease than the non-Roma in Romania; they have a significantly lower life expectancy and, as already mentioned, they are more likely to lack basic public services that improve overall community hygiene (water and sewage treatment) (World Bank, 2015). What they are not, however, is helpless or unaware of the conditions they confront or their origins.
The Question of Agency
Griffin has defined the concept of normative agency as “our capacity to choose and to pursue our conception of a worthwhile life” (Griffin 2008, p. 45). Talbott has emphasized Griffin’s categories of autonomous agency, liberty and welfare rights (Talbott, 2008). According to Griffin, autonomous agency is the highest order human right. The construct inherently supposes not only that an individual possesses capacity for personal choice (liberty) and freedom from dominion, but also a minimum level of education, health and access to relevant information (Talbott, 2008). Given this definition and these characteristics, I suggest that the Roma may be thought both to evidence agency based on individual capacity and simultaneously not to exhibit it. I suggest how this can be so next.
From one perspective, as has already been described, the Roma are hardly either hapless or helpless. Certainly, as Griffin has asserted, they pursue worthwhile lives—seeking employment, raising families, finding joy in their communities and supporting each other, much like any other close-knit group of people. Knowledge in the Roma communities is often self-taught or passed down through generations, based on years of experience and experimentation in the case of agricultural understanding, or anecdotal evidence, in the case of well water treatment. In these ways (and many others), the Roma demonstrate agency as they work to improve the circumstances of their communities. From a different point-of-view, however, the agency the individual capacity they possess to act is both bounded and limited by their formal and informal lack of freedom and welfare rights. In this sense, the Roma of Romania cannot be said to enjoy genuine agency, as Griffin has defined that concept.
Overall, my experience during my field research suggested that it is essential when working with Roma communities both to recognize and respect their enterprising and instinctive intelligence and to advocate for their just treatment by government institutions and the public-at-large. Including Roma leaders and community members in research initiatives acknowledges the very human dignity and, indeed, agency of an enduring, vibrant people even as it provides findings that hopefully can be garnered to eliminate the deeply engrained formal and informal discrimination that this population confronts, wherever its members reside.
Harmon, K. (2012). Genetic Sequencing Traces Gypsies Back to Ancient Indian Origin.
Scientific American. Retrieved from
gypsies-back-to-ancient-indian-origin/ on September 4, 2016.
Griffin, J. (2008). On Human Rights. Oxford University Press.
Petrova, D. (2004). The Roma: Between a Myth and the Future. Retrieved from:
http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=1844 on September 4, 2016.
Talbott, W. (2008). James Griffin: On Human Rights. Notre Dame Philosophical
Review: An Electronic Journal. Retrieved from http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23832-on-
human-rights/ on September 5, 2016.
World Bank. (2015). Roma. Retrieved from
http://www.worldbank.org/en/region/eca/brief/roma on September 4, 2016.
Rebecca Powell-Doherty is a second year MPH student from Charlotte, NC. She previously received her B.S. in Biology from NC State University in 2005 and her PhD in Immunology from UNC Charlotte in 2010. After graduation, she spent some years teaching undergraduate science courses and conducting post-doctoral work in the areas of inflammation and hemorrhagic shock. During her time at Virginia Tech, she has developed an interest in combining a scientific understanding of disease with social applications for improving the lot of those disproportionately affected by it.