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Forced Sterilization and Romani Women's Resistance in Central Europe

Forced Sterilization and Romani Women's Resistance in Central Europe

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DifferenTakes Issue #71, Summer 2011
Recent years have seen a disturbing increase in violence against Romani people in Europe, along with other groups of people considered socially marginalized. Police brutality and forced relocations of Romani communities have received some coverage in the United States – but far less attention has been paid to the issue of forced sterilization. In this issue of DifferenTakes, human rights activist Gwendolyn Albert writes about the history of reproductive violence against Romani communities in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and shares new International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) guidelines on sterilization for reproductive justice activists to publicize and use.
DifferenTakes Issue #71, Summer 2011
Recent years have seen a disturbing increase in violence against Romani people in Europe, along with other groups of people considered socially marginalized. Police brutality and forced relocations of Romani communities have received some coverage in the United States – but far less attention has been paid to the issue of forced sterilization. In this issue of DifferenTakes, human rights activist Gwendolyn Albert writes about the history of reproductive violence against Romani communities in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and shares new International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) guidelines on sterilization for reproductive justice activists to publicize and use.

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Published by: Population & Development Program (PopDev) on Aug 25, 2011
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11/23/2012

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Forced Sterilization and Romani Women’sResistance in Central Europe
By Gwendolyn Albert
Editors’ Note: 
Recent years have seen a disturbing increase in violence against Romani people in Europe,along with other groups of people considered socially marginalized. Police brutality and forced reloca-tions of Romani communities have received some coverage in the United States – but far less attentionhas been paid to the issue of forced sterilization. In this issue of 
Di 
 
erenTakes
, human rights activist Gwen-dolyn Albert writes about the history of reproductive violence against Romani communities in the CzechRepublic, Slovakia and Hungary, and shares new International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics(FIGO) guidelines on sterilization for reproductive justice activists to publicize and use.
— Co-editors Katie McKay Bryson and Betsy Hartmann
most accurately represents the power dynamicinvolved when individuals are manipulated toproduce an outcome they did not desire.
 
 Theexperience of Romani women in Europe is a casein point.With a conservatively estimated population of 10million people,
4
the Romani are Europe’s largestethnic minority. Their forebears are posited tohave come to Europe from India more than a mil-lennium ago, when they were defeated in war-fare against the Ghaznavid rulers of Persia around1000 CE. After being brought to Armenia andAnatolia as soldiers and servants, they migratedfurther west and were enslaved between the14th and 19th centuries in present-day Romania. The Roma also emigrated to the Americas andAustralia with other Europeans.
5
 Tubal ligation, a surgical technique
rst proposedin early 19th century England, has been pro-moted as a permanent birth control method eversince.
1
While voluntary sterilization is an impor-tant contraceptive option, tubal ligation has alsobeen forcibly performed upon women in margin-alized populations worldwide, motivated all toooften by frankly eugenic considerations.
2
Ster-ilizations performed against the will or withoutthe knowledge of the patient go by many names:forced sterilization (when a patient is neverconsulted or informed about the sterilization); co-ercive sterilization (when patients are threatenedor o
 
ered incentives to undergo sterilization);and involuntary sterilization, which is sometimesused to speak about both forced and coercedsterilization.
3
I prefer the term forced steriliza-tion to describe all of these circumstances, as it
NO. 71SUMMER
2011
A publication of the
Population and Development Program
CLPP

Hampshire College
Amherst, MA 01002413.559.5506
http://popdev.hampshire.eduOpinions expressed in this publication are those of the individual authors unless otherwise speci
ed.
Think. Act. Connect.
For people, environmentand justice.
 
