Elisa Costa

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2018
Associação Internacional Maylê Sara Kalí
This description of Elisa Costa's work was prepared when Elisa Costa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .


Elisa Costa created the first national human rights association in support of the Roma population in Brazil led by women. This organization hopes to influence the social inclusion of the Roma in public policy, and to bring visibility to this minority group and their needs in their communities.

The New Idea

The Brazilian government does not produce credible data on the Roma population, which is estimated to be about 800 thousand people. As a result, institutional racism and unreliable information excludes the Roma population from public policy. In order to remove this population from invisibility, Elisa Costa created the Maylê Sara Kali International Association (AMSK) in 2009, the only Roma organization in Brazil - and one of the few in the world - led only by women. AMSK has strong roots in the ethnically diverse Roma population and advocates for the rights of Roma people to access the full range of social services available to non-Roma Brazilian citizens.

Elisa works to legitimize the data produced by the government on the Roma population. She has also encouraged the government of Brazil to have Roma representatives in national councils on health, education, and children and adolescence rights, and in international organizations working in Brazil, such as UN Women and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO). Through her efforts, PAHO gave official recognition to the needs of the Roma people in healthcare systems in the Latin America region, especially in countries where they are greater concentrated, such as Brazil and Colombia. This initiative also became culminated in the Brazilian National Public Policy Guide for Roma people in 2013.

Elisa wants to break stereotypes that involve Roma people and bring awareness to their history and culture. She is mobilizing young people, Roma and non-Roma, in universities and schools to promote inclusion in the educational system and give visibility to her people through producing web-based content. Working in a network, Elisa promotes several exchanges between Roma living in Europe and those living in Latin America. She wants to strengthen the Roma Latin American community in the search for and guarantee of its fundamental human rights.

The Problem

Government data does not accurately describe everyday life of the Roma population in Brazil. As a result, stereotypes that associate the Roma with being violent and living in camps remain in society. Since 2014, the Roma people have not appeared in the municipal surveys of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). The Special Secretariat for Racial Equality Policies (2011) estimates that there are more than 800 thousand Roma in Brazil, ranking the country among the ten in the world with the highest Roma population in absolute numbers. Currently, at least three Roma ethnicities live in Brazil: Calon, Rom and Sinti. Each of these ethnic groups have their own languages, cultures and customs. The Brazilian Romani are mainly concentrated in the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais and Goiás.

Only a small part of the Roma population in Brazil lives in the 291 camps mapped throughout the country (IBGE, 2011). Most of them live in cities, alongside non-Roma neighbors, but the stereotypes of the Roma draw heavily from people's sense of the impermanence of "Roma camp life.". As institutional racism persists, the Romani omit their origins and culture. Many Roma have adopted non-Roma names in an effort to escape discrimination, blend into the population and achieve social and economic mobility.

Despite being numerous, the Roma population is "invisible to the Brazilian authorities", suffering from lack of access to education, adequate healthcare and political participation. The Roma are also a frequent target of criminalization due to the propagation of stereotypes and prejudices by the media, according to the United Nations Special Report on Minorities (2015). According to the report , the Roma communities of the Americas are among the most discriminated and marginalized socially and economically.. The document points out that there are few official policies or programs dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights of Roma in the region. Furthermore, the identity of the Roma as a distinct group is often unknown or misinterpreted.

It is around the family that a Roma community organizes itself. There is a leader, always a man, appointed by merit and not by inheritance. Roma society is traditionally patriarchal. The scenario for Roma communities in other countries in the Americas is not very different from that found in Brazil, the report shows. In order to face the difficult situation for these populations in the Americas, the United Nations recommends that the countries of the region recognize the Roma as a distinct minority, so that they can fully exercise their human rights. Therefore guaranteeing to Roma people their right to live, to camp and to express their culture with dignity, with good conditions of basic sanitation and security.

The Strategy

Elisa always knew that to overcome the invisibility of the Roma people in Brazil, she had to gather information about them and make it available to the government. With her 20+ years of experience as a doctor in Roma communities, she was able to create a database and trust based-network across Roma communities in different parts of Brazil. However, she realized that it was necessary to create the Maylê Sara Kali International Association to formally establish this network, and so that the information produced had an institution behind and the demands of the Roma population could be heard in decision-making and public policy-making spaces.

Her strategy is divided in different fronts of action: 1) widespread dissemination of information about the Romani people in Brazil and in other countries; 2) strengthening of rights and public policies for the Roma people; 3) interaction with Roma people in other countries; and the 4) empowerment of the new Romani generations.

