Silent attack: a campaign of sterilisation of Romani women
12 April 2000
Throughout the latter part of the Communist era in Czechoslovakia, there was a silent attack on Romani women. Many were sterilised without their full, informed and voluntary consent in an attempt, in the words of a July 1977 government document, to “reduce the ‘high unhealthy’ Romany population2". Doctors allegedly sterilised some Romani women entirely without the knowledge of the patient, as they were performing abortions or caesarean sections. The majority of Romani women sterilised, however, were enticed into the procedure by social workers or community workers who offered large sums of money and material goods such as furniture. The number of sterilisations performed on Romani women absent proper consent intensified during the late 1980’s. The practice supposedly ended in 1990, but according to some reports, doctors have continued to sterilise Romani women in suspect circumstances also in post-Communism. None of the women affected have ever received legal remedy for the suffering inflicted upon them.
Struggling for Ethnic Identity: Czechoslovakia’s Endangered Gypsies, a report by Helsinki Watch published in 1992, documents a number of cases of women who claim their doctors sterilised them without their knowledge as they underwent other procedures such as abortions and caesarean sections. One woman referred to as Ms A.D. from the central Slovak town of Krompachy, claims she was sterilised without her consent while undergoing an abortion:
...I went to get an abortion, and they told me, “Be so kind as to sign here before you go in for the abortion." So I signed and went in for the abortion. They just gave me the paper to sign, folded it, and put it in an envelope. I didn’t know anything. After the procedure they told me that something went wrong, that they had to repeat the procedure. I was afraid that part of the foetus would stay in me, so they gave me an injection and brought me upstairs to the operating room. After the operation, when I went downstairs, the women asked me what was wrong and I told them about the badly done abortion. Then they told me that I had been sterilised. But at the time I did not know what sterilisation was. The doctor had explained to me that there would be a period of time when I wouldn’t be able to have children, but maybe after a while I’d be able to have children again. But the other women told me that I wouldn’t be able to have any more children3.
Unknown numbers of women were sterilised without their consent as they underwent caesarean sections and abortions. Nine out of 123 Romani women participating in a 1989 study by researchers Ruben Pellar and Zbyněk Andrš reported that they had not been informed at all that they had been sterilised or had only been informed after the operation4.
Other Romani women were sterilised after they agreed to the procedure because they had been offered large sums of money by social workers. Financial incentives were proffered during times of extreme poverty for many families, which undoubtedly affected the woman’s decision. Some women reported that social workers threatened to withhold social assistance money if they did not consent to sterilisation. Others stated that the pressure was so intense that they felt they had no choice. Many Romani women stated that they did not receive adequate information on which to base their decisions. One Romani woman, Ms Alžbeta Čonková from Košice, Slovakia, told Helsinki Watch:
About seven years ago I was sterilised. I was supposed to get 30,000 Crowns. I’ll tell you the truth. I went because we were at that time in very bad social conditions. I wanted to do it for the money. I already had this apartment, but the kids’ room was empty and I needed furniture for their room. I got 5000 in cash and 10,000 in coupons for the furniture. But the social worker promised me 30,000 Crowns. I wouldn’t have gone if not for the money. I was basically forced because of the money. During communist times, they would give support for the Romanies, and when I went to the social worker to collect welfare, she told me that she wouldn’t give me the normal social support, but that there was one possibility — to get sterilised and get the money. I went there to the normal welfare and she told me that if I got sterilised I’d get money5.
Financial incentives were available to everyone throughout Czechoslovakia but Romani women were sterilised in disproportionate numbers compared with non-Romani women. Roma comprise approximately 3% of the entire population, but in 1983, 25.8% of the women who were reportedly sterilised were Romani and in 1987 the number was almost 37%6. The comments of some doctors, as reported in the Helsinki Watch report, elucidate the attitudes of many doctors towards Roma and their willingness to sterilise Romani women on their own initiative. Dr Jiří Biolek from the northern Czech city of Most told Helsinki Watch:
I’m convinced that sometimes there was sterilisation after a Caesarean section, when a very socially weak Romany woman...was sterilised without her knowledge. [...] I think that the gynaecologist had the right to do this without her consent. On the one hand, there are human rights. But on the other hand when you see how these Gypsies multiply and you see that it is a population of an inferior quality, and when you look at the huge sums that had to be paid for the care of these children, it’s understandable7.
