States as perpetrators of gendered and intersectional violence against Roma

By Ethel Brooks

Below is the full text of the speech made by ERRC Board Chair Ethel Brooks on Addressing Violence against Women – the Responsibility of the State at the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in Vienna on 2 July 2018. In a powerful address covering coercive sterilization, forced evictions and institutional violence against Roma, she called for gender mainstreaming and an intersectional approach to overcome racism and marginalization: 

“We, Roma and Sinti women in the OSCE area, are vulnerable to sexual violence, domestic violence and trafficking, often with no protection and no recourse, because much of the violence –whether it comes from inside or outside of our communities—is framed as “culture.” We must move away from this dangerous formation, often upheld by participating states and authorities … Roma and Sinti have experienced participating states as perpetrators of gendered and intersectional violence —from border control to the withholding of birth documents, refusal of equal treatment, police harassment and police violence. In order to achieve safeguards and protection for Roma and Sinti, women and children, disabled and able-bodied, we need to mainstream gender, to understand racialization and marginalization, and to take an intersectional approach to this work.” 

Madam Moderator,

The intersectional vulnerabilities of Roma and Sinti women are evidenced across the OSCE region, taking on various forms in a variety of contexts. Roma and Sinti women in the OSCE region are subjected to gender-based violence that is magnified by racism, social and economic exclusion, and discrimination based on ability, sexuality and citizenship. While participating states are responsible for the protection of their citizens and providing services to those harmed by state and non-state actors, they often turn a blind eye to the discrimination and violence faced by Roma and Sinti women.

In particular, OSCE Decision No. 4/13, which reaffirmed the OSCE commitments regarding Roma and Sinti, noted, “that Roma and Sinti continue to be the targets of racism and bias-motivated violence in the OSCE area…in this context … Roma and Sinti women and girls are particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of discrimination, as well as to violence and harassment…[and] Roma and Sinti women’s rights and equality between men and women, in particular, need to be supported and promoted by State policies and institutions, with the active involvement of Roma and Sinti women.” It is important to remind participating states of the responsibility to uphold the rights of Roma and Sinti and, in particular the most vulnerable: Roma and Sinti women, girls, and women with disabilities. To that end, I would like to voice several examples that demonstrate the intersectional vulnerabilities of Roma and Sini women to violence and lack of state response to the violence these women face  (1) compensation mechanisms related to the sterilization of Roma women in Czech Republic, Slovakia and elsewhere; (2) the vulnerability of Roma and Sinti women and during forced evictions and racist attacks on Roma and Sinti communities, and (3) in the denial of the provision of basic services such as healthcare, education, water, electricity and housing.

Forced and Coerced Sterilization

Coerced and forced sterilization is among the most egregious violations of Roma and Sinti women’s rights. Roma and Sinti women have been subject to coerced and forced sterilization in a number of participating States of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Cases are documented in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Germany and Uzbekistan.

In 2009, the Czech Government issued an official apology for its forced and coercive sterilization practices against Roma and Sinti and other women. This acknowledgement has come in response to pressure and detailed testimony by survivors and victims’ groups, including Elena Gorolova, who is a participant in this meeting. I want to take a moment to thank Ms. Gorolova for her work. The importance of Elena Gorolova’s testimony, of the documentation of violations by organizations of victims and survivors, has to be recognized and recorded by the OSCE and participating states. The activism of Ms. Gorolova and others, their courage and their sustained commitment has brought these violations to light. 

Sweden, in response to the White Paper outlining the historical and present violence, discrimination and rights violations carried out against Roma, formed an independent body, the Swedish Commission against Anti-Gypsyism. The Commission consisted of independent experts, including Roma, and worked to defend the rights of Roma and to fight against anti-Gypsyism, which it defined as a particular form of racism directed against Roma. The Committee provided recommendations about the documented forced and coercive sterilization of Roma and Sinti women and the registration of Roma in police records across decades in Sweden, including compensation, historical documentation and education in the schools. Sweden has provided compensation to victims and recognition of this history, and I further encourage the Swedish government to build upon these recommendations to ensure the security of its Roma and Sinti citizens.

Participating states with a history of forced and coerced sterilization of Roma and Sinti women, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Hungary and others, must recognize the testimony and the demands of Roma and Sinti women as documenting a terrible history that must be rectified and for which victims must be compensated.

Based on the recommendations of the participants in the 2016 OSCE/ODIHR Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues conference on Forced and Coercive Sterilization of Roma Women and the 2016 European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) report on forced and coerced sterilization of Roma and Sinti women, OSCE participating states are overdue in providing appropriate compensation for all victims of forced and coerced sterilization, and in recognizing the deleterious effects of the program, which disproportionally affected Roma and Sinti women and the documentation and testimonial work done by Roma and Sinti women victims and survivors on this issue. Furthermore, participating states should suspend any statute of limitation on making claims against the state and provide free legal services for victims; there should be state transparency in allocating compensation and the inclusion of representatives of victims’ groups and independent experts in the process.