Since the founding of AMSK in 2009, Elisa has coordinated a network of Roma and non-Roma for the management of information about Roma in Brazil and around the world, including the collection and dissemination of articles, dissertations and theses; reference works on the Roma in the world in various areas of knowledge; images - pictures, paintings and videos - of the situation of the Roma people in Brazil and in other countries; and data and studies on the Roma in Brazil. AMSK's work depends heavily on the financial support of individuals and government funding, but above all on the participation and voluntary engagement of a diverse network of women scattered throughout the five regions of the country. AMSK has a network of "friends" comprised of prosecutors, statisticians, sociologists and lawyers, who in most cases volunteer their time to revise data relating to the Roma population. In 2011, for example, the organization qualified the data of the Brazilian government and identified that of the municipalities that claimed to have Roma camps, only 13% implemented public policies for this population.

From the existence of data, Elisa - and AMSK - begin to be more able to demand from the government. In the last six years, AMSK has established a strong dialogue with the federal government, for having promoted the 2012 Cycle of Debates - Roma: an invisible story - an event that gathered international leaders of the Roma movement, representations of the federal government, international organizations and researchers in Brazil for the first time. It was in this event, even, that the Roma flag was created. In 2013, AMSK led the group of organizers of the Brazil Roma event, National Week of Roma People, held in Brasília, which provided discussions on the improvement of public policies in various areas and marked the launch of the Guide for Public Policies for Roma, of the Secretariat of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality, an organ linked to the presidency of the republic. From this event, the government implemented the 940 decree in the Ministry of Health that guarantees to free access to healthcare for all Roma in Brazil.

Elisa strongly believes in the potential of young Roma women and together with her network identifies these leaderships throughout the country. These women have become empowered and many have been elected to represent the Roma in national councils of health, education and children and adolescence rights. And also in international organizations working in Brazil, such as UN Women and The Pan American Health Organization, where Elisa is leading the design of a health policy for the Roma population living in Latin America. They also have a position at the Ciranda 2030 Coalition to follow up the implementation of the Sustainable Development Objectives in Brazil. With this strategy, Elisa is ensuring that the next generation continue to advocate for the rights of the Romani people and have access to dialogue with the government. These spaces have never before been occupied by representatives of the Roma peoples in Brazil. Some results are already being implemented, such as the guide produced by the government with the AMSK consultancy aimed at health professionals to care for Roma people, taking into account cultural specificities.

Although AMSK is made up mostly of Roma women, there are a number of AMSK "friends" who support the organization who are not Roma. For Elisa, multi-ethical contact is fundamental, as it contributes to combat institutional racism and strengthen dialogue. Through AMSK, Elisa promotes dialogue between Roma community leaders and executive, legislative and judicial bodies, including the reporting of human rights violations suffered by these communities. AMSK also conducts training seminars and activities, involving government managers, civil servants and students. Elisa also has interaction with other minorities and traditional people, like quilombolas (descendents of slaves), fishermen and indigenous people.

Elisa acts directly at the national level, but is always seeking to strengthen the dialogue with organizations and leaders of the Romani peoples of other countries, with a special focus on Colombia, Spain and Portugal - aiming at exchanging of knowledge, experiences and good practices in terms of organization and construction of public policies, programs and actions. AMSK is a partner of Livraria Lumière, from Porto, Portugal, for example, in the survey of Portuguese literature, studies and literary productions on the Roma people. She also in collaboration with Romed - Program of the Council of Europe - whose main objective is to stimulate the active participation of Roma communities at the local level on the basis of mediation.

Elisa pays special attention to future generations. With the Ministry of Education, she created a guidebook for the education system in relation to Roma children. And more recently, in partnership with the federal government, she has begun to implement in six states a project that gathers university Roma women with Roma and non-Roma children and young people for cultural exchange. She wants to break the stereotypes that surrounds the Romani through access to information while inspiring others that it is possible to be a woman, a Roma and have a professional career. Elisa knows that paradigm shifts take years and she is relentless in preparing the younger ones so that they do not give up the struggles for the rights of the Roma people.

The Person

Elisa was born and raised until the age of nine in Patos de Minas, in the interior of Minas Gerais. She had two fathers and two mothers, the biological and the heart ones, as she says. Since she was little, she had a lot of contact with doctors and hospitals, because she was mistakenly diagnosed with cerebral dysrhythmia. She took medicine for 15 years. However, It did not prevent her from being a leader in the school and to excel in biology and arts classes. But, though popular, she felt inadequate, different. At the age of nine she moved to Brasilia with her biological parents.

Brasília was a cultural melting pot at the time. Elisa discovered many Roma people - politicians, civil servants, artists - who did not identify themselves as such. During college, she lived a year in Italy, where she got to know another extreme of the Roma population: children in camps that have been stamped by police since the age of four.

Elisa graduated in 1990 and until 2005 lived an itinerant life in Brazil, serving in the Roma camps, mainly in Minas, Goiás and São Paulo with traditional medicine in very poor places, and then recovering in Brasília so she was creating bonds and knowing the Roma of all Brazil.That's when Elisa had the idea of creating a group of Roma women and using dance and her knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine to take care of mental health. She realized that there was no specific public policy for Roma women. This was the trigger for the creation of AMSK, which was formalized years later.