DIFFERENTAKES
http://popdev.hampshire.edu
 

 The 20th century saw them racially targeted by NaziGermany for annihilation, and many perished during theHolocaust. In the postwar period, most Romani peoplein Europe lived under communist rule throughout theSoviet bloc. Since 1989, when most countries in that re-gion began a transition to democratic governance andmarket economies, members of the Romani minorityhave experienced a profound degradation in life expec-tancy, social status, and standard of living.
6
They havealso been the targets of deadly pogroms committed byneo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups, and forced evictionsinvolving police brutality throughout Europe.
7
Forcedsterilizations occurred during and after communist rulein the Czech Republic and Slovakia and during the pastdecade in Hungary.
Czech Republic
In communist Czechoslovakia, Romani women wereforcibly sterilized beginning in the 1970s, a practicecontinuing after the 1989 transition to democracyand the 1993 breakup of the country into the CzechRepublic and Slovakia.
8
The Czech ombudsman hasestimated that, since the 1980s, as many as 90,000women may have been a
 
ected throughout the formerCzechoslovakia.
9
During communism, tubal ligation was disproportion-ately promoted to Romani women by social workers– to address what was o
cially termed their “high,unhealthy” reproduction rate compared to non-Romaniwomen – using either the promise of 
nancial incen-tives or the threat of various sanctions to coerce or forcecompliance.
10
After the Czechoslovak Prosecutor-Gen-eral reviewed these incidents post-1989, incentive pay-ments for sterilizations were discontinued.
11
Subsequentinstances of forced sterilizations didn’t involve socialworkers; instead, doctors sterilized Romani womenduring C-section deliveries, often telling them that notonly the C-section but the sterilization itself had been“emergency, life-saving” measures.
12
In November 2009, the Czech Government expressedregret for “individual failures” in the performance of sterilizations by tubal ligation.
13
The practice had beendescribed as genocidal by dissidents with the Charter77 organization in communist Czechoslovakia, and fol-lowing 1989, complaints about the program were
ledwith the ombudsman (the Public Defender of Rights).After ordering a Czech Health Ministry investigation,he
 
critiqued the ministry for failing to conclude thatthe documented procedures violated not only humanrights, but the law. The ombudsman’s report became the basis for interna-tional human rights bodies’
14
recommendations that theCzech state take urgent action to redress the victims of forced sterilization. Yet criminal investigations into theseincidents were shelved and none of the perpetratorshave been subjected to civil, criminal or professionalsanction. Civil lawsuits brought by individuals have onlyrarely resulted in compensation awards due to statutesof limitations.
Slovakia
Romani women were also forcibly sterilized in theSlovak part of Czechoslovakia starting in the 1970s.Dissidents monitoring these incidents reported that inthe region of East Slovakia, more than 1,000 Romaniwomen and girls were sterilized during a single year inthe 1980s.
15
By 2002, Romani women were still beingsterilized without their informed consent, according tohuman rights activists.
16
The government investigatedfor “genocide” and found no evidence of it; yet inter-national observers, including the U.S. Commission onSecurity and Cooperation in Europe, called the investi-gation
awed because human rights activists and po-tential victims were threatened with criminal charges forspeaking out. In that same year, the Council of Europe’sCommissioner for Human Rights said he found the al-legations credible, recommending that the government“o
 
er a speedy, fair, e
cient, and just redress” to thevictims.
17
The Slovak Government has yet to act uponthese recommendations, though they have revised theconditions under which sterilization may be performedand instituted high fees for tubal ligations – meaningthis birth control method is now e
 
ectively out of reachfor low-income women who desire it in Slovakia.In 2006, the Slovak Constitutional Court ruled that thegovernment’s report had not adequately clari
ed thefacts and ordered the investigation into forced steriliza-tion re-opened. However, in 2007, after interrogatingthe alleged perpetrators and victims, the Slovak Pros-ecutor announced no crime had been committed orrights violated, and discontinued the proceedings. Var-ious international human rights bodies are still callingon the government to investigate the allegations, com-pensate the victims, and punish the perpetrators. A caseis also currently pending before the European Court forHuman Rights.
Hungary
Compared to the Czech and Slovak examples, farfewer forced sterilizations of Romani women have
2
 
