Roma rights defenders in Europe have long struggled to gain traction against institutionalized discrimination targeting the ethnic group across Europe. Last week during a concert stop in Bucharest, Romania, international pop icon Madonna got a brief taste of what Roma advocates are up against.
The “Material Girl,” who is employing Roma musicians and a dancer on her “Sticky and Sweet” tour, punctuated her recent performance in front of 60,000 Romanians with a call to end discrimination against Roma. The Bucharest crowd booed her in response.
“It has been brought to my attention . . . that there is a lot of discrimination against Romani and Gypsies in general in Eastern Europe. It made me feel very sad. . . . We don’t believe in discrimination . . . we believe in freedom and equal rights for everyone,” she told the unreceptive crowd.
There are an estimated 15 million Roma in Europe, around 2 million of them believed to live in Romania.
Discrimination against Roma, also commonly known as gypsies, is a virtual institution across Europe, from Spain to Hungary — and pretty much everywhere in between. In most major cities, Roma live in the poorest neighborhoods and slums, usually on the outskirts so as not to disrupt the “normal” flow of city life. They generally live in extreme poverty, denied equal access to public health care and education opportunities. Roma children and young adults are often seen begging on street corners or attempting to wash windshields at traffic lights.
Anti-poverty group World Visions applauded Madonna’s comments as courageous. “Here, the reality is that Roma feel that discrimination every day, and they can’t escape it. The fact that Madonna was booed while advocating for the Roma shows that we still have a long way to go toward basic rights and dignity for the Roma,” Anita Delhaas, the group’s national director in Romania, said in a press release.
The Roma’s plight has garnered quite a bit of public and media interest in recent months as Hungarian authorities sought to end a string of brutal home invasions and murders of Roma that began in July 2008. Security forces arrested four suspects earlier this month, but the case underscored the precarious position of Roma in Hungarian society.