In Communist Czechoslovakia there were strict guidelines in place to govern the sterilisation of both men and women. According a 1972 decree issued by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, a woman could not undergo purely contraceptive sterilisation unless she was thirty-five and had had at least four children. In 1986, the law in the Slovak Republic was changed to allow women who were eighteen and who had three children to undergo sterilisation for contraceptive purposes. The ethical considerations of eighteen-year-olds undergoing contraceptive sterilisation aside, researchers Ruben Pellar and Zbyněk Andrš found that 16% of the women sterilised in the Slovak Republic, and 33.7% from the Czech Republic did not fit the criteria8. Either they were younger than the law stipulated or had fewer children. It is plausible that there were other reasons such as health considerations which would have necessitated some of the reported sterilisations, but the sheer numbers raise the alarm of more sinister intentions and warrant serious investigation by authorities.
Indeed, there is ample evidence that government policy throughout the 1970s and 1980s targeted Roma for sterilisation due to fears that Romani birth rates were too high. A 1977 document of the Secretariat of the Government Commission for Questions of Gypsy Inhabitants of the Slovak Socialist Republic, quoted in the Helsinki Watch report, for example, refers to birth rates among Roma as “high unhealthy9".
Despite the overwhelming evidence that authorities knowingly misled women into having operations rendering them unable to perform so basic a human act as procreation, no one has ever been brought to justice in connection with the coercive sterilisations. In 1989, researchers Pellar and Andrš brought the issue to the attention of Czech and Slovak authorities. According to available evidence, Czech authorities have made no move whatsoever to address the situation, ignoring calls by local and international organisations for investigation into ninety cases of coercive sterilisation. In 1991, the District Examining Office of the Police Corps of Prešov, Slovakia, rejected an appeal to investigate the sterilisation of nineteen Romani women who had been sterilised between 1985 and 1989. The prosecutor claimed that the sterilisations had been carried out with the expressed agreement of the women involved. According to the prosecutorial decision in the case, where the women had less than three children, the request for sterilisation was approved after consultations with the Regional Committee Health Department:
[...] Where worse social conditions had been taken into consideration, and where these conditions had been found, the request of the women for sterilisation was approved.
[Some women] admit that they themselves requested the sterilisation, but that they had done this after being pressured by workers from the former local National Committee [City Authorities]... From the medical point of view, the sterilisation commission approved the sterilisations on the basis of the women’s requests... and thus the sterilisations were done by the doctors in the sense of the law.
The workers of the former local National Committee... actually did go among Romany women, especially women with multiple children where there were problems with the education of the children. This was enlightenment work and they informed them about the possibilities of sterilisation, which was part of their work duties. But the questioned persons say that the Romany women applied for the sterilisation themselves because they found out that if they underwent the sterilisation operation, they would get considerable financial amounts which they received after the sterilisation10.
The Prosecutor evidently did not regard the large financial incentive as a factor exerting undue force on impoverished women. Additionally, several of the sterilisations were in direct contradiction with the 1972 decree. These sterilisations were carried out on the initiative of practitioners acting out subjective value judgements and they were in violation of the law. The Prague-based Committee for Human Rights appealed the decision of the Prešov Prosecutor on October 14, 1991, but according to Helsinki Watch, the appeal was dismissed.
Reports from the Czech and Slovak Republics in the post-Communist era indicate that although the programmatic aspect of the abuse is over and its scale certainly diminished, in many cases, doctors continue to regard informed consent as optional. This is especially true in the interaction of medical professionals with Romani women, whom many doctors appear to believe either will not comprehend the complicated issues being presented or, in fact, may not consent to being sterilised. In February 1999, for example, a 35-year-old Romani woman named I.M. told the ERRC that she had gone for a “women’s operation" related to pain she had been suffering. When she emerged from the anaesthesia the doctor concerned allegedly told her, “I’m sorry, we couldn’t put you back together again," from which she understood she would no longer be able to have children. Romani activists report that there are numerous such cases in the Czech Republic. In Slovakia, sterilising Romani women remains a prevalent theme in public discourse. Gypsies of Svinia, a 1997 documentary film by the Canadian anthropologist David Scheffel, features a gynocologist discussing at length her recommendation that Romani women be sterilised.
- Joanna Wells is a former intern at the ERRC. She has recently returned to Canada to pursue a career in human rights.
- Helsinki Watch (1992), Struggling for Ethnic Identity Czechoslovakia's Endangered Gypsies, Human Rights Watch, USA.
- Ibid., pp. 22-23.
- Pellar, Ruben and Zbynĕk Andrš, "Report on the Examination in the Problematics of Sexual Sterilization of Romanies in Czechoslovakia", 1989, unpublished.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- Pellar and Andrš Op. cit.
- Helsinki Watch, Op. cit., p. 29.
- Pellar and Andrš, Op. cit.
- Helsinki Watch, Op. cit., p. 20.
- Decision Number CSV:VV-47/1991, District Examining Office of the Police Corps of the Slovak Republic, Prešov, September 30, 1991, cited in Helsinki Watch (1992), Struggling for Ethnic Identity Czechoslovakia's Endangered Gypsies, Human Rights Watch, New York, 1992.