One of the most significant barriers to justice for those victims of forced sterilization remains the lack of compensation by the state. Recognition without compensation does not bring justice to the victims and survivors. It is time to bring true justice, recognition and compensation to the victims and survivors of this abuse by the state. Once participating states assume this critical responsibility, the forced and coerced sterilization of Roma and Sinti women at hands of participating states can finally be relegated to an awful history rather than maintained as an ongoing violation.

Forced Evictions and Violence against Roma and Sinti Communities

In situations of forced eviction, expulsion and violence against communities, women disproportionately bear the burden. In the wake of eviction and violence, women are often tasked with finding educational resources, new homes, income sources, health care and legal protection for their families. Forced evictions and expulsions have been carried out in recent years by government and municipal authorities in France, Roma and Sintia and Italy, as well as in other participating states. Italy, in particular, has carried out evictions and deportations of Roma over the past several years. Most recently, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called for a census of Roma in the name of protecting children. Italy has a responsibility to its Roma and Sinti citizens, to protect Roma –women, children, men, everyone—from violence, including that of threats by its ministers and forced evictions of its Roma and Sinti communities.

Most recently, violence against Roma and Sinti communities has been carried out in Ukraine, with six attacks on Roma and Sinti communities in Ukraine by ultranationalist groups in the last two months alone. A little over a week ago, David Popp, 23, was stabbed to death and several others –including women and children—were severely injured. These attacks have followed firebombs, evictions and forced marches by neo-Nazis; authorities have made arrests following the most recent attack, but in the months leading up to this attack, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House called upon the Interior Ministry to act upon hate crimes and violence and to implement effective preventative measures, to make arrests and to prosecute those carrying out the violence. Roma and Sinti organizations are bringing legal action against the Ukrainian National Police on behalf of those who were attacked in May and June. It is the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens from pogroms, evictions and violence. Roma and Sinti women are again disproportionately affected in these instances. Ukraine must take all necessary measures to protect Roma and Sinti communities from violence and to defend the rights of its Roma and Sinti citizens to be free of violence from state and non-state actors alike.

Intersectional Methods and the Mainstreaming of Gender

We, Roma and Sinti women in the OSCE area, are vulnerable to sexual violence, domestic violence and trafficking, often with no protection and no recourse, because much of the violence –whether it comes from inside or outside of our communities—is framed as “culture.” We must move away from this dangerous formation, often upheld by participating states and authorities. Yes, we experience violence –at the hands of the state and also within our communities. This is not culture, but rather a result of marginalization, neglect and violence faced by Roma and Sinti. As always, women are most vulnerable, especially when state and police do not intervene to protect us from violence. The framing of violence against women as a cultural issue reinforces the very racism and sexism that deny us services, protection and voice in making policy. The framing of Roma and Sinti culture as a problem has led to the forcible taking children into state care, in Sweden, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the UK, Hungary and Roma and Sinti. It has led to the denial of basic services: education, healthcare and housing. It has led to the segregation of public spaces, from maternity wards in Bulgaria to schools across the OSCE region. With the rise of nationalism, extremism and racism within and outside of participating states, we see more instances of violence, insecurity and marginalization for Roma and Sinti communities.

It has led to sexual abuse of children under state care, as was recently uncovered in Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. After it was discovered that children were being sexually abused in a state institution, the Interior Ministry called for an investigation and removal of those responsible. The state responded before the issue was taken to court. This response is a positive sign, to be followed up by proper protection and compensation for the victims and their families, an overhaul of the system of state care, ensuring the protection of children and supporting families to avoid the disproportionate taking of Roma and Sinti kids into care.

Roma and Sinti have experienced participating states as perpetrators of gendered and intersectional violence —from border control to the withholding of birth documents, refusal of equal treatment, police harassment and police violence. In order to achieve safeguards and protection for Roma and Sinti, women and children, disabled and able-bodied, we need to mainstream gender, to understand racialization and marginalization, and to take an intersectional approach to this work. 

Madam Moderator, thank you for allowing me this time. I want to thank ODIHR for its commitment and continued dedication to defending Roma and Sinti rights, and the rights and security of Roma and Sinti women and girls. In the examples of violence and state responsibility outlined above, there have been positive developments that can be built upon by participating states and the OSCE region. ODHIR has been a leader in defending and promoting Roma and Sinti women’s rights and I hope to see a renewal of and an expansion of that commitment over the course of our discussions today and beyond.

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