DIFFERENTAKES
http://popdev.hampshire.edu
 

3
been reported in Hungary. The apparently anomalous,isolated nature of these incidents may be why demandsfor redress were eventually met in the case of A.S., aRomani woman who was sterilized without her consentby tubal ligation during emergency obstetrical ser-vices in a public hospital in 2001. The Hungarian courtsacknowledged that the surgery had been performedwithout her informed consent, but claimed that herreproductive capacity had not been harmed, as the ster-ilization was purportedly “reversible.” In 2004, A.S.
leda complaint with the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and two yearslater it found Hungary in breach of the Convention. In2009, the state compensated A.S. after extensive civilsociety pressure.
18
As of this writing, the European Roma Rights Centrereports that Hungary’s Public Health Act still maintainsthat sterilization by tubal ligation may be performedon the basis of a doctor’s medical indication alone. There is no requirement for informed consent. The lawalso requires that patients receive information abouttubal ligation’s “chances of reversibility” – phrasingthat suggests doctors in Hungary view sterilization aspotentially reversible. The European Roma Rights Centreis currently litigating another case of a Romani womansterilized in Hungary without her consent, which cameto light in 2008.
Romani Women’s Resistance
Romani survivors of forced sterilization have played akey role in bringing it to light and building a movementfor justice. In the Czech Republic, Elena Gorolová, spoke-á, spoke-sperson for the Group of Women Harmed by Forced Ste-rilization, has been an outspoken advocate for Romanivictims.
19
Sterilized during the C-section delivery of hersecond child in 1990, Gorolová cannot bring a civil suitbecause the statute of limitations has expired, as it hasfor many other women. This has not stopped her andother survivors from pursuing justice locally, nationallyand internationally. Survivors of forced sterilization inthe Czech city of Ostrava demonstrated outside the hos-pital most known for having sterilized Romani womenin their community. They have also raised these viola-tions in face-to-face meetings with maternity ward sta
 
,courageously confronting some of the very doctors whosterilized them against their will.Such public activism by survivors is an exception, andlocal tabloid publications have attempted to smearmany of the women who have come forward. SomeRomani members of Gorolová’s community havewarned her that her cause is in vain, but she has notgiven up hope that one day the government will com-pensate the survivors of forced sterilization.In Hungary and Slovakia, while survivors have taken legalaction, they have been very careful to keep their identi-ties private for a number of reasons. In the A.S. case, therewere fears that publishing the amount of any eventualcompensation could expose her to violent extortionattempts. In Slovakia, women who were pregnant andsterilized before reaching o
cial adult status were thre-atened that they or their partners would be criminallyprosecuted for statutory rape if they came forward.
New Guidelines On Sterilization
 The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstet-rics (FIGO) has recently adopted new ethical guidelineson female contraceptive sterilization as a result of thesecases and numerous others around the world involvingimprisoned women, Indigenous women, women of color, and transgender people in the Americas; womenwith disabilities in Australia; HIV positive women inChile and Namibia; and lower-caste men and womenin India.
20
The guidelines are innovative because theyemphasize that:

patients must be so informed.

for access to medical care, HIV/AIDS treatment, naturalor cesarean delivery, abortion, or to bene
ts such asmedical insurance, social assistance, employment orrelease from an institution.

cannot be ethically justi
ed on grounds of medicalemergency and is not an emergency procedure.

Persons With Disabilities imposes the duty uponstates to ensure that “persons with disabilities, in-cluding children, retain their fertility on an equal basiswith others.”Reproductive justice activists can strengthen theseguidelines by spreading knowledge about them. Bringthem to the attention of local, regional and nationalgovernments, and demand the institution of safeguardsto prevent forced sterilizations from being perpetrated.Bring them to the attention of medical associations,hospital administrators, and other providers, and ask that medical professionals join lobbying and publicitye
 
orts. Bring them to the attention of academics andpolicymakers, and encourage research into current

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