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Non-Discrimination Ombudsman Kirsi Pimiä's speech at the 7th International Roma Women's Conference

Non-Discrimination Ombudsman Kirsi Pimiä's speech at the 7th International Roma Women's Conference

(The slides showed during the speech can be found on the bottom of the page.)

Dear participants, dear Roma and Traveller women,

It is a great honour for me to be able to address you here in the 7th International Roma Women’s Conference. When I was preparing my speech, I realized that this is the first time ever that I am speaking to an audience specifically about Women – and it feels great! I have a long history on equality issues as I wrote my thesis at university on equal pay principle already in the early 90’s. But as some of you may know, if you participated yesterday to the working group on equality bodies, we have a separate ombudsman for the gender issues here in Finland, so that is why this is such a rare opportunity for me.

Slide 2: List of discrimination grounds

The Finnish Non-Discrimination Ombudsman is an autonomous and independent authority, whose key task consists of promoting equality and tackling discrimination. The Ombudsman receives contacts regarding experienced or observed discrimination with a wide variety of grounds for discrimination, and from all areas of life.

The Non-Discrimination Act provides the Ombudsman with various operating methods with which to tackle discrimination and promote equality, in individual cases and beyond. The Ombudsman can intervene in discrimination experienced by individuals at a low threshold in a less drastic way in comparison to a legal process. We don’t possess a legally binding power of decision. However, our opinion or other manner of intervening in discrimination often contributes both to the cessation of discrimination and to the discriminating party’s increased interest in implementing measures that promote equality in the future. We can also promote conciliation, take a case to Discrimination and Equality Tribunal, or assist a victim of discrimination in court.

Slide 3: Roma discrimination

As the mandate of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman was broadened in 2015 from ethnic discrimination to all possible discrimination grounds concerning personal characteristics (except gender of course), there was a lot of fears that Roma who have been discriminated would lose access to justice, since we would not have time for them. But as you can see, the amount of complaints has not really changed. Of course the numbers mean that in 2014 Roma cases were 30% of our complaints and today, they are about 10%. In practise, not all complaints are investigated, but if the complaint gives cause to suspect that the actions of an authority or other operator have been in violation of the Non-Discrimination Act, the Ombudsman generally begins investigations on the matter.

As said, the other main duty of the Ombudsman is to promote equality. We promote equality through co-operation with for example interest groups and advocacy work, and encourage different operators to utilise equality planning. By virtue of law we also prepare and commission reviews, publish reports and take initiatives; and within our remit, monitor Finland’s compliance with international human rights obligations and the effectiveness of national legislation.

So, on that basis did we make a survey on Roma's experiences of discrimination in 2014? It sounds a bit old now, but the survey was a response to a need for more data on discrimination experienced by Roma and for comparative data on their experiences of discrimination in relation to similar experiences among other ethnic minority groups in Finland, as at the same time FRA’s first EU-MIDIS Survey (European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey) was done. In Finland it did not cover Roma, as it covered Russian speakers and people of Somali background. And unfortunately this was also the case in EU-MIDIS II in 2017. 

Better data enables us to intervene more effectively in cases of discrimination experienced by Roma and to promote their equality within society on a broader basis than before. Housing was selected as one of the survey themes, because Roma contact the Ombudsman most actively in cases of suspected discrimination in housing. Secondly, in housing, the Roma culture also has certain distinctive aspects which are challenging with respect to the Ombudsman's work. Of the 249 Roma interviewed respondents, 61 per cent (n=152) were women.

This is also the case with our complaints: last year approximately 60% of the complaints were from Roma women. Our survey is also current from the point of view that housing is still the most common area of life in which Roma women contact us.

“My partner and I tried to rent a flat. We telephoned the landlord on the basis of an advertisement. Over the phone, the landlord asked about our employment situation and credit history, and was almost ready to offer the flat to us. We went to see the flat on-site, but when the landlord saw that we were Roma, he refused to rent the flat to us because, according to him, we constitute an investment risk.”

– A Roma female, 24

If housing is the number one area were Roma women face discrimination, private services become second on the basis of our complaints and the survey from 2014. A considerable proportion of the discrimination experiences involve situations in everyday life, such as shopping or using a service station. Respondents stated that they found it humiliating to be shadowed by a shop assistant or guards when shopping.

“On a daily basis, I notice that when I go shopping for groceries, the guards start to follow me. I dare not touch any products, unless I'm certain that I'm going to buy them. Nowadays, I always go to a certain shop because they know me there and I can shop in peace."

– A Roma female, 32

Slide 4: Issues related to women

Another theme in the survey was a mutual relationship amongst Roma. In this respect, the aim was to define a policy governing the activities of the Ombudsman in relation to individual rights as laid down by the Constitution and with respect to the right of the Roma to maintain and develop their own language and culture.

A total of 37.7 per cent of the respondents (n=228) were of the opinion that the position of women within Roma community is particularly problematic. In this respect, there were no significant differences between male and female respondents and the age of the respondent had barely any influence on the response. The educational level of the respondents somewhat influenced their views. More than one third (34.9%) of those who had completed their basic education at most were of the opinion that the position of women is problematic. The corresponding figure for those who had completed a degree was 50%.

