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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 May, 2004, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Gypsy child brides
By Callum Macrae
Director, World Weddings: Gypsy Child Brides

Cristofer and Regina
Cristofer and Regina are party to centuries-old gypsy tradition

The Romany people of Romania have been persecuted almost continually since they arrived as migrants from India 1,000 years ago.

Today they are amongst the poorest people in Europe, vilified in Romania and now also regarded with ignorant fear in other countries.

Ostracised and driven to the margins of society, the Gypsies have become increasingly insular.

One effect has been that they have preserved their ancient culture - isolated, but remarkably intact. It is rich and meaningful certainly, but also locked in time.

In particular it has failed to adapt to contemporary notions of gender equality. If the Romany people are terribly oppressed, their women are doubly so.

Precedent

Last year the world was outraged when Florin Cioaba, King of the Gypsies, married off his 12-year-old daughter, Ana Maria, in a grand ceremony in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu.

Florin Cioaba, King of the Gypsies
King Florin Cioaba's actions have split the gypsy community

The Romanian authorities who had previously turned a blind eye on the proceedings (or to be more accurate, a deeply uninterested eye) - were galvanised into condemning the marriage.

Their motive had more to do with their desire to protect Romania's chances of joining the EU in 2007, than looking after the rights of Romany children.

But for the ordinary Gypsies of Romania, the attacks felt like yet another assault on their very right to exist.

They are proud of their culture.

That was clear when they agreed to give us the extraordinary and intimate access which has resulted in our film Gypsy Child Brides. But equally, they are not in a mood to question it.

To honour

On her wedding night, 14-year-old Regina smiled shyly as her new mother-in-law explained what would happen.

"Pull the night-shirt carefully underneath you," she said, holding up the cotton nightgown, "so your honour can appear on it in black and white".

Cristofer holds Regina's bloodstained nightgown
The blood-stained nightgown is proof Regina was a virgin bride
Next door in the kitchen, Cornel, her new father-in-law, was giving last minute instructions to Cristofer her new husband.

"I've paid good money for a virgin," he said. "If you find out that she isn't a virgin, then she is not worth the money."

Regina had only met her husband once since she was sold by her father for $3,000, to Cristofer's family. That night she would sleep with him for the first time.

In fact it took six long days before the marriage was consummated.

And when it was, the family carefully wrapped the nightgown - the bloody evidence of her virginity - and piled into two cars, along with the gift of a live chicken and a specially hired musician, to drive the 40 kilometres to Regina's home village.

There the celebrations of Regina's "honour" lasted all night. Her proud father declared: "If she had not been a virgin I would have brought her back with my own hand."

Of course one of the arguments for arranged marriages is that parents, with all their experience of relationships, are actually better equipped to choose partners for their children than the children themselves.

In Regina's case her father turned down a higher offer for her hand, because Regina on the basis of one meeting - liked Cristofer better.

Six weeks later we called back to see Regina and Cristofer. They looked, it has to be said, blissfully happy. "I can't bear to be without him, because I love him very much," said Regina. "It's very beautiful to be married!"

To obey

Regina may be the lucky one. But she will need all the optimism she can muster. Women in Gypsy society have virtually no rights, but must shoulder most of the responsibilities for keeping the family fed and housed.

Gypsy women
Roma women face a lifetime of subservience and family duty
"The woman's role," said Viorel Motoi, an influential local gypsy and friend of the family, "is that of a slave." He was not suggesting this was a bad thing.

As well as exploitation within their community, they face racism from without.

Just a couple of weeks before we met them, Cristofer's house was attacked by a racist mob who threatened to burn them out of town. His mother was beaten up and left with broken ribs.

For more than 1,000 years, Gypsy girls have been sold into marriage and all too often it has been against their will.

It is hardly surprising then that, by tradition, Gypsy girls look unhappy at their wedding.

For many of them, the ceremony feels more like the beginning of servitude than a celebration future happiness.


World Weddings: Gypsy Child Brides was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two at 2200 BST on Wednesday, 2 June, 2004.


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