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The shameful story of Roma women's forced sterilisation in central Europe

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By David Hutt
This 2006 picture shows Kristina Kotlarova, one of 87 Roma women to have lodged complaints against their alleged forced sterilisation in local hospitals over the last 40 years
This 2006 picture shows Kristina Kotlarova, one of 87 Roma women to have lodged complaints against their alleged forced sterilisation in local hospitals over the last 40 years   -   Copyright  Credit: AFP
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In a landmark vote, senators in the Czech Republic have approved a law that will compensate potentially thousands of Roma women who were unlawfully sterilised by the state between 1966 and 2012.

From the 1960s onwards, the communist government of then Czechoslovakia enacted an official policy of sterilising women from the Roma community, whom the authorities described as “culturally substandard”.

Documents from the European Roma Rights Centre, an NGO, state Roma women were often handed approval forms to sign while receiving caesarean sections or during other surgery, many unknowingly signing permission for sterilisation.

On other occasions, Roma women were told that their children would be taken away unless they agreed to the procedure.

“This was a gross violation of their rights, including the right to be free from torture, or ill-treatment; and a shameful chapter in the country’s history,” said Barbora Cernusakova, Amnesty International’s researcher on the Czech Republic, in a statement.

The Czech Senate's decision in late July, she added, “will finally establish a path to justice for survivors of unlawful sterilisations".

"For decades these brave women have had to live with the trauma they were subjected to at the hands of the authorities, yet they never gave up fighting for their rights,” she said.

Once the compensation bill is enacted, victims will have three weeks to provide evidence for their claim to receive compensation of around €11,700.

This will cover cases of unlawful sterilisation between 1966 and 2012.

How did the sterilisation campaign come about?

According to Helena Sadilkova, assistant professor at the Romani Studies Section of Charles University in Prague, the sterilisation campaign began somewhat paradoxically.

During the late 1960s, the communist authorities of Czechoslovakia became increasingly concerned about declining population rates, as were most communist governments in the Eastern bloc at the time.

The fertility rate in Czechoslovakia, which was composed of today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia, fell from 2.20 between 1960-1965 down to 2.07 in 1968, according to UN data.

But because of government incentives -- mainly cash payments and improved entitlements from the socialist-run state -- the fertility rate then peaked at 2.51 in 1977.

At the same time, however, authorities believed the birth rate among the Czechoslovak Roma population was alarmingly high, when compared to the general population, said Sadilkova.

For decades, if not centuries, the Roma population in Czech and Slovak lands had been “portrayed as backward and problematic,” she added.

Laws were enacted to regulate their movement and activity during the First Czechoslovak Republic, which was formed in 1918.

An estimated 90% of Czech Roma died during the “final solution of the Gypsy Question” committed by Nazi Germany and its allies. It is believed that between 220,000 and 500,000 Roma people -- or between 25%-50% of their entire population in Europe -- died during this Romani Holocaust, or “Porajmos ”, which is remembered each year on August 2.

The Czechoslovak communists, who came to power in 1948, pursued a policy of forced integration, frequently relocating Roma households to ill-built estates on the edge of cities.

The Chanov housing estate near the northern city of Most and built by the communist government in the 1970s is today symbolic of the social segregation of Romani communities.

“Poison alone is not strong enough for these pests” was the slogan that a local far-right party in Most campaigned on during the last local election in 2018.

During a public speech the same year, current Czech president Milos Zeman, who is known for his controversial statements praised the old communist system of forcing Roma people to work in menial jobs.

“Most of them worked as ditch-diggers, and if they refused to work, they were designated as work-shy and went to prison,” Zeman said. And if the Romani person refused to work, “they slapped him around. It’s a very humane method that worked most of the time”.

'Culturally substandard'

In 1969, the Czech and Slovak Socialist Republics became legislatively independent, meaning they introduced their own laws. Two years later, on December 17, 1971, the Czech Socialist Republic passed Directive No. 01/1972.

Coming into effect a month later, it allowed local authorities and hospitals to sterilise Romani women and patients with disabilities, although it is believed that unlawful sterilisation of Romanis began in at least 1966.

Research published in 2008 by Vera Sokolova, a Czech academic who specialises in gender studies, stated that Roma women accounted for 36% of all sterilisations carried out between 1972 and the 1990s, yet the Roma population has never constituted more than 2% of the entire population.