Slide 5: Quotations

 “In crisis situations, women are in a weak position. Divorce is an example of such a crisis. Women do not dare to challenge men, because they fear for their extended family and next of kin.”

– A Roma female, 29


 “Gender equality does not apply. The man is the head of the family and women have no decision-making power. This applies to young people as well. Boys order girls around.”

– A Roma male, 41

Slide 6: Problems in the position of women within Roma community

Respondents who saw special problems in the position of women in Roma community cited gender inequality as the cause of such problems. In this regard, over 60% of respondents highlighted gender equality and the submissive position of Roma women in regards to men. And approximately 20% find the traditional Roma clothing problematic and rest mentioned other factors such as engaging in physical exercise and fitness training, and notions of modesty.

“This largely depends on the extended family and immediate family. In some families, the role of women is very old-fashioned, the position of women is weak and women are not appreciated, while in others, women and men are equal. Men make the decisions. A woman's status is low if the man wants it to be that way. However, this largely depends on the man in question.”

– A Roma female, 33

The survey provided us with a more detailed understanding of the extent of discrimination against Roma in Finland, and in what kind of everyday situations it occurred. The results of the survey awakened us to the extent of social injustice that discrimination practised against the Roma involves within our society. The survey also showed that there is gender inequality among Roma in Finland. Accordingly to many women, Roma women need assistance and they need empowerment. The results hopefully encouraged Roma population to engage in an open discussion on traditional customs that violate individual rights and on the related need for change.

The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman’s action

As mentioned earlier, we need accurate data on discrimination experienced by Roma to promote equality. On the basis of the 2014 survey, it was clear that in the Ombudsman’s office we need to concentrate more on discrimination in housing by assisting people to solve their problems with municipalities, by promoting conciliation with compensation in the clear discrimination cases and by training housing agencies. On the other hand, when there has been discrimination in private services we advise people to take clear discrimination cases, criminal offences, to the police when possible. During the past few years, there has been more and more conviction from courts on Roma discrimination including good compensation and that is a clear change.

According to the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman’s assessment, a large portion of discrimination still remains hidden. The reasons for this are varied: the victims of discrimination may not trust authorities, or their awareness of their rights and the legal remedies may be insufficient. Or people may fear the consequences of taking a matter forward, and the legal remedies do not always produce the desired result. I must give great credit to Finnish Roma for their high degree of confidence in awareness of their rights in situations involving discrimination. In the survey 70% of the respondents were of the opinion that they would know their rights if they encountered discrimination or harassment. And discrimination experienced in the provision of municipal or city rental housing was reported by 44.4% of respondents. In most cases, the report was submitted to the Ombudsman.

Legislation creates the foundation for non-discrimination, but implementation requires awareness of the rights, active promotion of equality, intervening in discrimination, and effective and proportionate sanctions. The objective is clear, but how do we reach it? Luckily, the Non-Discrimination Act has not imposed this task only on us supervisory authorities, but on all authorities, employers, education providers and educational institutions. In addition, numerous non-governmental organisations and representatives of civil society are working hard to promote equality among people.

The Ombudsman takes constantly up Roma discrimination and harassment, when meeting different stakeholders, civil servants from the ministries, police or other public authorities or private actors in commerce or restaurant and hotel sector. For example, we will be meeting people from the security sector in the coming weeks to discuss ethnic profiling. There have been few good examples of responsible companies, but lots of awareness raising and training is still needed.

Also we, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman and the Gender Equality Ombudsman, can do better. As we have divided mandates with the Gender Ombudsman, women who are also members of minority like Roma women can feel that they drop in between our mandates. The Gender Equality Ombudsman focuses on gender issues in general and we, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, focuses for example on ethnic groups in general. According to the legislation multiple discrimination belongs to the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman even if one of the discrimination grounds is gender. So, the simple advice is that Roma and Traveller women should contact the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman when they face discrimination.

Because of these divided powers, it’s evident that we in the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman’s Office have not taken women as target group in our work for promoting equality. So, in the future we, both the Gender Equality Ombudsman and the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, must do more to promote equality also for intersectional groups of vulnerable people, like Roma and Traveller women.

Slide 7: Rosita

I want to perceive the future positively. Although progress is made with small steps, each step is important. There is a constant development in the Roma community. There will be more Rositas every year, as secondary education will not be an exception among Roma in the future.

In our work, we have seen Roma mothers and their children receive an apology and compensation for discriminatory behaviour they faced in a restaurant, and we have seen another company pay compensation to Roma tenants after they were placed in apartments according to their origin. In addition, a shopkeeper was imposed a fine for discrimination and required to pay compensation to Roma women.

These accomplishments may seem small in the universe, but their significance is massive to the individuals. Discrimination is a serious issue; it violates human rights and should never be treated as overreacting. Human rights, non-discrimination and equality must always be defended. We must come back to why human rights agreements have been drafted. Because each and every human being is equally valuable, and must therefore be treated equally.

Thank you.


The speech was held on the 25th of March 2019 in Finland, Hanasaari at the 7th International Roma Women's Conference, Roma and Traveller Women's Access to Justice and Rights.