• The Calypso Journal

New Threats to Gender Equality

Updated: Jul 3

- How new laws strike the Romanian LGBT community as well as the fight for gender equality.

This article came about when social media posts about the anti-gender law caught the attention of a Romanian teenager currently living in the UK. She decided to contact The Calypso Journal and help the news across the Romanian border.

By Sophia Țigănaș and Antonia Listrat.

Lately, it has been far too easy to feel like one might be going insane. Everyone on the internet has been constantly buried under a metric ton of news, articles, social media movements, from all over the world. No matter what the last trending hashtag was, rest assured that it was something serious, leaving many of us drained and lacking optimism.

For Romania, the stress and chaos brought on by current world events has been hard to swallow, especially coupled with multiple national controversies. Strangely enough, most of the news that has been turning this small East-European country on its head has not made it past its borders. Romanian social media has been swarming with what has been going on both inside and outside this corner of the world; meanwhile, we have had to come face to face with the realization that no matter how outrageous the events unfolding locally might be, the rest of the world is a million miles away, not noticing how we seem to be going back in time.

The subject of sexuality and gender has long been stigmatized in Romania, resulting in discrimination and violence. 50% of Romanian high school students would not accept a gay classmate – found a study conducted by Accept, an NGO dedicated to helping the Romanian LGBT community, in 2016. 71% of the LGBT students included in the study stated they do not feel safe at school, while 61% claimed they have been victims of or have witnessed anti-LGBT aggression.

Quite clearly, the majority of LGBT people still feel unwelcome, and experience bullying and harassment, based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Organizations such as GirlUp Romania have expressed concerns numerous times about the way in which Romanian society and the governmental system are failing to protect its citizens, especially vulnerable members of their community. When victims of domestic abuse, members of the LGBT community, or victims of sexual assault decide to share their experiences with families and friends, when they go to the police to report a crime or are brought before a jury, their lives rest in the hands of people who statistically, as explained below, are not always accepting of people in such positions.

Among the few Romanian controversies that have managed to make it to international news is the newly proposed and voted in "anti-gender" law. On June 16th PMP senator Vasile Cristian Lungu ­– a theologian educated in the USA– took advantage of the fact that most of the senate was absent that day and introduced this new law into the agenda only 30 minutes before the commencement of the plenary session; additionally, many politicians who were there have admitted they didn’t know what they were voting on at the time. For instance, PNL senator Eugen Tapu is reported by Vice Romania to have said "I don't know anything about this law [...] I don't even know what I voted on this." The Parliament has now adopted a bill that would ban the notion of gender identity, or "gender theory" from all academic institutions, including universities; "[gender theory] being the opinion that gender is a concept different than biological sex and that the two are not always the same." The proposed law could abolish entire departments and academic fields, and ban and confiscate any and all scientific papers on gender, therefore enlarging the knowledge gap and discouraging the pursuit of such research in academics.

The law is widely considered to go against EU Freedom of Expression regulations, which state: "This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers"; however Article 10 of the European Convention of Human RIghts makes an exception "[...]for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others[...]". This exception may be used to defend the law. However, news sources have reported that President Iohannis is not planning on enacting the proposed law.

Romanians are frustrated by this act, which for many is an attack on their rights of expression and freedom of speech, and goes against the most up-to-date research on gender. This attack aimed at the LGBT+ community is occurring during Pride Month, a fact that has not escaped Romanians. However, they feel powerless as protests continue to be banned in the country due to COVID-19 restrictions. In hope of protecting their rights, they came one by one and put their placards outside the President’s residence in a peaceful protest, one that was still, however, stopped by the police.

This is the only event in Romania that has been reported on by major international news outlets.

The second topic that has been widely discussed in Romania lately is the lack of comprehensive sexual education in schools. Earlier this year, a sex education law was passed and approved by the President. This law underwent drastic changes later on that altered its ability to achieve its purpose. Sex is still considered a highly taboo subject in Romania; as a result the course’s name was changed to “health education” and it was decided it would only be taught to students who got a permission slip from their parents. Sex education is a course tackling toxic mentalities from a young age, meant to teach children what consent, healthy relationships, and protection are, among many other topics important for the improvement of health and relationships. For these mentalities to truly be tackled, every student would need to be present, not just those allowed by parents.

There are many reasons sexual education that is comprehensive and scientific is especially necessary in Romania: we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy, 1 in 10 women has not been to see a gynecologist in 10 years, and we have more cases of HPV than the European average. As reported by a 2016 Time Magazine article, 55% of the population believes that non-consensual sex can be justified. These issues and more can be addressed by sexual education.