Also in 1972, the Czechoslovak Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs published a report titled “Care for Socially Unadjusted Citizens”. Because “material inequalities” had been eliminated by socialism and the country’s population was “homogeneous”, it argued, any “social pathology” left from the old capitalist regime was being spread by the “culturally substandard”.

“What was never made explicit, because it was implicitly understood, was that this analysis pathologised Roma,” wrote Gwendolyn Albert and Marek Szilvasi, researchers who have spent decades documenting the Czechoslovak sterilisation campaign, in a 2018 article on the government’s legislation.

As a result of ideological thinking, the communist authorities could not explain the chronic deprivation still suffered by Roma communities into the 1970s as the result of wealth or social inequality, as socialism had apparently eradicated that.

Thus, according to the 1972 government report, the only answer for the communist authorities was that Roma culture was to blame for their plight. For the government, they were “culturally substandard”.

In 1975, a leading gynaecologist wrote in an influential paper that sterilisation of Roma women was important for “socioeconomic reasons,” as the compensation the state paid these women was less than it would incur from “genetically damaged” children.

Four years later, the government announced a new programme of financial incentives for Roma women who agreed to be sterilised, as a way “to control the highly unhealthy Roma population through family planning and contraception”.

“The whole campaign strongly drew on anti-gypsy stereotypes, produced during communism but also continued from previous times,” Sadilkova said, adding that this makes it problematic to view only the communist authorities as the “main villains”.

While it was the communist government that introduced legislation for the sterilisation campaign, she commented, it was the experts who took part in the preparation of the idea, as well as local administrators and healthcare workers “who were the engines of the campaign”. They “targeted the Romani women they had in their authority.”

Did the fall of communism change anything?

What’s more, the practice didn’t end when communism fell in 1989. Four years later, just before the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the specific decrees on sterilisation enacted in the 1970s were formally abolished.

However, a 2015 study submitted by the European Roma Rights Centre to a UN committee stated that the last reported case of unlawful sterilisation of a Romani woman in the Czech Republic was in 2007.

In 2005, one of the first local lawsuits took place when a Roma plaintiff said she had unknowingly been sterilised just four years earlier. The local court agreed but ruled that the hospital would only have to apologise, not compensate her. She appealed in 2010 and the European Court of Human Rights ruled she had a case. Months later, the Czech authorities settled out of court and awarded her around €10,000 in damages.

The alleged continuation of unlawful sterilisation of Romani women into the 1990s and 2000s mirrors the continued discrimination felt by communities today.

Romani communities still face disproportionately high rates of unemployment, access to poor housing and segregated schools across Central Europe. In some cities in Slovakia, physical walls have been built to segregate Romani and non-Romani communities.

A Pew Research survey from 2017 found that 78% of Czechs would not be willing to accept a Romani person as a family member, and 53% said they wouldn’t accept them as a citizen of the country.

The death of a Romani man in the Czech Republic last month, after the police knelt on his neck for several minutes, led Romani activists to draw parallels to the police murder of George Floyd in the United States the previous year.

Only in 2009 did the Czech state officially apologised for the forced sterilisation campaign. Yet, only a few years earlier it had denied these accusations during a UN debate.

State Ombudsman Otakar Motejl’s investigations in 2005 had asserted at least 50 women had been illegally sterilised in past decades. Some estimates by Romani-rights groups put the number in the thousands.

In 2006, the Czech Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Cestmir Sajda, reportedly told the assembly: “It's fake. They exaggerate in all cases.” The government report issued to the UN argued that “in none of the cases was involuntary sterilisation confirmed.”

However, all of this was public knowledge as early as the 1970s. In 1977, dozens of anti-communist activists put their name to Charter 77 that called for major political reforms. One of the main signatories was pro-democracy icon Vaclav Havel, who later became the first post-communist president.

On December 14, 1978, the signatories circulated their twenty-third campaign document: “On the position of Romani fellow citizens”. It argued that consent from Roma women for sterilisation had been obtained by “suspicious” means.

“Czechoslovak institutions will soon have to answer charges that they are committing genocide,” it stated.

Forty-three years later, the victims of forced sterilisation have only just been told they can be compensated.

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