SYLVIA Dunn gave up her life as a travelling gypsy five years ago at the age of 65. 'I was getting too old to take the life. It was getting hard,' she says. So she bought two acres of land outside Rochford in Essex and moved on to it with her two caravans and two grown up children. She has since been fighting Rochford District Council's attempts to evict her. She has not been able to get planning permission to live on the site.

Like most gypsy women, years of harassment by police and local authorities have made Sylvia Dunn a force to be reckoned with. She is about to take on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill on behalf of the whole gypsy community. The legislation (at the House of Lords committee stage) will remove local authority obligation to provide sites for travellers' caravans, and give new powers to police, landowners and authorities to move people on.

Most of Britain's 8,000 gypsy families (around 50,000 people), half of whom are travelling or on illegal sites, will be affected.

Anger against the Bill has united British gypsy women for the first time. Last week, Sylvia set up the National Association of Gypsy Women (NAGW) - a feat which would have been thought impossible five years ago, mainly because of the gypsies' strong sense of privacy, their isolation and tendency to feuding.

'Women are phoning me all the time for details,' she says. 'They're fed up because the men haven't been doing enough. As long as they've got a cup of tea and can go to the pub they're happy. We're stronger than them, and although it's too late to stop the Bill we are going to do all we can to make it difficult for the Government to implement it.' Gypsy women, she says, have always been in the front line defending their families. 'We are the ones left behind looking after the children and the trailers when the police turn up. We are used to confronting authority.'

Many gypsy women, like Sylvia, are keen to sit you down with a cup of tea in their pristine, china-filled trailers and recount their experiences of prejudice: the woman who was told by a doctor to take her sick children to a vet; farmers spreading dung on fields to stink them off; councils dumping rubble in lay-bys to prevent them from settling; children being refused by schools.

The position of women in gypsy society belies their strength and influence. To outsiders, they appear conservative and dominated by their men. They keep their legs covered and crossed and housework is a priority. A woman is judged by the cleanliness of her caravan - mirrors, Formica and knick-knacks are polished every day. Cleaning rituals are strictly observed with a number of bowls for washing clothes, dish- cloths and food separately. There's women's talk and there's men's talk and they don't mix the two. Sex before marriage is shameful; divorce rare. For separated women like Sylvia, remarriage is frowned upon.

But gypsy women regard themselves the strong protectors of their culture and family life.

According to Sylvia Dunn, the Bill will particularly affect the health and education of women and children. 'Most women are on a temporary list of a GP for six months, but if they don't know where they are going to be from one day to the next who can they register with? It will be hard on pregnant women.'

Continuity of education will also be affected. 'Eighty per cent of adults can't read or write, but 80 per cent of the children can. If the families are being moved on all the time we will have another illiterate generation.' She taught herself to read and write five years ago.

Sylvia Dunn believes her association will strengthen the women's resistance. 'They think that getting us into houses will be the end of us. They had better think again. We are not going into houses. Why break up families by putting our men into prison, and our children into care? We are being criminalised for being gypsies. It's ethnic cleansing. It will turn women mad.'

(Photograph omitted)

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