Mustafa Jakupov|20.08.2014|Feature

It’s a real breakthrough for young Roma to talk about some dark hidden parts of their culture, especially taboo subjects such as sex and virginity.

In 2010, we launched Regional Roma Educational Youth Association (RROMA) with funding from MTV Staying Alive. We started a revolution in local communities in Macedonia, talking about HIV and AIDS and other types of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

What was most shocking for some of our peers was talking about safe sex. In the beginning it was like talking to a brick wall.

“I remember the first training session, the participants that took part in it; the moment discussing about sex and demonstrating proper condom usage; the laughter and then the silence that followed when some of them were asked to demonstrate how to use a condom”, recalls Merlin Jakupova, a young HIV awareness trainer who works with RROMA.

Merlin comes from the Roma community of Kratovo, Macedonia, and has so far helped to train 14 peer educators for RROMA.

“I must thank my parents for not being stubborn and allowing me to participate in my first training. I think they are aware of the importance of having access to information. HIV/AIDS is a global problem and we are all exposed to it. Not discussing it or hiding access to information will not make the problem go away. It will make it worse!”, explains Merlin.

Taboos around sex have damaging consequences for Roma communities in Macedonia like a high rate of underage marriages, which don’t last long and usually end up with a break-up or divorce.

“This topic [sex and HIV] is still a taboo in our community, although you can feel that there is a hunger and demand for more and better access to information about it”, says Fetija Demirovska, programme assistant at RROMA.

Fetija highlighted another negative consequence of this silence around sex: the high infant mortality among the Roma communities, the causes of which are also connected to the fact that a lot of the girls that give birth are under 18 years old.

“Young Roma are under pressure and don’t have the freedom to decide over their sexual life, without being grabbed by the claws of tradition and customs”, explains Fetija. “And it’s actually these kinds of things that cause most of the problems related to sexual reproductive health.”

One cannot talk about Roma culture and sexual reproductive health without mentioning virginity. The question of being a virgin or marrying a virgin isn’t just a moral question. To respect the values and traditions of older generations, especially the tradition of virginity, many young Roma decide to refrain from sexual intercourse before marriage and instead engage in unsafe oral and anal sex.

“Just because we live in the 21-st century doesn’t mean we have to throw away our inherited values”, contests a mother whose child was part of RROMA’s HIV awareness workshops. According to her the increasing sexual freedom among young people reflects the move towards a more egocentric society, which will create wider social isolation.

We are aware that a sudden change can destabilise our society, which is based on strong moral values and traditions passed on for generations, but as young leaders we want to see a change in our communities. This is why we are approaching things step by step. We are the change we want to see in our communities.

Image credit: hushed_lavinia/2006