Romani women forcibly sterilized in the Czech Republic can now be compensated
By Gwendolyn Albert
Efforts to end these human rights violations have been underway almost since these practices were first reported in the 1970s as targeting Romani women in particular in the former Czechoslovakia, and these recent developments represent an important breakthrough for civil society, enforcement of human rights, and the Romani women who have been campaigning for redress. The compensation process opened on 1 January 2022 and will close on 1 January 2025.
These violations began in the former Czechoslovakia when communist-era social workers used a combination of deceptive practices, incentives and threats to convince Romani women in particular to undergo the procedure, many of whom were also misled to believe it was reversible, temporary birth control. The incentive program was ended around the time of the transition to democracy, but Romani women and others continued to be misled by health care workers into unwittingly signing consent forms to sterilization while in labor prior to the Cesarean delivery of children – or in some cases were never even informed that they had been sterilized after their children were delivered. For those who were informed they could never conceive again, some received the false excuse that the sterilization itself had been a “life-saving” procedure.
The Czech Republic’s first-ever ombudsman collected more than 80 testimonies regarding these sterilizations in 2004 for which the “consent” had been invalid and asked the Czech Health Ministry for an explanation of the cases. In 2005 he published his Final Statement assessing the ministry’s response and recommended the victims be compensated. In 2009, the Czech Government expressed regret for what it called “individual failures” in this regard. In the year 2012, legislation governing the performance of sterilizations was improved to require a grace period between when patients request such a procedure and its actual performance.
The ombudsman’s 2005 report describes the communist-era experience of one such Romani woman as follows:
“Mrs. G stated … that she was sterilized in 1979 in a Most hospital. Nobody … justified the need for the intervention to her. A social worker had been retaining her child allowance for two-and-a-half years until she would undergo sterilization. In the hospital she had been told that she would no longer be able to have children. She had signed a paper, as she had had to. Mrs. G stated that she found both writing and reading difficult. She had been promised CSK 2 000 for the intervention, which had later actually been paid.”
As an activist and ally who has assisted the advocacy for this compensation since 2004, I have the privilege today of being a member of a closed group on social media where both Romani and non-Romani women who were sterilized without their informed choice and consent have been meeting to share information about what happened to them, about the fight for compensation, and more recently about their experience of applying for compensation. Some of the women today live abroad, and the social media platform is an excellent way for us all to communicate, especially during the pandemic. The following testimonies were more recently elicited from the members of that group on the condition that their anonymity would be respected.
“I was sterilized in 1989 in Kraslice at the age of 33. I still cannot accept that they did this to me.”
“I was 23 in 1998 when they sterilized me during the Caesarean delivery of my son. He died eight days later, a terrible death, of a heart defect. To this day I ask myself why they sterilized me. Later I read an article about assisted reproduction, so my husband and I tried it and it worked. Today my son is almost 20 and he is healthy, praise God. Even so, I don’t know why they sterilized me.”
As of 1 January, victims of unlawful sterilizations in the Czech Republic can apply for compensation worth CZK 300 000 [EUR 12 000] from the Czech Health Ministry. Sadly, many of the women first targeted by this practice passed away without ever being compensated, although some did live to see the Government’s apology in 2009.
It is Romani women in particular and their allies who achieved the compensation procedure being adopted. The law establishes that victims who were offered financial benefits during the pre-1990 era for undergoing the procedure are to be considered eligible for compensation today, although they must still individually apply. Those sterilized after 1990 will be asked to describe what happened to them in detail and to support their claims to the best of their ability.
Since 2006, Romani women have been represented in this fight by the very brave and determined Elena Gorolová, who today is working to assist her fellow survivors of these abuses with applying for compensation. I would like to close with a quote from her:
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) included Elena Gorolová among the world’s 100 most inspiring women in 2018, and for her efforts to compensate the victims of illegal sterilizations she was also given the Alice Garrigue Masaryk Human Rights Award by the Embassy of the United States of America to the Czech Republic in December 2021 along with myself and the current Deputy Public Defender of Rights in the Czech Republic, Monika Šimůnková.