Six years ago, at the age of 17, I had my first experience with the Microsoft Windows operating system. Before this I had only worked in DOS. I had just graduated from high school and was beginning my work with a well established Roma human rights organization based in Sofia, Bulgaria. The boss, a man, handed me some books on the operating system and set me to work. Soon I was up and running, and I rose through the ranks of the organization.
A Woman Teaching Men
When our organization got an Internet connection, the boss once again called on me. I was the only staff member who spoke English, and for me the World Wide Web was an easily deciphered mystery. A new world opened up for me and our organization. As my skills improved, the boss began to rely on me more and more to help him communicate via e-mail with donors, supporters, and other activists. My boss asked me to train several other staff members on computers and Internet use.
But several of the young men in the organization were resentful. Who was this woman to teach them? Rather then be taught by a woman, they would have happily continued typing with one finger and struggling to produce documents.
Working with the women wasn't much easier. Many of the women I worked with were used to being taught by men, and they were distrustful of a woman teaching them. They were fearful of showing they did not know how to use the computer. Their competitiveness and fearfulness kept them from really learning from me, and I was unable to break through their resistance.
This resistance and pressure from the men in our community is commonplace, and it has meant that few Roma women know how to use computers and even fewer use e-mail. Luckily, the younger generation, men and women like me and my other eRider colleagues, are breaking down these walls.
A Shining Example
While young women tend to take to technology naturally, we have few examples in Bulgaria of older female activists using the Internet in their work. There aren't many older female activists in our traditional society, and there are even fewer with any computer skills.
With few examples in Bulgaria, I tell my younger colleagues about the work in Macedonia of a strong Roma woman in her 30's who has established an information center for Roma women. At the same time, she is a dedicated wife and mother. She has contributed to the creation of a Roma women activist network that covers seven countries. This informal network uses IT tools to communicate and collaborate. She gathers information, organizes and analyzes it, and reports it to the women's community to help members identify issues on which to collaborate. But she is the exception rather then the rule in our community.
While a lot has changed in our communities since I cracked my first book on Windows, not enough has changed to make it commonplace to see young women working alongside male colleagues at a computer. Some question whether the women's movement is even ready for an emphasis on technology. I, along with my other eRider colleagues, respond with a resounding yes.
The Tools of Our Emancipation
The emancipation of our community will not occur simply by helping Roma women become better daughters, wives, and mothers. We need to enable them to become better people who contribute to the betterment of our society. This will happen by supporting one another, communicating, collaborating, and sharing experiences. IT tools are perfect for enabling this collaboration. Through the work of our eRider team and other dedicated activists, the Roma women's movement is taking on technology whether our men like it or not.
Tips for Female eRiders
1. Be strong, despite the fact that many think that you are weak.
2. Show no fear, but do not be overconfident.
3. Be creative. If you need to use means no one else is using, then go ahead.
4. Never say "I can't do that," because there is always someone who will say, "I can do it."
5. Never postpone work for tomorrow. Be sharp, you have to prove that you are competitive.
Maria Metodieva from Sofia, Bulgaria, is an eRider with the Roma Information Project. She is a 2002 graduate of a Master's program in public administration, and a committed activist who has worked with several Romani organizations. Maria serves as an advisor on Roma issues to the National Foundation for an Open Society. As an eRider, she works with two sectors of NGOs -- women's organizations and organizations working on desegregation.