The stigmatization of sex education - usually reserved for quick talks at home - does nothing but damage. Romania must make progress if it is to evolve as a country, where stories of brutal cases of gender-based violence, domestic and sexual abuse are all too common in the news.

Let us elaborate a bit on why exactly we want to have a discussion about rape culture in Romania. We will take a look at 3 cases that are relevant in Romania right now (and that have not been covered by international media).

Recently, a teenage girl from Mehedinti has been hospitalized and is as of now in critical condition due to inappropriate responses from the police after she reported her rapist. A few days after the girl sought out the help of police, the man who she had filed the complaint against –a convicted murderer set free on “good behavior” ­– attacked her in her own home, covering her in gasoline and setting her on fire. The police had allegedly told him about her complaint.

This hostile behavior is often reinforced due to Romania’s prevailing social attitudes that normalize and trivialize sexual assault. This rape culture even thrives amongst the most popular influencers and content creators. Alexandru Balan, a Youtuber with almost a million subscribers, described a violent rape scenario in one of his streams while stating that “these (girls) don’t deserve to be forgiven (for the way they are dressed).” He went on to graphically describe what he thinks would be appropriate to happen to the girl he was talking about. His statement was followed by hundreds of thousands of comments completely agreeing with him. He has since been investigated by the police and faced legal consequences for instigating rape.

This tendency to stigmatize and trivialize sexual assault can even be seen in more mainstream media, such as recently when Emiliana Burghelea, co-presenter at a Romanian television network, resigned on air from the TV station after the production team of a widely controversial series refused to talk about how one of the reality show’s main protagonists was being abused by her husband. The team on tried to cover up her words, telling her to calm down, before the cameras were suddenly cut off. After her resignation, she faced public backlash, and the TV station she had worked at tried to conceal the whole event. The story has not been covered by any news outlets. The majority of Romanian girls and women live their lives with the knowledge that sexual assault and harassment is so common hanging over them, and this anti-gender law will only harden the burden they already carry, stopping countless organizations fighting for gender equality dead in their tracks.

To showcase the importance of sexual education and how it impacts gender issues, we’ve looked at the experiences and thoughts expressed by Romanian girls and compared them with those shared by women from the UK. It was not hard to conclude that sexual education has had a very positive impact on a young person’s life, not only improving the quality of their relationships but also raising their self-confidence. Girls who have grown up with sexual education being normalized– in countries such as the UK– have healthier and more positive attitudes towards sexuality and sex. Having friendly and non-judgemental staff provide them with the necessary guidance, young people delay having sex until they are ready, at which point they know how to use contraception effectively and stay safe. This is how the UK has managed to half underage pregnancies and significantly reduce the rate of STDs. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a 6.2% decrease in underage pregnancies in England compared to 2017, and a 58% decrease compared to 2008.

Studies show that post-natal depression affects teenage mothers more than older women. Suffering damage to their long-term job or education, a fifth of these young women are more likely to have no qualifications by the age of 30, while 22% are more likely to be living in poverty by that age. Moreover, infant mortality is 60% higher among babies born to teenage mothers, and they are more likely to be raised in poverty. A significant number of underage mothers are raising their children alone. With the expectation that parenthood comes later in life, teenage mothers have to face both negative attitudes and Government policies that don’t take their needs into account. In Romania, the majority of these children end up in state care.

Past events broadcasted by the mainstream media have highlighted why civil rights movements are still relevant today. Romania’s population is deprived of this knowledge. You see almost nothing of Black Lives Matter on the news, no matter how many peaceful protests Romanian teenagers and organizations are trying to put together, and rarely any in-depth coverage of serious issues in Romania. Some politicians even seem to be failing to do their research correctly from start to finish: most noticeably, the PMP Senator behind the aforementioned anti-gender law confused two NGOs with similar names and ended up mentioning a completely unrelated organization in a Senate session instead. He also made unfounded and untrue claims about multiple organizations in his speech.

If the media would shed more light on the issues affecting Romania, arming the people with the information they need to fight against a system that time and time again fails to provide them with help and opportunity, Romanian society could finally offer real support to the communities being put down by the government.

Meanwhile, Romanian news is dying out before it passes the border, sizzling out before getting the media coverage it deserves on an international scale. The rest of the world seems to be a million miles away, not noticing how people are slowly losing patience and hoping for real change.

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