Coerced sterilisation of Europe’s Romani women is not yet a thing of our past

Czech Republic: Demonstration against coerced sterilisation in front of a hospital in Ostrava, August 2006. (Photo Romea.cz).
Czech Republic: Demonstration against coerced sterilisation in front of a hospital in Ostrava, August 2006. (Photo Romea.cz).

Surgical sterilisation, performed without the knowledge of the Romani women themselves, was a widespread governmental practice during the years 1972 – 1991 in former Czechoslovakia. However, some cases of this coerced sterilisation still appear today in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. And thus, unfortunately, this serious violation of human rights and reproductive rights is still not yet part of bitter history of former Eastern bloc countries only. Discrimination against Roma people is still a current problem in Europe. Nevertheless, coerced sterilisation is not only the part of discrimination against Roma people, but a form of violence against women also.

The Czech Republic

From the February 1972 until May 1991, coerced surgical sterilisation was carried out under the motto “in the interest of a healthy population”. In that time, social workers and officers motivated women to undergo sterilisation by paying them 10.000 CZK (around 360 EUR).

“In 1990 I was 21 years old and pregnant for the second time. There were some complications during the delivery so doctors decided for caesarean section. Doctors came with some document which I had to sign, they told me that it was an agreement for the caesarean.” Elena Gorolova, spokeswoman of the Association of Women Harmed by Coerced Sterilisation, recalls. Only later she found out that she was sterilised and could not have children anymore. The fact that she would never have a daughter as she had always dreamed was shocking and painful for Elena. That is why she decided to devote her life to campaign to increase awareness about the coerced sterilisation and to help other victims to claim for compensation.

Recent information from August 2014 says that the Czech minister for human rights, Jiri Dienstbier, in cooperation with the Helsinki Committee are preparing the draft of a law regarding compensation for victims of this coerced sterilisation. The compensation could be from 100.000 to 150.000 CZK (approximately from 3.500 to 5.300 EUR).

Czech Republic: Elena Gorolova, one of the victims of coerced sterilisation and spokeswoman of the Association of women harmed by coerced sterilisation (Photo Romea.cz).
Czech Republic: Elena Gorolova, one of the victims of coerced sterilisation and spokeswoman of the Association of women harmed by coerced sterilisation (Photo Romea.cz).

Unfortunately, this violent practice did not stop after the end of communist era in Czechoslovakia and the subsequent breakup into two independent republics. In the post-communistic Czech Republic, social workers are no longer involved in motivating Roma women to undergo sterilisation, but the recurrent scenario involving doctors sterilizing Roma women is the same: the consent with sterilisation is missing, woman´s signature are secured during delivery, or shortly before delivery, which are the moments in which women can be in great pain and stress. Other cases involve consent provided on the basis of misinformation or a lack of adequate information on alternative methods of contraception.

This is case of Iveta Holubova and Kristina Bolvanova, two Czech Romani women. Iveta Holubova was mid-delivery of her second child in 1998 when she was told that sterilisation would be temporary and her fertility could be restored with injections. Which is of course not true. Kristina Bolvanova cannot read, so she was not able to understand the papers she was made to sign. Only later did doctors explain to her what they did.

The topic of coerced sterilisation of Roma women in the Czech Republic was kickstarted in 2004 by the European Roma Rights Centre. Dozens of women, prompted by discussion, came out with their own stories. Although the Czech Government issued a general recognition and expression of regret over the practice in 2009 and as it is written above, they are preparing law about compensation for victims of coerced sterilisation which were done in years 1971-1991, for those women who were sterilised after 1991 there is little chance for compensation. Regarding the civil claims, there is a three-year time limitation. This means that if women who have been sterilised after 1991 seek compensation, they have to bring their case to court no later than 3 years after the sterilisation. Which is a big problem, because many women find out later and are therefore blocked from any compensation.

Regarding the number of women sterilised since the beginning of the 1970s till today, no exact data is available. In November 2009, the late Czech Ombudsperson Otakar Motejl stated, that as many as 90,000 women may have been sterilised in the former-Czechoslovakia since the beginning of the 1980s. If we consider also the period of years 1971-1979 and also years since the breakup of Czechoslovakia until today, the number of sterilised women may be significantly higher.

Slovakia and Hungary

The situation of coerced sterilisation in post-soviet Slovakia and Hungary is quite similar to the Czech one, perhaps even worse. As the cases of V.C., a Slovak-Romani woman, who was sterilised in 2000 or A.S., a Hungarian-Romani woman who was sterlised in 2001, testify that their Romani ethnicity was the fact which played the main role in the doctor’s decision to sterilise them. Not only were they were not informed fully on what their sterilisation meant, or threatened that future pregnancy would be risky for both mother’s and baby’s health – they also experienced segregation in hospitals (both in Slovakia and Hungary); as they were segregated in rooms for Romani women, barred also from using the same bathrooms as non-Roma women.

For the Slovak women harmed by sterilisation it is as difficult to claim for any kind of compensation as it is for Czech women, maybe even more difficult. Numerous cases are postponed because of the refusal by hospitals to provide or allow access to medical files. In other instances, police reportedly conducted interviews with alleged victims of coercive sterilisations while simultaneously threatening to prosecute their partners for statutory rape. Hungary has not shared the regret seen in the other countries and Hungarian have not provided any kind of compensation for women harmed by sterilisation.

Sterilisation as a human rights violation

Reproductive rights are incorporated in basic human rights principles, such as the right to life or the right to health. Therefore coerced sterilisation is a violation of basic human rights. But it has also serious impact on the Romani community and their traditions. Traditionally, children are one of the most important element of Roma´s life. For Roma people, having a lot of children is the sign of a happy and lucky life. Finding that the wife is sterilised is thus sometimes the reason for her husband to leave her and find other wife, who would be able to give him more children.

Many Roma women, who were harmed by sterilisation can therefore only hope that their children will bring them many grandchildren and that their family will be as big as they wish. As Elena Gorolova, one of the victims of coerced sterilisation and spokeswoman of the Association of women harmed by coerced sterilisation, says: “I have only two sons, but I hope that they will have a daughters one day. And so even if I was not allowed to have a daughter, I will at least have granddaughter.”

***

Eva Michálková is volunteer and activist from the Czech Republic who last year graduated with a degree in International Social and Humanitarian Work. She is currently working as an international volunteer at the Women´s Information Centre in Tbilisi.

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