Cases 16:30 05 Nov 2021

"We don't want to beg and don't want to steal": how Romani women in Odesa are helped to get on their feet

Poverty and multi-discrimination traditionally leave Romani women in the shadows. The only way of a Romani girl is to remain silent, get married as early as possible, give birth, and carry routine and children for the rest of her life, occasionally earning by unskilled seasonal work, begging, and divination. But not all of them agree to accept the humiliating situation.

The Winds of Change Charitable Foundation helps Romani women in Odesa to learn, acquire new skills and specialties, and realize their potential. Their employees started cutting and sewing courses for Romani women and together with the graduates created a bedding brand, Petalenca. Rubryka tells their story.

What is the problem?

It all started in 2019 when the fund opened a community center, Petalenca, translated from Romani as "horseshoe." The center has become a safe and supportive meeting place for Romani women; its activities were aimed at empowering women, raising awareness of the importance of education, access to health care, the need to change the limitations of Romani women in the family and society.

"By communicating more with the girls, we began to better understand their needs and pain," says project manager Natalia Kukhtin. "We learned that Romani women aren't hired; we heard about blatant cases of discrimination in communities. As a result of this attitude, families live in poverty and don't have the opportunity to take care of their children and the elderly. A woman who traditionally takes responsibility for providing for the most vulnerable members of her family usually has no profession or education."

Romani mothers who came for help in the community center said: "We don't want to beg, we don't want to steal, we can earn and provide for our children and elderly parents. We live in villages and work in the fields, we know how to work, we know how to grow vegetables, fruits, but because we're Romani, we're paid three times less than non-Romani, and women earn even less than men."

The solution: not begging, but working

To overcome this situation, the foundation offered several ideas for professional training of women: a manicurist, a hairdresser, or a seamstress. The latter profession was chosen by a majority of votes because owning a sewing machine will come in handy not only when looking for work, but also at home. And Petalenca started operating; they sent a grant application to the International Renaissance Foundation and launched a 3-month pilot project: they used the funds to buy sewing machines, fabrics and organize sewing courses for women. The model of vocational training and employment developed by the center provided for the involvement of Romani women, members of the Petalenca Center, who already had children, in the project. 20 mothers at once signed up for the first course!

We need a hero! "We break stereotypes with our hands, thoughts, and deeds"

The protagonists of this story were Romani women who felt the strength and inspiration to overcome centuries-old stigmas and prejudices. Most women who attended sewing classes didn't work a single day in their lives. They only knew about household chores and raising children, and they dreamed of having their own money, which they would earn themselves. Liuba, the mother of two boys, proudly told the children every time she went to school that she was "going to work," she remembers that when she said this phrase for the first time in her life, she felt self-respect, the beginning of her independence:

"Even though I wasn't working then, and was just studying, I already felt that something was changing and I immediately had a different, joyful mood."

How does it work? Sewing workshop with its own brand

Romani women are quite closed, so the Petalenca Center has invited a successful Romani woman, the owner of the garment business, Viktoria Kobzar, to study with them. She became a mentor and inspiration for women. Even the organizers fell in love with the sewing business! Following her example, Romani women saw that regardless of their nationality, they could also succeed, all that was needed was an effort. And, of course, to have a great desire.

Thus, based on the Romani women's community of the Petalenca Center, a social enterprise, the Petalenca Home Textile Sewing Workshop, was established.

There are six women left to work at the enterprise from the first-year course. Cutting and sewing courses continue, and girls who have just graduated continue to work in the social enterprise. They study in 2 shifts so that everyone can have time and learn at a convenient time for everyone. Currently, the courses are attended by 12 students, and not only Romani. These are women from the organization, NGO "Myr," members of the anti-terrorist operation and joint forces operation, and the wives of fallen soldiers. And according to project manager Natalia Kukhtin, this only makes the group richer.

For mothers not to worry about children left without care, a children's room has been created next to the sewing shop, which has everything necessary for children's leisure. Classes with children are conducted by volunteer educators, and older children, in turn, also become interested in sewing, want to help their mothers, and try sewing. For example, 12-year-old Masha, who was brought to Petalenca by her mother, took extracurricular courses with adults, and now she can sew everything herself: from toys to bedding.

Little Maria masters the wisdom of sewing

Did they succeed? Getting on your feet and changing society

It's too early to talk about the large incomes of a social enterprise, everything is just beginning. They sell through social media, and representatives of the Norwegian foundation Familiehjelpen Ukraina acknowledged the Petalenca quality; they were looking for natural and hypoallergenic bedding for women and children living in the crisis center and ordered a batch of bedding sets from Odesa craftswomen. The price for sets of linen in comparison with other brands is small, only UAH 550, and the quality of tailoring and fabric corresponds to the expectations of the most exacting buyers.

Petalenca bedding in a crisis center

"The capacity of our shop is up to 50 sets per day," Natalia Kukhtin comments, "but so far we don't have the opportunity to sell so many products. At the same time, we are trained in SMM, marketing, enterprise development. In addition, the girls offer the sewn-on sets to their friends and acquaintances, who were initially very surprised and distrusted that the women did it on their own."

Craftswomen have to face not only surprise. Natalia Kukhtin bitterly talks about a recent case:

"Recently, we saw unpleasant comments when our client bought bedding for herself and her family and posted information about us, about the good quality of the kits and that they are sewn by Romani women. She was sure that people from her audience, after reading the positive feedback, would also place an order with us. But all she heard in response was negative and something like, 'Are you insane?' Some local entrepreneurs also refused to sell our bedding, precisely because it was sewn by the Romani. It's very unfortunate, sadly, we can't immediately change people's opinion about the Romani nation globally, all we can do now is do our job well."

What's next?

During the training, strong leaders have emerged among the women, who became a real engine capable of motivating and supporting further project development. Now the initiative participants are being trained in business planning and implementation of their business ideas. Everyone chose ideas that were related to sewing and further development of the range of social enterprises.

For example, one of the girls, wanting to keep up with the times and worrying about the environment, wrote a business plan for sewing eco-bags, which will be used as packaging for bed linen that the company sews. They want the craftswomen to replace all the plastic packaging, which according to the law should be out of use. Currently, the original design of such packaging is being developed; in the future, it can be used as a shopper bag.

There are also plans to open a small textile store to sell their products there. They work in the center and on the creation of the website. In this way, the social enterprise will reach a new level of sales and will be able to employ more women who are in a difficult situation, expand and develop.

Natalia Kukhtin in the workshop

Everyone can help social enterprise and contribute to overcoming prejudices and barriers. To do this, write in private messages on the pages of Petalenca on Facebook or Instagram, order bedroom sets for yourself and your loved ones, or offer cooperation. After all, everyone has the right to a dignified life and free development, equality, and diversity in our country, regardless of gender or nationality.


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