March 28, 2006

Bride fair shows lack of options for Bulgarian Roma

By Michael Winfrey and Tsvetelia Ilieva

STARA ZAGORA, Bulgaria -- Roska, a pretty 15-year-old Roma girl, thinks she's too young to get married.

But her family has brought her to this gritty central Bulgarian city to look for a husband, saying that if they don't find a match for her soon, they can forget about a dowry.

"How do you think life is? We're looking to get some money," said Valia, Roska's 20-year-old cousin. "Maybe someone will like her and give us something."

For girls in Roska's clan, the close-knit Kalaidjii, Stara Zagora's bride fair -- a kind of annual debutante ball -- offers the best hope of a stable future, which often means marriage at 16 or 17 and a life of keeping house and raising children.

As Roma, or Gypsies, they have few other options in a country where many see them as worthless layabouts on the margins of society -- an attitude found across Europe where Roma are the group deemed most vulnerable to racism.

In a paved plaza edged by scraggly grass, girls in heavy makeup and white-powdered faces giggle and make eyes at packs of boisterous young men. Parents and relatives, acting as chaperones, watch among tables laden with sausages and beer.

If a girl and boy like each other, they will go on a few dates, and then he can approach her family with a dowry offer that can range from around 3,000 to 10,000 lev ($1,830-$6,098), a princely sum in a country where wages average around $2,300 a year.

The bride fair is more a chance for teen-agers to meet than a formal deal-making venue. Most of the girls in Stara Zagora said they would marry for love, although some mothers muttered "No money, no marriage."

"I just want to marry someone, have children, and be happy," said Donka, a 16-year-old wearing a pink jacket trimmed with a fur collar as she scanned the crowd for potential husbands. Like Roska, she would not give her last name.

"What else is there?"


There are between 10 million and 15 million Roma in Europe, with half living in the ex-communist East.

The European Union has rapped Bulgaria, which wants to join the wealthy bloc in 2007, for failing to improve education, healthcare, and housing for Roma, who make up 5-10 percent of its 7.8 million people.

In Bulgaria and fellow EU aspirant Romania, almost four-fifths of Roma live under the poverty line, in segregated neighborhoods, and half are unemployed.

Bulgaria's recently government agreed on a 1.26 billion lev ($782.6 million) program funded by state and EU funds to improve housing and build infrastructure in Roma neighborhoods over the next 10 years.

But rights groups say efforts to end segregation in schools, create a level playing field for Roma jobseekers and crack down on an increasing trend of hate speech in the mainstream media, have moved very slowly.

"Despite commitments from the government ... there are still major shortfalls in all fields," said Claude Cahn, program director at the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center.

Of the dozen or so girls queried at the bride fair, most said they left school aged about 13 or 14 -- a typical move for Roma since only 6 percent graduate from high school.

Given these obstacles, some Roma do all they can to secure their children's futures. Arranged marriages, some say, are a sure way to provide for their children and themselves.

The Kalaidjii are a relatively well-off clan who say the bride fair dates back to when they first came to Europe from India and Pakistan in the 10th century.

"We look for men with better houses for our girls," said Elena Spasova, a 59-year-old matriarch who found matches for all of her nine children in Stara Zagora.

"If we don't marry off our daughters young, they might elope with someone, and then there would be no money."

Parents spend a good part of a dowry on a lavish wedding and give part to the new bride.


The government says it is trying to improve the Roma's lot -- the latest plan involves building around 30,000 new homes and refurbishing 47,000 others -- but rights groups are skeptical, citing past failures to carry out less ambitious plans.

The fact that Roma live on the margins of Bulgarian society can also make women and girls more vulnerable in their own community -- especially given that many marry as soon as they reach the age of consent, at 16.

Police rarely investigate crimes in Roma communities and that lack of interest puts the more vulnerable at risk of abuse or trafficking as sex slaves. Last month, police arrested a gang suspected of blackmailing young Roma women into selling their newborn babies in Greece.

There has also been a rise in anti-Roma statements in Bulgarian media and in racially motivated violence since the far-right nationalist Attack party made a surprisingly strong showing in elections last year.

Although the EU's eastward expansion is expected to improve living standards in Bulgaria, rights groups say Roma are still missing out and they argue that, despite scoldings from Brussels, their plight will not be a deal-breaker for Bulgarian EU membership.

"This won't be an obstacle to accession," said Krassimir Kanev, head of the Sofia branch of the human rights group Helsinki Committee.

"I don't expect any significant change in their lives and their prospects for integration into society," he said. "For them, it might even get worse."