How gender affects life choices among Bulgarian Roma

February 12, 2014

  • Roma represent a large ethnic minority in Bulgaria, but it is not a homogeneous group - as many as 60 different Roma groups live in the country with different culture, traditions and religion.
  • Roma are one of the poorest populations in Bulgaria. As many as one in three Roma live in extreme poverty earning less than $4.30 a day, compared to just one in twenty among the rest of the population
  • But poverty is not the only challenge: traditional social norms, including gender roles, are changing and tensions between those who seek to cope by adopting new roles and those who want to preserve traditional roles and values are emerging.

Roma are a large ethnic minority group in Bulgaria. As many as 60 different Roma groups live in the country, representing a wide-range of cultures, religions, traditions, and livelihoods. Although diverse in many regards, Roma throughout Bulgaria struggle with one primary development challenge: poverty. As many as one out of every three Roma lives in extreme poverty - earning less than $4.30 a day - compared to just one in twenty among the rest of the population. Approximately 86% of Roma belong to the bottom 40% of the income group in Bulgaria. But poverty alone is not the only challenge Roma are coping with. According to a new World Bank report, Roma face a variety of challenges that can adversely affect their strategic life choices, such as those concerning education, employment, and family formation.

The report, Gender Dimensions of Roma Inclusion: perspectives from four Roma communities in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at gender as a key factor for inclusion and tries to find answers to the question of how gender affects strategic life choices of Bulgarian Roma when it comes to education, employment and marriage.  The study was carried out by conducting a series of focus group discussions and interviews in four locations across the country (see the Info Graphic), seeking to identify some of the differences between Roma who are more and less integrated with wider society.

" This report reveals how Roma are coping with more than just poverty. The study reveals how the behavior and decisions of Roma are constrained by lack of opportunities, information, and resources.  "

Kosuke Anan

Social Development Specialist, one of the main authors of the report

Roma are facing many challenges, some of which in turn are changing gender roles. More and more, unemployment is making it impossible for Roma men to live up to the role of “provider” for the family while Roma women are increasingly expected to contribute to the family income.

The report is unique in that it collects voices among the Roma – featuring individuals talking about these challenges and explaining how Roma cope with the imperatives created by their economic situation and their aspirations for a better life (See the animation video). For many Bulgarian Roma – women in particular - things can feel like a vicious circle: many Roma girls drop out of school early because they are expected to get married and have children; later on many of these girls cannot find a job because they lack education – a result of dropping out of school and getting married. The data shows that only 42% of Roma women in Bulgaria have completed their primary education. A mere 32% of Roma women between the ages of 15 and 18 are enrolled in formal education in Bulgaria. However, the report also finds a new trend that Roma girls are increasingly placing higher value on education and are becoming more interested in finishing secondary education and even pursuing a university education.

In response to this situation, the study argues that the introduction of more integrated policy solutions - rather than piecemeal initiatives - and more socially adaptive programs would go far in terms of development impact. By taking a broader look at the social and economic challenges facing Roma in Bulgaria and expanding the dialogue beyond just poverty, policy makers in Bulgaria can better create an environment of social inclusion among Roma – much to the benefit of the country as a whole.