Challenging Coercive Sterilisations of Romani Women in the Czech Republic
From the 1970s until 1990, the Czechoslovak government sterilised Romani women programmatically, as part of policies aimed at reducing the "high, unhealthy" birth rate of Romani women. This policy was decried by the Czechoslovak dissident initiative Charter 77, and documented extensively in the late 1980s by dissidents Zbynek Andrs and Ruben Pellar. Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch) addressed the issue in a comprehensive report published in 1992 on the situation of Roma in Czechoslovakia, concluding that the practice had ended in mid-1990. A number of cases of coercive sterilisations taking place in 1990 or before then in the Czech part of the former Czechoslovakia have also been recently documented by the ERRC. Criminal complaints filed with Czech and Slovak prosecutors on behalf of sterilised Romani women in each republic were dismissed in 1992 and 1993. No Romani woman sterilised by Czechoslovak authorities has ever received justice or even public recognition of the injustices to which they were systematically subjected under Communism.
During 2003 and 2004, the ERRC and partner organisations in the Czech Republic undertook a number of field missions to the Czech Republic to determine whether practices of coercive sterilisation have continued after 1990, and if they were ongoing to the present. The conclusions of this research indicate that there is significant cause for concern that to the present day, Romani women in the Czech Republic have been subjected to coercive sterilisations, and that Romani women are at risk in the Czech Republic of being subjected to sterilisation absent fully informed consent.
During the course of research, researchers found that Romani women have been coercively sterilised in recent years in the Czech Republic. Cases documented include:
- Cases in which consent has reportedly not been provided at all, in either oral or written form, prior to the operation;
- Cases in which consent was secured during delivery or shortly before delivery, during advanced stages of labour, i.e. in circumstances in which the mother is in great pain and/or under intense stress;
- Cases in which consent appears to have been provided (i) on a mistaken understanding of terminology used, (ii) after the provision of apparently manipulative information and/or (iii) absent explanations of consequences and/or possible side effects of sterilisation, or adequate information on alternative methods of contraception;
- Cases in which officials put pressure on Romani women to undergo sterilisation, including through the use of financial incentives or threats to withhold social benefits;
- Cases in which explicit racial motive appears to have played a role during doctor-patient consultations.
In early 2005, about 25 of Romani women coercively sterilised by Czech medical officials established a victim advocacy group called the Group of Women Harmed by Sterilisation to press authorities to press for justice. On the occasion of the establishment of the group, spokesperson Helena Ferencikova said, "We want public recognition by the Czech government of our suffering. We are owed legal remedy because our fundamental rights have been systemically violated by Czech doctors and other officials. We have decided that we will not be silent anymore."
Following their decision to come forward publicly, members of the Group of Women Harmed by Sterilisation -- thus far an informal network of victims in the greater Ostrava area -- were photographed by Andreea Anca-Strauss. The gallery of portraits presented here are part of her work for the ERRC.
Seventy-six victims of coercive sterilisation -- all but one of them women and the overwhelming majority of them Romani -- have to date submitted complaints to the Czech Public Defender of Rights ("the Ombudsman"). Following discussions in late 2004, the Czech Ministry of Health established a panel to review files of alleged victims and provide answers to questions submitted by the Ombudsman. Although the panel has thus far met twice, it has not made public its findings, and to date none of the victims have yet seen justice.
In September and November 2004, the ERRC and local partners sent two letters to the Czech Minister of Health, urging that independent experts in informed consent issues be included in the Ministry panel. To date however, the Ministry has not responded to either letter.
On 4 March 2005, the first in a series of civil complaints in the matter was filed in an Ostrava court, on behalf of Helena Ferencikova, coercively sterilised by doctors in an Ostrava hospital in 2001. Human Rights Advocate Michaela Tomisova, Ms Ferencikova's legal representative said, "Following first news of this action, we have been swamped with calls from other Romani women from all over the Czech Republic. The lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Ferencikova is only a first step. The Czech government needs to provide basic recognition that this problem exists and that there are many victims awaiting redress. It must make available easily accessible procedures with all due privacy guarantees such that all victims can come forward with dignity. The Czech government also needs to take the lead in providing a full and complete public account of the dimensions of the problem."
On these matters, the ERRC has worked closely with local partners Life Together, League of Human Rights and IQ Roma Service. Life Together has taken the lead on facilitating the establishment of the Group of Women Harmed by Sterilisation. The ERRC has provided expertise and funding support to Attorney Tomisova, based with local partner IQ Roma Service, as well as to Ms Anca-Strauss. The League of Human Rights has also provided legal expertise and has designed local media action. All partners have undertaken extensive field research throughout 2004 and 2005, following initial ERRC field research into the issue in 2003. Further legal action will follow in the coming period.
Michaela Tomisova (IQ Roma Service): ++ 420 73 795 13 23
Helena Ferencikova (via Kumar Vishwanathan, Life Together): ++ 420 77 77 60 191
Jiri Kopal (League of Human Rights): ++ 420 60 87 19 535
Claude Cahn (ERRC): ++ 36 20 98 36 445
All of the photographs presented here are jointly owned by Andreea Anca-Strauss and the European Roma Rights Centre. For information on securing rights to reprint, please contact Andreea Anca-Strauss at: , ++ 36 30 49 39 542